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Rep. Christopher Smith (R-Hamilton) with his wife, Marie, and Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty in 1980. (Photo: Chris Smith for Congress).

Chris Smith set to pass John McCormack on list of longest-serving House members

New Jersey Republican has served in Congress for 42 years and 58 days

By David Wildstein, March 02 2023 5:11 am

At noon today, New Jersey’s Christopher Smith will move into 15th place on the list of longest uninterrupted service in the U.S. House of Representatives when he ties the tenure of John W. McCormack, a former House Speaker, at 42 years and 58 days as a congressman.

Tomorrow, Smith will pass McCormack on the list.  Along with Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican who took office on the same day on the list, they will move to 14th on the all-time list.

House Speaker John W. McCormack, left, with President John F. Kennedy in the Oval Office. (Photo: Abbie Rowe/White House Photographer, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum).

McCormack, a Boston Democrat, served from 1928, when he won a special election, until his retirement in 1971 at age 79.  He spent nine years as Speaker of the House, seven as Majority Leader, and four as Minority Whip.

Smith is set to pass Florida Republican Bill Young’s service of 42 years and 288 days in October and Democrat Mel Price’s tenure of 43 years and 110 days next year.

The 69-year-old Smith is the longest-serving congressman in New Jersey history.  He passed Peter Rodino (D-Newark), who served from 1948 to 1988, on January 3, 2021.

After Smith won his first election in 1980, at age 27, the Almanac of American Politics opined that his election was a fluke.

“There is a general assumption in New Jersey that Smith has few political assets outside Thompson’s Abscam problems and will turn out to be a one-term congressman,” the bible of U.S. politics wrote of the freshman congressman.

Smith is now the second-ranking member of the House.  Since seniority for House members sworn in on the same day is alphabetical, Rogers, 85, the Dean of the House.  Rogers and Smith both took office on January 3, 1981.  He is on a clear path to becoming Dean of the House.

Despite beginning his 43rd year as a congressman, four New Jersey House delegation members are still older than Smith, who celebrates his birthday on Saturday.

Rodino was elected in 1948, at age 39, on his second try.

The Democratic lawyer from Newark had lost a bid for State Assembly in 1940, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and came within 5,730 votes, 52.5% to 45.7%, of unseating nine-term Rep. Fred Hartley (R-Kearny) in 1946.

Hartley, still nationally prominent as the sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act, retired in 1948, and Rodino won the open seat by 5,800 votes, 50.7% to 45.7%, against former Assemblyman Anthony Giuliano (R-Newark).

Essex County Sheriff John F. Cryan, left, and Rep. Peter Rodino (D-Newark). Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange.

Like Rodino, Smith was also elected to Congress on his second try.

Smith became a right-to-life activist in the early 1970s while a student at Trenton State College (now the College of New Jersey), and at first, he was a Democrat from Middlesex County.

In 1976, he managed a campaign for Stephen Foley, an attorney challenging three-term U.S. Senator Harrison Williams, Jr. in the Democratic primary as a pro-life Democrat.  Williams won with 85%.

That same year, Smith suffered his only loss as a Democratic candidate.

As a 23-year-old living in Woodbridge, Smith ran for Delegate to the 1976 Democratic National Convention pledged to Ellen McCormick, who sought the presidential nomination on an anti-abortion platform that year.  She qualified for federal matching funds and got on the primary ballot in 18 states.   (A lasting effect of the McCormick campaign was that Congress later passed a new law that threw them out of public financing if they fell below 10% in two successive primaries.)

As a delegate candidate in the 19th district, Smith finished eighth in a field of 15 candidates for two seats.  An uncommitted slate backed by Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Nicholas Venezia won the two seats; the slate was purportedly for Hubert Humphrey or Jerry Brown.   Mathias Rodriguez, a former legislative aide to Assemblyman (and future Chief Justice) Robert Wilentz (D-Perth Amboy) and later a Superior Court Judge, finished fourth on a slate that supported Jimmy Carter.

Finishing sixth, just one vote out fifth, as 21-year-old Joseph Vitale. The future state senator was backing Morris Udall for President.

But Vitale outpolled Smith by a 3-1 margin, making him the only living New Jerseyan to have received more votes than the Smith in an election.

By 1978, the 25-year-old Smith was a Republican and challenged 12-term Rep. Frank Thompson, Jr. (D-Trenton), the powerful House Administration Committee chairman in 1978.  He lost by 24 points.

Undeterred, Smith ran again in 1980.

Circumstances had changed.

Rep. Frank Thompson, Jr. (Photo: David Wildstein Collection).

Thompson was implicated in the FBI sting operation Abscam when an undercover agent pretending to be an Arab sheik offered the congressman a cash bribe to help him circumvent federal immigration laws.

When news of the Thompson scandal broke, Smith had already secured commitments from and built enough relationships with enough Republicans that the ship had sailed on national Republicans recruiting someone else, like Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty (who was running for governor in 1981) or Jeff Bell, the former Reagan speechwriter who had beaten four-term U.S. Senator Clifford Case in the 1978 Republican primary.

This time, Smith won.  He beat Thompson by 26,967 votes, a 47%-41% margin.  Smith won 61% in Middlesex, 53% in Mercer, and 57% in Monmouth and Burlington.

When Smith ran for a second term in 1982, he faced the strongest possible opponent: Joe Merlino, a 60-year-old, cigar-chomping former State Senate President who saw going to Congress as a consolation prize after losing a race for governor one year earlier.

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 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 disapproved 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.

Rep. Christopher Smith, left, and former Senate President Joseph Merlino in 1982

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 backfired ad.

Smith won that 1982 race by 10,002 votes, 53%-47%.  He won Hamilton, where he moved to live within the new district’s boundaries by about the same margin.

Since his first election, Smith has run under six different maps and has represented parts of Middlesex, Mercer, Burlington, Camden, Monmouth, and Ocean counties in Congress.

In his most recent re-election against Democrat Matt Jenkins, he won by 92,055 votes, 67%-31%.

U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Ron Wyden were elected to the House on the same day as Smith and Rogers.

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