The most frustrating thing for Rodney Proctor Frelinghuysen as his time in Congress comes to an end a few hours from now, has got to be that he reached the pinnacle of his political career – chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee — only to face the inconvenience of an election.
Frelinghuysen announced early last year that he was bailing on a tough re-election campaign rather than face general election voters – an unfamiliar venue for a career primary election candidate.
His decision came after he spent a year getting hammered by members of a grass-roots progressive organization, NJ 11th for Change – and after Mikie Sherrill, a former U.S. Navy helicopter pilot and assistant U.S. Attorney, had already raised more than $1 million in a bid to take Frelinghuysen out.
Sherrill, a first-time candidate who takes office today, was just two-years-old when Frelinghuysen won his first election for Morris County freeholder in 1974.
For Frelinghuysen, politics was his family business. His family came to America in 1719 and have played a prominent role in government since the American Revolution.
The issue is not whether he’s was fighter. He was. The real question is whether he fully appreciated how much of a fight he in. And whether a 72-year-old man who has never had to engage in modern American political warfare has the aptitude to suddenly get it right, in a district that no longer resembles the one his father represented from 1953 to 1975
Frelinghuysen might be slightly built and a little bit aristocratic – one legislator used to joke that he looked like Gene Wilder playing Willy Wonka — but he had a tough-guy side. He’s a Vietnam veteran who refused to use his family connections to avoid military service. And there was the time he chased down a mugger on the streets of Washington, D.C.
Some people say he led a life of political entitlement. His last name got him his first couple of gigs for sure. But he was hardly some dilettante. The guy worked hard.
Ultimately, Frelinghuysen wasn’t prepared to go out as a loser. He preferred to walk away from a fight.
That was probably the right move.
Even if he had beaten Sherrill – that would have been an entirely different campaign, so it’s impossible to predict the outcome – he would have lost the Appropriations chairmanship when Democrats took control of the House in the 2018 mid-terms.
Frelinghuysen would not have wanted to toil in the minority again.
He pursued a political career at an early age, but he had never won a tough race. Frelinghuysen had never faced an organized and well-funded Democrat. He significantly under-performed in two competitive congressional primaries, winning a House seat on this third try only when the decision got made by a group of political insiders.
To fully understand Frelinghuysen, you must start with his time at Hobart College. He was the Class President, where he engaged in a couple of public fights with the Board of Trustees. At his commencement in 1969, he read a letter urging President Nixon to immediately end the war in Vietnam. His father, a Republican Congressman, was sitting in front of him. That showed some real testicular fortitude. The Frelinghuysen men always agreed to disagree.
Frelinghuysen was drafted and went off to Southeast Asia, working in an Army engineering battalion that handled infrastructure issues.
After his discharge in 1971, Frelinghuysen landed a staff job working for the Morris County Board of Freeholders. He was the State and Federal Aid Coordinator, and an administrative assistant to Freeholder Dean Gallo. Despite his statement at graduation, he campaigned for Nixon’s re-election in 1972.
Frelinghuysen was six when his father was elected to Congress. He grew up in Washington, and by his own admission, he always wanted to be a Congressman. He quickly realized his path to Congress was through local politics.
Morris County had gone wildly Democratic in 1973. Brendan Byrne carried it by 32,000 votes, with Democrats electing a State Senator (Stephen Wiley), three Assemblymen (Gordon MacInnes, Rosemarie Totaro and John Sinsimer), and a Freeholder (Douglas Romaine). They won about a third of the local government contests. Those results – and the heightening Watergate scandal – terrified the Republican old guard. Peter Frelinghuysen retired in 1974, along with three GOP Freeholders and a Sheriff who had served a combined 100 years in public office.
Frelinghuysen decided to run for Freeholder. He was 27 when he got in the race. Some say he should have waited another year and run for the State Assembly, but he didn’t want to run against a pair of Democratic incumbents. Richard Nixon was still in the White House, and Frelinghuysen didn’t know if 1975 would be any better than 1973. Even the Freeholder race was deemed a bit risky, but it was the bird in hand – a shot at three open seats – so he took it.
It would be the only mildly difficult general election of his life – until now.
