Fights among Democrats are part of New Jersey political history.
In 1916, a young rising star in Jersey City politics named Frank Hague traveled to St. Louis to watch Woodrow Wilson get renominated at the Democratic National Convention.
The Democratic State Chairman at the time was James “Big Boss” Nugent, who had served as Essex County Democratic Chairman from 1903 to 1925 and had helped recruit Wilson, then the Princeton University president, to run for governor.
Because Hague was not a delegate, Nugent refused to allow him to be on the convention floor.
From that point on, Hague made it his mission to take Nugent out.
Hague was elected mayor of Jersey City the following year.
In 1919, Hague was in control of the Hudson County Democratic machine and decided to run an ally, State Sen. Edward Edwards, for the Democratic nomination for governor.
Nugent decided to run for governor himself in 1919. Edwards beat him in the Democratic primary by a 56%-44% margin. He won the general election that year.
Democratic National Committeeman Robert Hudspeth, a Nugent ally, was convinced to retire early and Hague took his seat.
When New Jersey Democrats traveled to San Francisco to attend the Democratic National Convention in 1920, Hague had his own private rail car that departed Exchange Place. The train picked up Nugent and more delegates in Newark, Trenton and Philadelphia before heading to the west coast.
When the convention convened eight days later, Hague was sitting in the front row.
Hague spent thirty years as mayor, running perhaps the strongest political organization in state history. When Democrats won the governorship, it was because of the power of the Hague machine. When they lost, it was often because the Republican candidate pledged to curtail Hague’s influence.
Nugent’s power as a county boss was significantly curtailed after refusing to let Hague on the floor of the convention.
Hague had the State Senate decline to confirm Nugent’s nomination as the Essex County Prosecutor, torpedoed his bid to win an influential committee slot at the 1924 Democratic National Convention, and played a major role in Nugent’s defeat as a member of the Newark City Commission. That blunted Nugent’s plan to become mayor and cost him the county chairmanship.
This story first appeared on December 22, 2018.