Robert P. Hollenbeck, a genial South Bergen Democrat who served six terms in the New Jersey State Assembly in the 1970s and 1980s before becoming a casualty of Gov. Tom Kean’s coattails in 1985, died on September 5. He was 89.
During his tenure in the legislature, Hollenbeck was the sponsor of the New Jersey Homestead Act, the state Water Supply Master Plan and a law that permitted right turns at red lights. He was a former Assembly Environment Committee chairman and shepherded the Dune and Shorefront Protection Act through the lower hour in 1981.
Hollenbeck was part of a prominent Bergen County political family that spanned both political parties. His father, George, served as mayor of Carlstadt for ten years. A cousin, Harold C. Hollenbeck, was a Republican congressman and state legislator.
In 1964, two days before his 33rd birthday, Hollenbeck won a seat on the Carlstadt Borough Council. His election, along with running mate John Dechert, gave Democrats a majority on the governing body. He replaced William Schneckenberg, who lost Democratic Party support for re-election and had sided with one Republican and two independents on the council.
Hollenbeck ran more than 400 votes ahead of the independent candidates and about 1,200 votes in front of the two Republicans.
In that election, President Lyndon Johnson carried Carlstadt with 63% of the vote against Republican Barry Goldwater. East Rutherford Mayor Henry Helstoski unseated incumbent Rep. Frank Osmers (R-Haworth) in 1964, carrying Carlstadt with 53% of the vote.
Citing time commitments to his job at Public Service Electric and Gas, Hollenbeck did not seek re-election to a second term as a councilman in 1967. After leaving office, he served as chairman of the Carlstadt Sewerage Authority.
In 1970, Hollenbeck returned to local office in a landslide victory over Republicans tied to a 62% local tax increase.
Bergen County Democrats targeted the Republican-held South Bergen legislative district early in 1973, but it was more about local politics than the Watergate scandal.
Two of the South Bergen power players in those days were Republican Sheriff Joe Job and his brother, Democratic Surrogate Gil Job. Joe split with the GOP in 1970 and ran as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate; the Republican nominee was Nelson Gross, a former assemblyman from Saddle River and the GOP State Chairman.
Republicans dumped Job, who won re-election as a Democrat in 1972. Job wanted to beat Republicans in his political base – the newly-drawn 36th district.
The incumbent State Senator, Harold Hollenbeck (R-East Rutherford), choose not to seek re-election to a second term and instead ran unsuccessfully for Bergen County Freeholder. Hollenbeck had steered clear of the GOP fight with Job. (He unseated Helstoski in 1976.)
Democrats nominated Lyndhurst Mayor Anthony Scardino for Senate and Republicans picked Assemblyman Harold Pareti (R-Carlstadt), a former mayor. Scardino had come within 418 votes of winning an Assembly seat against Pareti in 1971.
Bob Hollenbeck secured party support to run for the State Assembly on a slate with Garfield Councilman Richard Visotcky to run against three-term Assemblyman Peter J. Russo (R-Lyndhurst) and his running mate, East Rutherford Mayor James Plosia.
Watergate made 1973 a wave election for Democrats, who won 29 Senate seats and 66 seats in the Assembly.
In the 36th, Hollenbeck was the top vote-getter, running 2,081 votes in front of Visotcky and 11,454 votes ahead of Russo.
While Republicans picked up 17 Assembly seats in the 1975 midterm elections, they only added one seat in Bergen County. Hollenbeck won his second term by 4,637 votes in a rematch with Russo.
Russo ran again in 1977 and finished 6,792 votes behind Hollenbeck, who continued to outpoll Visotcky, this time by 3,077 votes. The fourth-place finisher in that race was Russo’s 30-year-old running mate, Bogota Mayor Pat Schuber.
In 1979, Republicans flipped four Assembly seats in the 38th and 39th districts but fell short in a bid to unseat Hollenbeck and Visotcky. Hollenbeck finished 1,898 votes ahead of his running mate, 4,214 votes; he defeated Republicans Ronald Bogle, a Lyndhurst commissioner, and Fairview Councilman Bart Talamini by over 4,000 votes.
Redistricting in 1981 added the City of Passaic to the 36th district. Scardino resigned to become executive director of the Hackensack Meadowlands Commission and three-term State Sen. Joseph Hirkala (D-Passaic) headed the ticket.
Hollenbeck finished 2,672 votes in front of Visotcky and defeated Plosia by 5,992 votes. Republican Dante Mecca, a former Passaic school board president, came in fourth, 6,557 votes behind Hollenbeck.
Republicans were eyeing control of the State Senate in 1983 – Democrats had a 21-19 majority – and seemingly scored a candidate recruitment home run when Joe Job agreed to run for the Senate as a Republican.
But the Job campaign quickly turned into a disaster. An administrative law judge through him off the ballot after funding he was one signature short, forcing Job to win a write-in campaign. The 68-year-old Job had lost his mojo and Hirkala beat him by nearly 17 points and an 8,103-vote plurality.
In the Assembly race, Hollenbeck won in a cakewalk. He was the top vote-getter with 27,923, followed by Visotcky (26,131). The losers were former East Rutherford Councilman Richard DeLauro (17,990) and Wood-Ridge Councilman Al Genton (17,682).
In 1985, popular GOP Gov. Tom Kean was seeking a second term as governor. Democrats controlled the Assembly by four seats (44-36); Republicans thought they had a good shot to win control of the lower house for the first time in a dozen years.
That made Hollenbeck and Visotcky prime GOP targets.
The Republicans carefully crafted their ticket, especially since the Senate was not up in 1985 and Hollenbeck and Visotcky were running without anyone from Passaic on the ticket.
Their first choice for one of the seats was Paul DiGaetano, a Passaic city councilman who had the potential to carry the city against the incumbents. The other seat was for the perpetually fractured South Bergen. The first choice was Carmine Savino, a 74-year-old Lyndhurst icon who had served in the Assembly from 1954 to 1964, but he declined. The GOP then recruited Kathleen Donovan, a 30-year-old lawyer and Girl Scout leader from Lyndhurst who had been the top vote-getter in a 1984 non-partisan race for Bergen County Charter Study Commissioner.
DiGaetano and Donovan seized on an issue that polled well: the State Assembly provided a buffet lunch on session days for legislators and staff. DiGaetano and Donovan criticized Hollenbeck and Visotcky for taking free lunches, and pledged that if they won, they’d pay for their own lunch. That – and Kean’s coattails – swept them into office.
Donovan was the #1 vote-getter with 24,775, followed by DiGaetano with 24,555, Hollenbeck (21,295) and Visotcky (19,764).
That marked the end of Hollenbeck’s political career.
After retiring from PSE&G in 1995, he moved to Ocean County where he pursued his passion for boats and fishing.
Hollenbeck served as a U.S. Army sergeant during the Korean War and later spent 44 years at PSE&G as a gas technician and later in their public affairs unit.
He is survived by his wife of 65 years, Rosalie, their three children, a granddaughter and great-grandson.
A memorial service is scheduled for Sunday, September 12 from 2-5 PM at the Barnegat Funeral Home. In lieu of flowers, the Hollenbeck family is requesting that donations be made to the COPD Foundation or the American Heart Association.