In the Republican primary, he was the top vote getter in a field of nine candidates for three seats. He received 13,941 votes – a landslide win, considering the other two winners Eileen McCoy and Gary Garofalo, received 9,162 and 4,654 votes, respectively.
By November, Nixon had resigned, Gerald Ford was President, and Morris County went back to its Republican leanings (except for Rep. Joseph Maraziti, but that’s a story for another time). Frelinghuysen received 59,566 votes, the most of any GOP candidate that year, outdistancing the nearest Democrat, Brian Hughes, by 7,576.
Byrne quickly struggled to be popular, as newly-elected Governors often do, and Republicans became increasingly optimistic about their chances in the 1975 mid-term election. Frelinghuysen had just become a Freeholder, so he couldn’t exactly turn around and just run for the Assembly. Seriously, who does that? A pair of Republicans beat MacInnes and Totaro.
There was another opportunity to run for the legislature in 1977. He wasn’t going anywhere near the State Senate primary, where freshman Assemblyman John Dorsey was facing off against ex-Assemblyman Albert Merck, scion of a pharmaceutical fortune. Merck had lost his seat in 1973 to MacInnes and Totaro.
The primary for an open Assembly seat was just as dangerous. Jim Barry, a few months younger than Frelinghuysen, was popular with Republicans and seemed to be a lick for a second term. The contest for Dorsey seat set up a heated contest between Maraziti and Alfred Villoresi, a young lawyer allied with Sheriff John Fox who had lost the 1975 primary to Barry by just fourteen votes. Madison Council President Carl Fruehling and Hanover Mayor Arthur Albohn were also in the race.
None of that effected Frelinghuysen, who coasted through the Republican primary, even as one of his running mates lost. The general election was even easier.
Maraziti won the Assembly primary but was so personally flawed that Totaro was able to stage a comeback and win the general. That gave Frelinghuysen another chance to run for the Assembly, but Maraziti (who had been an Assemblyman and State Senator before he went to Congress) was running again, so Frelinghuysen stayed away. Albohn won the primary; his own retirement in 1995 would trigger Chris Christie’s tragic Assembly campaign – that too is for another time.
Jump ahead to 1981. Frelinghuysen was now 35 and a little stuck in the mud. He had no trouble winning a third term as Freeholder, but his district now had a Republican Senator and two Republican Assemblymen. He had watched two of his Freeholder colleagues, Gallo and Leanna Brown, move up to the Assembly in the other Morris County district.
Tom Kean was narrowly elected Governor in 1981, and he asked Barry to join his administration as the state Consumer Affairs Director. Republican leaders asked Frelinghuysen to run in a special election to fill the seat. Frelinghuysen said no. He had his eyes on a different office.
The first congressional campaign
In August 1981, Rep. Millicent Fenwick, who had won Papa Frelinghuysen’s House seat in 1974, said she was thinking of running for the United States Senate. The seat was held by Harrison Williams, who was facing expulsion following his conviction in the Abscam scandal. This was a solidly Republican district – mostly Morris and Somerset counties – and Frelinghuysen badly wanted his father’s old seat.
Frelinghuysen was preparing for a primary contest with Dorsey, who was never the most popular guy in the Morris County Republican party, and Walter Kavanaugh, a well-liked Somerset County Assemblyman.
Democrats controlled the Legislature, and they decided to draw the new congressional map before Kean was sworn in. New Jersey was to lose one of its fifteen districts because of the 1980 census. (In those days, the Legislature drew the districts – before reformers came up with the bi-partisan panel idea.)
The new map put Jim Courter, a two-term GOP congressman from Warren County, in the same safe Republican district as freshman Rep. Marge Roukema, a freshman Republican from Bergen County. The new and expansive 12th district, where Frelinghuysen wanted to run, was also safe Republican. It included parts of western New Jersey – 21 towns in Morris, nine in Somerset, two in Sussex, four in Warren, and thirteen in Hunterdon. It also went east, picking up two towns in Essex and four in Union.
Rep. Matthew Rinaldo lived in the 12th, but he was never going to run there. He went to the 7th – known as the fishhook – which included most of his old district but was drawn to elect a Democrat. Rinaldo won anyway.
