Home>Campaigns>The special for John Lewis’ seat, and some NJ political history

Rep. John R. Lewis (D-Georgia).

The special for John Lewis’ seat, and some NJ political history

By David Wildstein, December 01 2020 9:49 am

Georgia voters go to the polls today to elect a short-term replacement for John Lewis, a legendary civil rights leader and 17-term congressman who died in July.

The winner of the special election runoff will serve until January 3, when the new 117th Congress takes office.  Nikema Williams, a 42-year-old state senator, was picked by Democratic Party leaders to replace Lewis on the November 3 ballot for a two-year term.

Williams is not a candidate in today’s election.

Instead, former Morehouse College President Robert Michael Franklin, Jr. and former Atlanta City Councilman Kwanza Hall will face off to serve what will likely – it will take a few days to certify the results – be a tenure of less than one month in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Hall led Franklin by 1,117 votes, 32% to 29%, in a September 29 special election.  Candidates needed 50% to avoid a runoff and take the seat two months ago.

New Jersey had a similar system of short-term stints in the legislature until 1988, when voters approved a constitutional amendment allowing political parties to fill seats until the next general election.  Seats are now filled within 7 to 35 days of the vacancy.

Before that, vacancies the State Senate and Assembly would be filled in a free-standing special election called for a few months after the vacancy occurred.

The last special election was held on September 15, 1988.

Assembly Appropriations Committee Chairman Anthony “Doc” Villane (R-Eatontown) resigned on July 11 after the State Senate confirmed his nomination as Commissioner of Community Affairs.

Villane, who had won the Monmouth County-based 11th district Assembly seat seven times, sought to hand the seat off to his 26-year-old son, Thom, a political consultant.

The Democrats ran John Villapiano (D-Ocean Township), a former professional football player who had served as an Ocean Township Councilman and won a Monmouth County freeholder seat in 1988.

Villapiano defeated Villane by 2,351 votes, 53%-47%.  He was re-elected in 1989, but lost his seat in the 1991 anti-Jim Florio Republican wave.

Short-term legislators

After State Sen. Jack Sinagra (R-East Brunswick) left the Senate in October 2001 to become a commissioner of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Republicans picked David Himelman (R-East Brunswick) to replace him. He served in the State Senate from just after Thanksgiving until the Legislature reorganized in early January.

Sinagra had already announced his retirement from the Senate, and Assemblywoman Barbara Buono (D-Metuchen) had won the Senate seat.

Middlesex Republicans went with Sinagra’s choice of a successor, Himelman, the East Brunswick township attorney and a former deputy counsel to Gov. Thomas Kean.  Two other Republicans sought the short-term Senate seat: Longtime GOP State Committeeman Donald Katz, and John Cito, who had won 34% against Buono.

Himelman gets to be a trivia question: who was the last Republican State Senator from Middlesex County to serve in the majority?

Over the years, there have been hotly-contested special elections for the chance to serve just two months in the New Jersey Legislature.

After Assemblyman Herbert Heilmann (R-Union) resigned to become assistant Commissioner of Labor in 1971, a special election was called to fill his Union County seat.

Elizabeth Cox, known to generations of Republicans as the longtime Summit GOP Municipal Chair and State Committeewoman, won the Assembly seat and served for ten weeks.

Following State Sen. Nicholas LaCorte’s (R-Elizabeth) resignation to become a judge, Cox sought a two-month stint in the State Senate.  She was defeated by Democrat Jerry Fitzgerald English (D-Summit), who later served as chief counsel to Gov. Brendan Byrne.

There are other short-term footnotes in New Jersey legislative history, including: Ronald Casella (D-Haddon Township), who filled the Assembly seat left vacant in 1975 when Jim Florio (D-Runnemede) went to Congress; Remay Pierce (D-Newark) spent ten weeks in the State Assembly in 1979 and 1980, taking the seat left vacant after Peter Shapiro (D-South Orange)was elected Essex County Executive; and Joseph Papasidero (D-Newark), a 27-year-old law student, spent two months in the Assembly in 1977 and 1978 after the death of Assemblyman Patrick Scanlon (D-Newark).  Scanlon’s widow, Mary, won the full-term in the 1977 general election.

Raymond Batten (D-Sea Isle City), who had lost Assembly bid in 1985, 1987 and 1989, went to the Assembly in April 1991 after Edward Salmon (D-Millville) resigned to join the state Board of Public Utilities.  He lost his bid for a full term that November.

After State Sen.  Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-Long Branch) was elected to Congress, Assemblyman Joseph Palaia (R-Ocean Township) won a 1989 special election to fill the remaining 26 months of Pallone’s Senate term.  The 1989 election was a Democratic year and Palaia won it by a narrow 51%-48% margin over the interim senator named by the county committee, John D’Amico (D-Oceanport).

The Assembly seat Palaia gave up to run for the Senate was won by a Democrat, Daniel Jacobson (D-Asbury Park).  Jacobson and Villapiano defeated Republicans Paul Kapalko and Dennis Sternberg by wide margins.

After Palaia resigned from the Assembly to take his Senate seat, Monmouth County Republicans picked Kapalko to serve the six weeks remaining in Palaia’s Assembly term.

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