The congressional seat that Rep. Albio Sires will vacate next year has been in Democratic hands since another West York congressman, freshman Republican Rep. Vincent Dellay, switched parties in late 1957.
This will be the first open seat contest in 16 years and the second in 30 years.
In 1954, ten-term Rep. Edward Hart (D-Jersey City) gave up his congressional seat so that he could get an appointment to what is now known as the Board of Public Utilities. Hart had watched his percentage drop to 51.5% in 1952 and after twenty years in the House, he was ready to go.
To succeed Hart, Hudson County Democratic boss John V. Kenny picked James Tumulty, a 41-year-old former Assembly minority leader whose uncle was Woodrow Wilson’s chief of staff – the job was called secretary in those days – in the governor’s office and in the White House.
The Republicans ran Vincent Dellay, a 47-year-old auditor in the state treasurer’s office Tumulty beat Dellay by 25,584 votes, 62%-35%.
Two years later, with popular President Dwight Eisenhower heading the Republican ticket, Dellay sought a rematch against Tumulty.
This time Dellay won, upsetting Tumulty by 7,887 votes, 52%-46%.
Dellay filed an affidavit with the New Jersey Secretary of State saying he spent nothing to win the House seat. Tumulty reported spending $1,017. To put that in some perspective of the times, Assemblywoman Florence Dwyer (R-Elizabeth) reported spending $9,950 to oust two-term incumbent Rep. Harrison Williams (D-Plainfield); Williams spent $6,943.
Another Jersey City Republican, Norman Roth, came within 57 votes of winning the other Hudson County congressional seat against incumbent Rep. Alfred Sieminski (D-Jersey City). Roth died believing Hudson County Democrats stole the race from him.
Dellay became the first Republican congressman from Hudson County since Archibald Olpp (R-Union City) won on Warren Harding’s coattails in 1920 and then lost the seat two years later.
Tumulty went home to New Jersey with a lot of post-election anger. He later filed a complaint with the Justice Department alleging that Democrats raised $100,000 for Adlai Stevenson and the Democratic congressional candidates, but that Kenny diverted the money to his local organization. Tumulty says he only got $800.
Within one week of taking office, Dellay had already run afoul the of Hudson County Republican Chairman John Theurer, who called him “the biggest ingrate I have ever known” because only one Hudson Republican got a job in the new congressman’s office.
“Dellay not only won’t be on the next congressional ticket, but his name won’t even be mentioned,” Theurer told the Associated Press. “I’m sorry he is a Republican. He has never consulted with the organization at any time since his election.”
Theurer said Dellay had instead hired his daughter and his sister to serve on his staff.
“That daughter couldn’t even vote for him. She lives out of his district,” the county chairman said.
Dellay defended the hiring of his sister.
“She is giving up a job as secretary to an express company executive at a much higher salary,” he said.
In the fall of 1957, Dellay endorsed Democratic Gov. Robert Meyner for re-election.
A few days before Christmas, Dellay announced that he was switching parties and would return to Washington in January 1958 as a Democratic congressman.
He said he would seek re-election as a Democrat.
Speaker Sam Rayburn welcomed the newest member of the Democratic caucus, but back at home, Hudson County Democrats weren’t all that interested.
Democrats endorsed Dominick Daniels, a 50-year-old Jersey City municipal court judge, as their candidate for Congress.
Dellay announced that he would seek re-election as an independent rather than challenge the Hudson County Democratic organization in the primary.
In September, he dropped out of the race entirely. This time Kenny didn’t take the race for granted and Daniels beat Republican Frank Musto with 63% of the vote. Still on the ballot, Dellay got 823 votes.
Dellay returned to his old job as a field auditor for the New Jersey Treasury Department, retiring in 1971. He remained a Democrat.
In 1972, Dellay ran for Congress again after redistricting merged the two Hudson County districts.
Daniels won the race by 12,662 votes, 51%-32% against West New York Mayor Anthony DeFino. The other incumbent congressman, Cornelius Gallagher (D-Bayonne) finished third with 15%.
Dellay came in fourth, with 1,1994 votes – just under 2%.
Daniels retired from the House in 1976 at age 78.
LeFante and Guarini
To succeed Daniels, Hudson County Democrats turned to Assembly Speaker Joseph LeFante (D-Bayonne). LeFante became the first Democrat from outside Jersey City to get party support for the seat since Rep. Oscar Auf der Heide (D-West New York) was redistricted into a different Hudson district in 1932.
After shepherding Gov. Brendan Byrne’s unpopular income tax proposal through the legislature, LeFante didn’t have an easy time wining the general election. Republican Anthony Louis Campenni, who had no money or organization, held him a 6,855-vote win, 50%-45%. The same district gave Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter a 57%-43% win over President Gerald Ford.
There was a changing of the guard in Jersey City in 1977 when Mayor Paul Jordan eschewed a third term to challenge Byrne in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Bill Macchi, picked by Jordan to succeed him, lost the May 1977 non-partisan municipal election City Clerk Thomas F.X. Smith by a 54%-26% margin. The upset caused seismic shift in Jersey City politics that led to Jordan’s withdrawal from the gubernatorial race.