Courter thought about jumping into the Senate race and about running in a primary against Roukema.
It was here that Frelinghuysen got the biggest – sorry, there’s no better way to say this – the biggest screwing of his political career. Courter decided to run in the 12th, even though most of the district was new to him.
The Republican establishment rallied behind Courter. Dorsey, Gallo, Fox and Morris County GOP Chairman Tom Branch endorsed him over Frelinghuysen – an event that was particularly stinging. Courter was also endorsed by Kean, and by a Republican who rarely took sides in GOP primaries, President Ronald Reagan. That was a big deal.
Whether he viewed the congressional seat as his dream or his birthright, Frelinghuysen refused to back down. I held on to something he said in that primary: “You’ve got your eye on running for Congress and it’s difficult to slow everyone down, even yourself. This is the opportunity I’ve been waiting for.”
There was a story Union Township GOP Municipal Chairman Earl Henwood told me a year later. Frelinghuysen came to see Earl and ask for his support. Earl said he would consider it, but that he would need some street money to turn out votes in the primary. Frelinghuysen said something about not being able to give out cash, that it would be improper. The next day, Courter came to see Earl, who made the same request. Courter said to just let him know how much he needs; he walked away with the Union County organization line.
Frelinghuysen for Congress ’82 was a disaster. He won the Morris County portion, but only by 870 votes (52%). Courter crushed him everywhere else: 90% in Sussex, 90% in Warren, 88% in Hunterdon, 72% in Union, 60% in Somerset, and 57% in Essex. Districtwide, Courter beat him 63%-37% — a margin of 16,339. Frelinghuysen raised just $290,000 for that campaign, refusing to dip into his considerable wealth to back up his insistence that this was his moment.
Meanwhile, back in Morris County, there was a bitter convention fight for Barry’s Assembly seat – the one offered to Frelinghuysen. Susan Connell, Barry’s legislative aide (and the daughter of a former Assemblywoman and a State Treasurer) had the most votes on the first ballot but lost the second ballot to Rockaway Township Mayor Bill Bishop, 126-76. Maraziti, in his last campaign, received just 39 votes on the first ballot.
Bishop never united the party and won a March special election by just 802 votes, 43%-38%, against Democrat Robert Johnson, the Rockaway Borough mayor. The rest of the votes went to Rosemarie Totaro, who ran as an independent.
The only reason to tell that story was to show how Frelinghuysen mounted a political comeback the year after Courter kicked his ass.
Instead of seeking a fourth term on the Board of Freeholders, Frelinghuysen decided to run for the Assembly seat he had passed on four times before. This time, it wasn’t even close. Frelinghuysen received 8,800 votes in the GOP primary. Albohn got 6,428 to win renomination, and Bishop finished third with 5,538 votes.
In January of 1984, Frelinghuysen took his seat in the State Assembly. And his timing could not have been worse.
In February, a panel of three U.S. District Court Judges ruled that the congressional districts passed by Byrne and the Democratic legislature before Kean took office was unconstitutional. The court also adopted a Republican map that had been considered by the Legislature.
The new map put Joseph Minish, an 11-term Democrat from West Orange, in a district that replaced much of his Essex County base with most of Morris County and parts of Sussex and Warren. A former labor union leader, Minish was very likeable and ran a top-flight constituent service organization. He also understood tough general elections, having been through a few before he was able to make his own 11th district seat safe. I recall Minish saying more than once that he knew he faced an uphill fight, but that he felt an obligation to at least make the fight.
Essex County Republican Chairman, Michael Francis, who raised a lot of money for Courter in the ’82 primary, was being deluged with calls from several surprised Republicans with congressional aspirations. Essex was the only county in the district with a line, giving it outsized influence in a primary.
Frelinghuysen never called.
Maybe he knew instantly that he couldn’t run; there’s a chance that he had not yet captured the essence of courtesy calls to a County Chairman with a line. The thing is, nobody considered Frelinghuysen to take on Minish. If he had taken one of the earlier opportunities to run for Assembly, and if he hadn’t stubbornly remained in a primary against an incumbent Congressman who had Ronald Reagan’s endorsement, Frelinghuysen could have pulled off the nomination against Minish.
