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Retired General Pete Dawkins and former Ambassador Mary Martin Ourisman. Photo courtesy of Capehart Photography.

Pete Dawkins, once GOP dream candidate, gets married

Retired Army General, Heisman Trophy winner, challenged Frank Lautenberg in 1988

By David Wildstein, July 14 2019 8:17 pm

Gen. Pete Dawkins, the 1988 Republican candidate for United States Senate against Frank Lautenberg, was married on Tuesday to Mary Martin Ourisman, the U.S. Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean under President George W. Bush.

This is the second marriage for Dawkins, now 81.  His wife of 55 years, Judi, passed away in early 2017.

Republicans thought they hit the candidate recruitment jackpot when they got Dawkins, retired Army general and Rhodes Scholar who won the 1958 Heisman Trophy while playing football at West Point, to move to New Jersey to run against Lautenberg.

Lautenberg, the founder of Automated Data Processing (ADP)  had been a bit of an upset winner in 1982 when he became one of the early self-funders in a New Jersey statewide election, spending about $5 million of his own money.   He beat two former congressmen and seven other candidates in the Democratic primary, and then defeated the fabled Rep. Millicent Fenwick (R-Bernardsville) in the general election by a 51%-48% margin.

The GOP thought they could beat the 64-year-old Lautenberg in 1988.  New Jersey had gone Republican in five consecutive presidential elections and Tom Kean was re-elected governor in 1985 with 70% of the vote.

The early favorite to run against Lautenberg was Leonard Coleman, 39, Kean’s Commissioner of Community Affairs and the first Black to score a touchdown as a member of the Princeton University football team.  Coleman had spent a couple of years preparing for a Senate campaign against his fellow Montclair resident.

At the time, Dawkins was an investment banker living in Manhattan.  New York Republicans had touted him as a potential gubernatorial candidate against Mario Cuomo in 1987 or for Senate against Daniel Patrick Moynihan in 1988.

New Jersey Republicans first caught a glimpse of Dawkins in 1986 when he attended a fundraiser at the Rumson home of GOP insider Lawrence Bathgate for the political action committee that was helping Vice President George Bush in his pursuit of the 1988 GOP presidential nomination.

The idea of Dawkins running against Lautenberg was the idea of Greg Stevens, Kean’s former chief of staff and top political advisor.  Stevens had left the Kean administration and was working at the Washington, D.C. lobbying and political consulting firm of Black, Manafort and Stone.

Dawkins met with Kean in early 1987 and essentially cleared the field.  Coleman was told he wasn’t running – six years later he got a better job as president of Major League Baseball’s National League – and Dawkins, then 49, left his post as a managing director of Shearson Lehman Brothers and bought a house in Rumson.

Dawkins had a great story: he eschewed an NFL career to go to Oxford, and then received two Bronze Stars for his service commanding infantry divisions in Vietnam.  He appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in uniform and served as a White House fellow.  Dawkins spent 24 years in the army, serving at the Pentagon and retiring as a brigadier general.

“Pete Dawkins is the biggest thing to hit New Jersey since Bill Bradley,” Roger Stone, one of his political consultants, told political columnist Tom Hester.

The race pitted Stone against Lautenberg’s consultants, James Carville and Paul Begala.

As a first-time candidate, Dawkins had a series of missteps.

When he said, “I’d blow my brains out if I had to live in a small town,” Lautenberg pounced.

Lautenberg slammed Dawkins for being a carpetbagger, linked Dawkins to pollution at a California army base, and called him a phony.  A magazine story titled, “Pete Dawkins and The Art of Failing Upward” didn’t help.

“Come on Pete, be real,” became a tagline of Lautenberg’s TV ads.

Dawkins called Lautenberg a “swamp dog.”

New Jersey voters split their ticket in 1988.

Bush carried New Jersey by 422,839 votes, a 56%-42% win against Michael Dukakis.  Lautenberg beat Dawkins by 249,968 votes, 54%-45%.

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