Elizabeth Holtzman, an 80-year-old former congresswoman from New York considering a political comeback 50 years after her first election, is eternally linked to New Jersey politics.
In 1972, Holtzman, a Harvard Law School graduate and former aide to New York City Mayor John Lindsay, upset Emmanuel Celler, an 84-year-old Democrat who had served in Congress for 50 years, in the Democratic primary.
Cellar was a political legend in New York. He had flipped a Brooklyn-based House seat in 1922, President Warren Harding’s mid-term election, and chaired the House Judiciary Committee for eighteen years.
His defeat meant that Peter W. Rodino, Jr., a 12-term congressman from Newark was in line to become the new House Judiciary Chairman.
Rodino was popular in New Jersey and on Capitol Hill, but an obscure congressman nationally. He had lost races for State Assembly and Congress before flipping an Essex County House seat in 1948 when Republican Fred Hartley, the author of the Taft-Hartley Act, decided not to seek re-election to an 11th term. He had considered runs for statewide office, but Democratic Party leaders always wound up picking someone else.
Three months before Holtzman beat Cellar, Rodino had survived his own electoral scare.
Congressional redistricting for the 1972 election drew the 10th district with a Black majority for the first time.
The 64-year-old Rodino faced primary challenges from East Orange Mayor Williams S. Hart, who had become the first Black to win a citywide election there in 1959 and the first Black mayor in 1969, and from Assemblyman George Richardson.
Hart won the backing of Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson and activist Amiri Baraka, a poet and the father of future Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
But Rodino had the organization line in Essex County and defeated Hart by 13,532 votes, 57%-37%. In that primary, Rodino won 98% and a 3,985-vote margin in Harrison, the only Hudson municipality in the 10th. He beat Hart by fifteen points in Essex.
The U.S. House of Representatives began impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in October 1973. Rodino’s committee was given the authority to investigate the Watergate scandal, thrusting the North Ward congressman into the national spotlight as the Judiciary panel held hearings that were broadcast on every major television network.
Among the young Rodino protégés on the committee was Holtzman.
Nixon resigned nine days after the Judiciary Committee approved three articles of impeachment.
Rodino won the praise of both parties for his handling of the impeachment proceedings, and Jimmy Carter short-listed him for the vice presidency in 1976.
Rodino’s Watergate fame extended his own political career in New Jersey beyond where he might have been had Cellar led the Nixon impeachment proceedings.
Despite a Black majority district, Rodino drew only a white challenger in the 1974 primary – he won 89% — and was unopposed in the 1976 and 1978 Democratic primaries.
The Payne challenges
But by 1980, some of Rodino’ national luster was replaced by a renewed bid to see the 10th district elect New Jersey’s first Black congressman.
Former Essex County Freeholder Donald M. Payne, Sr., who ran a strong third place in the 1978 Democratic primary for county executive, decided to challenge Rodino in the primary. So did another former freeholder, Rev. Russell Fox, and Golden Johnson, a former Newark municipal court judge.
Payne said that Rodino had lost touch with his local constituents, particularly the urban poor. Rodino was also accused of spending more time at his shore home in Long Branch than in Newark.
But Rodino was still on the line and brandished endorsements from prominent Black leaders, including Rep. Barbara Jordan (D-Texas), East Orange Mayor Thomas Cooke, and Gibson.
Rodino took 62% in the primary, followed by Payne (23%), Johnson (12%) and Fox (3%).
He coasted in 1982 and 1984 but found himself in trouble in 1986 when Payne challenged him again.
In the May non-partisan municipal election held a month before the primary, Gibson was defeated by Sharpe James, the city council president. Payne, who had won the South Ward city council seat in 1982, endorsed James.
James endorsed Payne over Rodino and Rev. Jesse Jackson came to Newark to campaign for Payne.
Rodino, on the line again, scored a 9,920-vote win over Payne, 59%-36%, but with James becoming mayor, it was clear that Rodino’s 40-year stint in Congress was nearing an end. He retired in 1988, at age 80.
Payne, on his third try, won the Democratic primary with 73% of the vote against Ralph Grant, Jr., a Newark city councilman. He held the seat for 23 years until his death in 2012; his son, Rep. Donald Payne, Jr. (D-Newark), is now the congressman from the 10th.
The Holtzman Story
After winning a congressional seat at age 31, Holtzman became a national-known political figure in a pre-cable news, social media era when it was exceedingly difficult for House members to become gain widespread prominence.
Holtzman served three terms in Congress before giving up her seat to run for the U.S. Senate in 1980. She had expected to take on another New York institution, Jacob K. Javits, a 76-year-old Republican who was seeking his fourth term.
(Her decision to give up her House seat set a path for a young assemblyman, Charles Schumer, to run for Congress. He won the Democratic primary by just 750 votes.)
Javits was a liberal Republican and his voting record, his age, and his health – he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, Lou Gehrig’s disease, in 1979 – prompted a GOP primary challenge from Alphonse D’Amato, a conservative who held local office on Long Island.
