There more things change, the more they stay the same.
One of the classic stories in New Jersey politics was the 1982 race for Congress in New Jersey’s 4th district. It was Ronald Reagan’s mid-term election and Christopher Smith was a 29-year-old congressman seeking re-election for the first time.
Smith’s opponent was Joe Merlino, a cigar-chomping, 60-year-old former Senate President from Trenton who decided to go to Congress as a sort of consolation prize after finishing fourth in the 1981 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
After a debate, Smith approached Merlino to tell him that some of the things he said in the debate simply were not true. Merlino was with a reporter.
“Beat it, kid,” Merlino told him. “’I’m talking to the press. When I get to Washington, look me up. I may give you a job as a page.”
Something similar happened earlier this month, during a debate between Smith and his 2018 Democratic opponent, Josh Welle.
At an Asbury Park Press debate that was broadcast on Facebook, Smith went after Welle for making false claims about his record.
“Mr. Welle in his tweets and his ads- so much distorts my record and we have chapter and verse,” Smith said. “But one that gets me the most – he says I have no empathy for the families of our veterans.”
Welle said Smith’s claim was not true.
“The Congressman is suggesting that I said he had no empathy. That is untrue. I’ve never said he had no empathy for our veteran population,” Welle said.
Smith said he had the proof, which he later supplied in the form of a short video released by his campaign.
At some point, challengers may get that dismissing Smith might not be the best strategy.
The old 4th district was a middle-class, Democratic leaning district that included mostly Mercer and Middlesex counties, with small parts in Burlington and Monmouth. Jimmy Carter had won 54% in the old 4th in 1976, and Smith received just 38% when he ran against 12-term incumbent Frank Thompson in 1978. In 1980, after Thompson was indicted in the Abscam scandal, Smith won with 57%.
Back in the days when the Legislature drew congressional districts, Merlino had a heavy hand in redrawing the 4th to make it even more Democratic. The map was drawn during the lame-duck session of the 1981 Legislature, while Merlino was still Senate President. Democratic Gov. Brendan Byrne signed the map just before Republican Tom Kean succeeded him.
Smith’s hometown, Old Bridge, was dropped, along with other southern Middlesex towns that he had won. Instead, it went down the Delaware River through Burlington and picked up Pennsauken in Camden County.
Comparing apples to apples, the old 4th gave Reagan a 47%-44% win against Carter; Carter had beaten Reagan 47%-45% in the new district.
While Merlino was given the early edge, Smith worked hard — and fought hard.
One memorable Smith TV ad contrasted the Merlino image as an old-fashioned backroom politician. It had a lit cigar in an ashtray in a room full of smoke, along with voices of people saying they didn’t approve of “Boss Merlino” distorting Smith’s record. The ad then cut to an energetic Smith campaigning as other voices explained why they liked their congressman.
Merlino’s most unforgettable TV ad was shot in black-and-white as an imitation of the film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” The ad shows a youthful vagabond hitchhiking as a voice-over attacks Smith. That was followed by the actor playing Smith getting kicked down the Capitol steps with the narrator urging voters to kick Smith out of Washington and replace him with Merlino.
Republicans got actor Jimmy Stewart who played Mr. Smith in the movie, to issue a statement slamming Merlino.
“When I played Mr. Smith in that picture, I did not think he was a naive hick,” Stewart said. “I thought he believed in honesty and integrity in government, the right of the people and the love of his country.”
Stewart applauded Smith’s record as a first-term congressman – “I hope you win,” he said – and Merlino pulled the ad that had clearly backfired.
Smith won that 1982 race by 10,002 votes, 53%-47%. He won Hamilton, where he moved so he could live within the boundaries of the new district, by about the same margin.
That was the last time his percentage fell below 60%.
There was a scenario by which Smith didn’t face Merlino in 1982: Four-term U.S. Senator Harrison Williams had been convicted in the Abscam scandal, but refused to resign from the Senate until his appeals had been exhausted. With Republican Kean about to take office, Democrats furiously tried to convince Williams to resign while the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate sought to expel him. Negotiations went up to the final minutes of Byrne’s governorship. With outgoing Secretary of State Donald Lan standing right next to the governor, Byrne attended Kean’s inauguration with a letter in his pocket appointing Merlino to the U.S. Senate — just in case.
If Merlino had gone to the U.S. Senate, the speculation among Democrats at the time was that they would have fun newly-elected State Sen. Francis McManimon for Congress. McManimon was from Hamilton, where he was hugely popular. That would have created an entirely different kind of race.