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

How a 1,200-vote primary win led to a 26-year congressional career

Frank Thompson beat Art Holland’s older brother in 1954 Democratic primary

By David Wildstein, September 02 2021 12:01 am

A relatively small number of votes can affect the political history of the state and there is no shortage of times that’s happened in New Jersey.

When four-term Rep. Charles Howell (D-Pennington) gave up his 4th district House seat to run for the U.S. Senate in 1954, his successor won a primary by 1,200 votes and went on to spend 26 years as a congressman.

The 4th had been a swing district.  In those days, congressional districts were drawn along county boundaries and the fourth included all of Mercer and Burlington counties – both politically competitive.

Rep. Lane Powers (R-Trenton) had held the seat from 1932 until his resignation in 1945 to become a member of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.

In 1945 special election for Powers’ unexpired term, Frank Matthews, a former Deputy Attorney General from Palmyra, defeated Democrat Frank Katzenbach III by a 50%-35% margin.  Katzenbach’s father was a former Trenton mayor, state Supreme Court Justice, and the 1907 Democratic nominee for governor.

Howell, then serving his second term as an assemblyman from Mercer County, challenged Matthews in 1946 but lost by 4,996 votes, 53%-47%.  The 42-year-old Howell took the Mercer portion by 2,839 votes, but lost Burlington by 7,835,

Matthews didn’t run again in 1948 and Republicans nominated Burlington County Freeholder Albert C. Jones to run for the open seat.  Running for Congress was Jones’ second choice: he initially announced his bid for an open State Senate seat, but Republicans went for Assemblyman Albert McCay (R-Palmyra), the founder of a law firm now known as Parker McCay.

Howell ran again and defeated Jones by 28,814 votes, 61.5%-38.5%.  Howell took 64% in Mercer and 57% in Burlington.  He ran way ahead of President Harry Truman, who carried the 4th by a 53%-45% margin over New York Gov. Thomas Dewey.

That means two of the last three congressmen to represent the 4th over the last 73 years won on their second try.

Howell was re-elected twice, with 52% in 1950 and 55% in 1952.

U.S. Senator Robert Hendrickson did not seek re-election in 1954 and both parties cleared the field for their candidates seeking the open seat: Howell for the Democrats and former Rep. Clifford Case (R-Rahway) for the GOP.

Democrats, trying to regain control of the House in President Dwight Eisenhower’s midterm election, had a three-way primary to pick a candidate for Howell’s open seat.

Mercer County Democratic leaders were split between Frank Thompson, Jr. (D-Trenton), the Assembly minority leader, and Mercer County Freeholder Joseph S. Holland.  Another Democratic freeholder, Robert Falcey, and Falcey’s brother, Simon, also filed, but quickly withdraw.

Howell and the Mercer County Democratic Chairman, Thorn Lord, did not take sides in the race.

While Holland was considered the front-runner, Thompson wound up winning the Democratic primary by 1,201 votes, 47%-52%, with 11% going to a political newcomer, Trenton attorney Anthony Salamandra.  Thompson carried Mercer by 1,971 votes, 51%-39%, while Holland took Burlington by 770 votes, 49%-36%.

Republicans nominated Burlington County GOP Chairman William Freeman, a former FBI agent from Evesham, to run for the open 4th district seat.

Thompson won by 20,886 votes, 58%-42%.  He carried Mercer by 26 points and held Freeman to a 247-vote win in Burlington.

Nationally, Republicans lost 18 House seats – and their majority — in the 1954 midterms.

Case defeated Howell by just 3,370 votes statewide, 48.7%-48.5%.   Howell carried his old district with 60% of the vote.

The following year, Holland’s younger brother, Arthur, won a seat on the Trenton City Council and was later elected mayor seven times.  Joseph Holland became the Mercer County Sheriff, where he served until his death in 1969 at age 53.

Thompson went on to serve 13 terms in Congress – and rise to the chairmanship of the influential House Administration Committee.

While the 4th district remained competitive – Eisenhower won it by 10 points in 1956 and John F. Kennedy by 8 in 1960; Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey each took 44% — with George Wallace wining 11% — in 1968, Thompson had little trouble holding the seat.  He went on to serve 26 years in Congress – and rose to the chairmanship of the influential House Administration Committee – before his involvement in the ASBCAM scandal ended his political career.

After defeating 25-year-old Christopher Smith in 1978 by a 61%-37% margin, he wound up losing to Smith in a 1980 rematch by 26,967 votes, 57%-41%.

Smith, widely viewed as a one-term fluke after ousting Thompson, now holds the record as the longest-serving congressman in New Jersey history. He surpassed the record of 40 years set by Rep. Peter Rodino (D-Newark) when he was sworn in for the 21st time on January 3.  Despite beginning his 41st year as a congressman, there are still five members of the New Jersey House delegation who are older than Smith.

Like Smith, Rodino also lost his first bid for Congress, in 1946.

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