The early Democratic front-runner was Bess Myerson. She was well-known as Miss America 1945, and as New York City Consumer Affairs Commissioner, and had the backing of Gov. Hugh Carey, U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Mayor Ed Koch. Lindsay, a former GOP congressman who switched parties while serving as mayor and sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972, also ran, along with Queens District Attorney John Santucci.
Holtzman ran to the left the of the field and assembled a coalition of women and Jewish voters to beat Myerson by a 41%-32% margin, with Lindsay in third place with 16%.
In the Republican primary, D’Amato defeated Javits in the primary by 11 percentage points.
D’Amato defeated Holtzman by 80,991 votes, 44.9%-43.5%, in a race where Javits turned out to be a spoiler. Javits refused to drop out and remained on the ballot as the Liberal Party candidate, and he won 664,544 votes, 11%.
Holtzman was elected Brooklyn District Attorney in 1981 and after serving two terms, won a race for New York City Comptroller in 1989.
She sought a rematch with D’Amato in 1992 but finished last with 12% of the vote in a bitter Democratic primary. Robert Abrams, the state attorney general, defeated former Rep. Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate by 11,254 votes, 37%-36%, with Rev. Al Sharpton, coming in third. (At the time, Sharpton was likely a New Jersey resident; he lived in a rental apartment in Englewood.)
In 1993, Holtzman lost re-election as city comptroller. Assemblyman Alan Hevesi led her in the Democratic primary by a 35%-34% margin – former Rep. Herman Badillo received 31% — and then lost the runoff by a 2-1 margin.
Holtzman is mulling a run in New York’s 10th district, which was redrawn by a court-appointed mapmaker after the original map was found to be gerrymandered. The new district includes a large section of Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn.
A large field of candidates includes: former Mayor Bill de Blasio; Rep. Mondaire Jones, who was forced out of his lower Hudson Valley seat as a result of redistricting; Daniel Goldman., who was the counsel to the House Democrats during impeachment proceedings against Donald Trump in 2019 and 2020; and several state legislators and New York city council members.
The Comeback Record
Should Holtzman run, and should she somehow forge a victory, she would set an unfathomable record of winning congressional races 50 years apart.
The longest gap in service in the U.S. House of Representatives was Philip Francis Thomas, a Maryland Democrat who was first elected in 1838, at age 28, and again 34 years later in 1874. In between, he served as Governor of Maryland and as U.S. Secretary of the Treasury under President James Buchanan.
The second-longest gap came in 2012 when Minnesota Democrat Rick Nolan unseated a GOP congressman and returned to Congress 32 years after he walked away.
A former aide to U.S. Senator Walter Mondale, Nolan served in the Minnesota legislature and was elected to Congress on his second try in 1974. Also 31-years-old, Nolan was a member of the same freshman class as Holtzman. He opted out of a re-election campaign in 1980. Nolan gave up his seat to run for lieutenant governor in 2018 but lost the Democratic primary.
In 2014, New Jersey almost saw a comeback bid by one of the Watergate Babies who was a freshman with Holtzman and Nolan when 75-year-old Andy Maguire nearly challenged Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Wantage) in New Jersey’s 5th district.
Maguire had worked at the State Department and at the United Nations during Lyndon Johnson’s presidency and ran a strong but unsuccessful race for Bergen County Freeholder in 1973. He ousted 11-term Rep. William Widnall (R-Saddle River) in the 1974 Democratic wave.
He held the seat in 1976 and 1978 but lost a rematch against Republican Marge Roukema (R-Ridgewood) in 1980 by four percentage points.
In 1982, Maguire sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. He finished second in a ten-candidate field, losing to Frank Lautenberg, a businessman and self-funder, 11,788 votes, 26%-23%. Maguire won 63% in Bergen County.
Maguire, who had been out of Congress for 34 years, ultimately decided not to run. That set in motion a campaign by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) to flip the seat in 2016.
Another Bergen County congressman, Frank Osmers, returned to the House after a nine-year absence n a 1951 special election. Osmers had first election to Congress in 1938, at age 30, but he didn’t seek re-election in 1942 so that he could serve in the U.S. Army during World War II.
Osmers’ replacement, Assemblyman Harry Towe (R-Leonia), was expected to be a placeholder until after the war. But he seemed to like Congress and ran in 1946, 1948 and 1950, before finally resigning when Gov. Alfred Driscoll named him deputy state attorney general.
Including Rodino, Holtzman served with nineteen New Jersey Members of Congress: Jim Florio, William Hughes, James Howard, Frank Thompson, Jr., Millicent Fenwick, Edwin Forsythe, Andrew Maguire, Robert Roe, Henry Helstoski, Harold Hollenbeck, Joseph Minish, Matthew Rinaldo, Helen Meyner, Jim Courter, Dominick Daniels, Joseph LeFante, Frank Guarini, and Edward Patten.