Smith’s victory resulted in a changing of the guard, with former State Sen. Frank Guarini (D-Jersey City) becoming the new Hudson County Democratic Chairman.
Guarini initially expressed some interest in challenging four-term Republican U.S. Senator Clifford Case in 1978 – he had challenged incumbent Harrison Williams in the 1970 Democratic primary — but instead decided to take the Hudson congressional seat instead and told LeFante his time in Washington would come to an end.
Blessed by the Hudson County Democratic Organization Line, Guarini won the Democratic primary with 82% of the vote. He took the general by a 64%-20% margin over Republican Henry J. Hill, a Kearney councilman, with Hudson County Police Chief Thomas McDonough winning 14% as an independent. His campaign manager was a young Democratic operative named Robert Janiszewski, who would later serve as Hudson County Executive.
Guarini held the seat for fourteen years, becoming an influential member of the House Ways and Means Committee.
The Menendez and Sires Years
Congressional redistricting in 1992 redrew Guarini’s district to include a substantial number of Hispanic voters in North Hudson that had previously been in a Bergen County-based district – and the addition of parts of Newark, Linden, Elizabeth, Woodbridge and Perth Amboy — Guarini declined to run for re-election rather than face a primary against State Sen. Bob Menendez (D-Union City). Menendez had been eyeing a run for Congress.
The candidacy of the 38-year-old Menendez followed 20 years of political experience, starting with a job working for Union City’s longtime mayor, William Vincent Musto. He won a school board seat at 20, became mayor at 32, assemblyman at 33, and after the legendary Christopher Jackman (D-West New York) died in 1991, became the first Hispanic to serve in the New Jersey State Senate.
Once Menendez had secured the organization lines to run in the old 13th congressional district, his election was likely but not automatic. Henry Martinez, a five-term Newark East Ward city councilman, had mulled a House bid. So did Guarini’s chief of staff, Nidia Davila-Colon, who later wound up as a Hudson County Freeholder, and Brian Connor, an ally of then-Elizabeth Mayor Thomas Dunn.
He faced Robert Haney, a 35-year-old activist and Harvard Law graduate who had won 20% against Guarini in the 1988 Democratic primary. Against Guarini, Haney had won the endorsement of Ted Sorenson, a fabled former speechwriter for President John F. Kennedy.
Against Menendez, Haney scored endorsements from Acting Jersey City Mayor Marilyn Roman and City Councilman Jaime Vasquez, allies of removed Mayor Gerald McCann. Among other things, they opposed Jersey City giving up a House seat.
Menendez crushed Haney in the primary by a 2-1, 12,836-vote margin. He took 66% in Hudson, 79% in Essex, 81% in Union and 66% in Middlesex for a n overall win of 68%-32%.
In the general election, Menendez defeated Republican Fred Theemling, Jr. by a 64%-31% margin. Theemling, who had challenged Guarini in 1988 and 1990, later became Hudson County Prosecutor under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and served as a Superior Court Judge.
Menendez was re-elected to the House six times – in his last race, he defeated a young Marine Corps veteran named Steve Fulop in the Democratic primary with 87% of the vote. In 2000, House Minority Whip David Bonior publicly suggested that Al Gore pick Menendez as his vice presidential candidate. George W. Bush carried Florida by 537 votes that year; Menendez would likely have been positioned to flip 269 Cuban American votes away from Bush to change the results of the presidential election.
After the 2002 election, Menendez became House Democratic Conference Chairman, the number three Democratic leadership position. That put Menendez on a trajectory to become House Majority Whip when Democrats took control of the House in 2006.
But the election of Jon Corzine as governor in 2005 provided Menendez with another opportunity. Corzine appointed Menendez to fill his own vacant seat in the United States Senate, an event that did not occur without considerable political prowess. Reps. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch), Rush Holt (D-Hopewell) and Rob Andrews (D-Haddon Heights) had all sough an appointment to the U.S. Senate.
His January 2006 resignation left the 13th district without a congressman until November, when Sires, the Assembly Speaker and the mayor of West New York, won a special election to succeed Menendez.
Corzine did not exercise his constitutional authority to call special elections for U.S. Senate and Congress, instead pushing them off to the 2006 general election.
In the Democratic primary, Sires faced Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas, who also represented Perth Amboy in the State Assembly.
Two primaries were held on June 6, 2006: one for the unexpired term and the other for a full two-year term.
Vas did not compete in the special election primary. While Sires ended filing day with an assurance that he would be a congressman, it wasn’t clear how long he’d be there.
Sires beat Vas by 15,175 votes, 72%-28%. He won more than 80% of the vote in Hudson and 67% of the vote in Essex and Union, where had also scored organization lines. Vas won Middlesex with 67%.
In the special, Sires beat James Geron, a Paterson school administrator who had run as a Republican for State Senate in 2001 and won 18% as Menendez’s 2002 GOP opponent with 90% of the vote.
Sires won the general election with ease, a 77% win against Republican John Guarini, the former congressman’s cousin. Republicans didn’t contest the special election.
Since then, Sires was re-elected seven times with ease. His primary and general election wins never dropped below 70%.