The field was cleared quickly for Dean Gallo, the Assembly Minority Leader and the most popular Republican in Morris County.
Gallo beat Minish with 57% of the vote. Frelinghuysen only spent a year in the Assembly with his onetime boss and mentor, but Gallo did leave him well off: he was given a seat on the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
With Courter in one Morris County congressional seat and Gallo in the other, Frelinghuysen settled in for a life in a safe Assembly seat. He was a full-time legislator and became an expert on state budget issues. In 1985, Frelinghuysen stepped up his political game and helped raise money for the Republicans to take control of the Assembly on the coattails of Kean’s 70% re-election win.
In 1988, another congressional campaign impacted Frelinghuysen political future. Rep. Jim Howard, a Democrat who had won twelve House races in a Republican-leaning Monmouth/Ocean district, died at age 60 after suffering a heart attack on a golf course. Republicans were confident of winning the seat and picked Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina to take on State Sen. Frank Pallone. Another Monmouth legislator, Anthony “Doc” Villane, wanted to run. As a consolation prize, Kean appointed him as Commissioner of Community Affairs.
Three GOP Assemblymen announced they wanted to succeed Villane as Assembly Appropriations Committee Chairman: Kavanaugh, who had been on the panel since 1976; Dick Kamin, a freshman legislator who had served as Morris County Republican Chairman; and Frelinghuysen.
In the summer of 1988, Frelinghuysen became one of the first legislators to endorse Assembly Speaker Chuck Hardwick for Governor. A few weeks after that, Hardwick gave the Appropriations gavel to Frelinghuysen.
Dick Zimmer nearly unseated an incumbent Assemblywoman in 1979, won in 1981, and moved up to the State Senate after Moose Foran died in 1987.
Frelinghuysen had been preparing to run for Congress since 1988, when it became clear that Courter was going to run for Governor. He took some heat in Morris County for not backing Courter, who victory would have opened up the House seat. But the Appropriations chair gave him some gravitas that had so far been absent from his career. Frelinghuysen wasn’t the only Republican playing chess in 1988. State Sen. Dick Zimmer, who Gov. Kean once described as “annoyingly ambitious,” was also plotting a run for Congress.
He only had the Appropriations gig for a year and a half, before Democrats won the majority in 1989 on the back of Jim Florio’s landslide general election victory against Courter.
As one door closed on Frelinghuysen, another opened – or so he thought. In early March, Courter announced he would not seek re-election to Congress in 1990.
With the filing deadline just a month away, a bunch of Republicans besides Frelinghuysen and Zimmer considered running: Board of Public Utilities Chair Christine Todd Whitman; Leanna Brown, now a State Senator; Kavanaugh; former Morris Township Mayor Peter Mancuso; East Brunswick Mayor Jack Sinagra; Nicholas Platt, the vice president of the New York Stock Exchange; and retired New York Giants football player Phil McConkey. There was even some talk of Roger Bodman, who had managed campaigns for Courter and Kean and then held two cabinet posts, getting in the race.
The field settled very quickly for what would be a four-man race between Frelinghuysen, Zimmer, McConkey, and perennial candidate Joe Shanahan. (Whitman opted for the kamikaze race against U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, which turned out to be an astute maneuver.)
It was a three-month campaign, but this time Frelinghuysen was the front-runner. He had the solid backing of the Morris County Republicans. Even John Dorsey, then the Senate Minority Leader and never a huge Frelinghuysen fan, came on board. His campaign manager was one of the best Republican operatives in the state, Kevin Davis.
Frelinghuysen won the endorsement of the Somerset County Republicans, as well as County Chairman/Assemblyman Jack Penn, former Rep. Millicent Fenwick, and former Senate President Raymond Bateman. Morris plus Somerset was about 48% of the GOP primary vote. Zimmer had the lines in Hunterdon, Middlesex and Mercer.
Frelinghuysen and Zimmer touted their credentials as fiscal conservatives (both opposed Florio’s tax increases) with strong support for the environment, while McConkey, the only pro-life candidate in the field, used NFL celebrity to appeal to more conservative Republican primary voters. Another ex-football player, U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp, campaigned for McConkey. One of McConkey’s strategists was Roger Stone. Zimmer had Larry Weitzner.
