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Republican State Assembly candidate Tom Kean in 1967

A Tom Kean ‘what-if’

By David Wildstein, December 09 2018 6:28 pm


This is one of those alternate universe stories about what might have been, had the things went a little differently in Trenton.

In a redistricting deal made by the leaders of the New Jersey Legislature in 1966, one of three Essex County congressional seats was eliminated and shifted to South Jersey.   That precluded the possibility of Tom Kean, then age 31, going to Congress as part of a freshman class that included George Bush.

Essex County had three congressional seats in 1964: the 10th was represented by Peter Rodino (D-Newark), the 11th by Joseph Minish (D-West Orange), and the 12th by George Wallhauser (R-Maplewood).

The 12th district seat had long been in Republican hands.  Frederick Lehlbach, a former assemblyman from Newark, won the seat in 1916 after defeating one of the Democrats who rode the Woodrow Wilson wave four years earlier.  On the coattails of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 re-election landslide, Democrat Frank Towey, an attorney from Caldwell, defeated Lehlbach by 325 votes.

Two years later, Republicans took back the 12th when 45-year-old investment banker Robert Kean, the son of a former U.S. Senator, ousted Towey by 12,118 votes, 55%-41%.  Kean held the seat for twenty years before leaving to run for the United States Senate in 1958.

When Kean left Congress, the 12th started in Newark’s East and South wards and then swung through Irvington, Maplewood, Millburn, Livingston, Roseland, Essex Fells, the Caldwells, Verona, Cedar Grove and Montclair.

The winner of the 1958 opens seat rac was Republican George Wallhauser, a real estate developer and former Maplewood Township Committeeman.  He defeated former Irvington municipal court judge Thomas Holleran by 8,048 votes, 53%-45%.

Wallhauser was never able to replicate Kean’s popularity.  He faced Democrat Bob Peacock, a 32-year-old Livingston resident and deputy state Commissioner of Banking in 1960.  Peacock campaigned in Newark with John F. Kennedy, raised big money from labor, and came within 3,826 votes of winning a seat in Congress – 40%-48%.

Peacock ran again in 1962 and Wallhauser won again, this time by a slightly bigger margin: 6,386, 53%-47%.    In 1964, the 64-year-old Wallhauser had no appetite for another tough campaign and called it quits.

With Lyndon Johnson winning 70% of the vote in Essex, Democrat Paul Krebs, a powerful labor leader from Livingston, won the seat.  He defeated Essex County Surrogate David Wiener by 10,125 votes, 52%-46%.

Krebs entered Congress with an immediate political problem: redistricting.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote ruling required new districts to be draw up for the 1966 congressional elections.  In those days, the Legislature drew the maps with the approval of the governor, and in 1965 Democrats controlled everything.

Democrats were in complete control in 1966, making it a great time for redistricting.  Richard Hughes had been re-elected governor with 57% of the vote a year earlier, and Democrats captured control of the Senate and Assembly

South Jersey wanted the extra House seat it was owed after the 1960 census and that seat had to come from either Essex or Hudson, which had two seats.  Despite a strong protest from labor unions, the Democratic map eliminated Krebs’ seat and sent it to Camden County.  Democrats wound up losing in anyway: Republican State Sen. John Hunt defeated Camden County Freeholder Michael Piarulli by 6,779 votes. That’s the seat Jim Florio and Rob Andrews held and is now represented by Donald Norcross.

Krebs found himself now living at the northern end of a Union County-based congressional district that went from Elizabeth to Livingston.  Republican congresswoman Florence Dwyer was seeking her fifth term and Krebs never considered running against her – a smart move considering Dwyer was re-elected with 60% of the vote in a district that gave LBJ a 66% win.

If the Krebs seat had been preserved, one possible Republican challenger could have been Tom Kean, the son of Robert Kean.  The younger Kean had already become involved in politics, working on Bill Scranton’s 1964 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

Between the LBJ and Hughes landslides, the Essex GOP bench had been wiped mostly clean.  That could have opened the door for Kean, whose father had become Essex County Republican Chairman after leaving the House, to win the Republican nomination.

Republicans picked up 47 House seats in the 1966 mid-term election, and Republican Clifford Case won 60% of the vote in his bid for a third term in the United States Senate.   Case carried Essex County by 55,791 votes, 59%-38%, and Essex Republicans swept races for freeholder and county supervisor.

It’s likely that Kean would have beaten Krebs in that campaign and gone to Washington as a new congressman from Essex County.

Instead, Kean launched his political career in 1967 as a candidate for the State Assembly.  That put him on a path to become Speaker in 1972.  He lost Republican primaries for Congress in 1974 and Governor in 1977 before winning election as governor in 1981.

Left to right: Republican Assembly candidate Tom Kean, former Rep. Robert Kean, Rep. Florence Dwyer, former Livingston mayor Bill Clark, and former Rep. George Wallhauser, in 1967.
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