At the time, many Republican insiders viewed Frelinghuysen as over-confident and unprepared for the negative attacks hurled by Zimmer. Davis had no trouble being the attack dog, but Frelinghuysen was incredibly uncomfortable in that position. He was deeply offended by a negative Zimmer ad suggesting that Frelinghuysen though the “seat was his birthright.”
In the end, Zimmer and McConkey just outran Frelinghuysen, who again refused to use the Frelinghuysen, Ballantyne and Proctor fortunes to self-finance his campaign.
Here’s how the primary played out: Zimmer beat Frelinghuysen in Hunterdon, his home county, by 4,654 votes (54%-8%), and won Mercer with 58%, compared to 26% for Frelinghuysen. Zimmer also outpolled Frelinghuysen in Sussex (38%-24%) and Warren (43%-19%). McConkey finished second in Hunterdon (35%), Sussex (35%) and Warren (30%).
Frelinghuysen won Morris County, but his 52% gave him a scant 2,791 vote margin. In Somerset, the line wasn’t what it used to be: Frelinghuysen won 39%, with McConkey getting 31% and Zimmer at 28%. McConkey beat Zimmer in Middlesex by 39 votes, with Frelinghuysen about a thousand votes behind the two.
The result was a third-place finish for Frelinghuysen: Zimmer (36.8%), McConkey (30.1%), and Frelinghuysen (28.5%). In pursuit of his boyhood dream of becoming a Congressman, he was now a two-time loser. The 1990 race was especially hurtful, since he had started off in the best position.
Zimmer went to Washington, and Frelinghuysen returned to Morris County, where a bunch of ambitious Republicans were unhappy that their efforts to capture the 25th district were for naught.
But for Frelinghuysen, politics was – apologies for the cliché – like a box of chocolates. Florio’s tax increases created a Republican tidal wave in the 1991 mid-term elections, and Frelinghuysen returned to a job he thoroughly enjoyed: Chairman of the Assembly Appropriations Committee. This time, he was negotiating state budgets with a Democratic Governor; it was his first experience playing hardball.
In 1993, Frelinghuysen and Albohn faced primary challenges from conservative Michael Patrick Carroll, and former Morris Township Committeeman Scott Rosenbush. Frelinghuysen won big – 14,955 votes – but Albohn beat Carroll by just 352 votes. Rosenbush finished in a distant fourth place.
Frelinghuysen’s next opportunity accompanied great personal sadness.
During the winter of 1994, Rep, Dean Gallo had hip replacement surgery. He was also diagnosed with prostate cancer. Gallo faced an especially nasty primary challenge self-financed by a wealthy conservative dentist, Joe Pennacchio. Jersey Joe, probably unaware of Gallo’s illness, lost by a 2-1 margin.
Few people knew how sick Gallo was, although Frelinghuysen was one of them. In late August, Gallo announced his withdrawal from the race. He passed away two days before the general election.
Gallo made it clear that he wanted Frelinghuysen to be his successor, and potential candidates like State Sen. Robert Martin, didn’t take long to announce he wasn’t running. Essex County Republican Chairman John Renna said he was giving Frelinghuysen the line in Essex because that’s who Gallo wanted.
Since the primary had already been held, the Republican County Committee needed to hold a convention to pick a nominee. This time Frelinghuysen won, taking 96% of the vote against challengers Jeff Grow and Tim Costello.
In a solidly Republican district, in a distinctly Republican year, Frelinghuysen was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. He received 71% against Frank Herbert, a former Bergen County Freeholder and one-term State Senator (Gerry Cardinale took him out in 1981) who was now living in Rockaway.
At age 48, his perseverance – and birthright — had finally paid off. He even convinced the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich, to give him Gallo’s seat on the Appropriations Committee.
From there, Frelinghuysen began the second twenty-year campaign of his life: to become one of the most powerful men in America as Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.
Today, that career comes to an close.
Editor’s note: much of this content first appeared in the New Jersey Globe on January 4, 2018.