The re-election of Tom Malinowski marked the third time in more than 100 years that New Jersey’s 7th district elected and re-elected a Democrat.
Before Malinowski unseated five-term Rep. Leonard Lance (R-Clinton Township) in 2018, Republicans had held the 7th district seat continuously since 1956.
Democrats rarely won the part of New Jersey currently in the 7th.
After the 1890 census gave New Jersey an eighth House seat, a new congressional district was drawn that included all of Union and Essex counties (except Newark and East Orange), and Bayonne for the 1892 election.
That race featured a rematch between President Benjamin Harrison and former President Grover Cleveland.
The new congressional district included Caldwell, Cleveland’s birthplace.
Democrats nominated John T. Dunn (D-Elizabeth), the Ireland-born former Assembly Speaker and Elizabeth Alderman, to run for Congress. The GOP candidate was Winfield Scott Chamberlain, a descendent of Revolutionary War soldiers who had become a wealthy real estate developer in Bayonne.
Cleveland won the new congressional district by 2,597 votes, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate George Werts carried it by 1,743 against a former Republican congressman from Elizabeth, John Kean.
Boosted by Cleveland and Werts coattails, Dunn defeated Chamberlain by 923 votes, 50% to 47%. Dunn won Essex and Bayonne, but lost the Union County portion of his district by 191 votes.
Republicans set their sights on Dunn in 1894, Cleveland’s mid-term election. Their candidate was Charles Fowler (R-Elizabeth), the 44-year-old Elizabeth Republican Municipal Chairman.
Fowler defeated Dunn by 6,236 votes, a landslide 57%-39% margin.
He held the seat after 1902 redistricting that removed Essex and Hudson and created a district of Union, Morris and Warren counties.
Fowler spent sixteen years in Washington and served as chairman of the House Banking and Currency Committee before giving up his seat to make an unsuccessful bid for U.S. Senate.
Democrats had a wave election in 1910 when a ticket headed by Democratic gubernatorial candidate Woodrow Wilson swept the state. Democrats flipped 23 State Assembly seats to capture control in that election, and 9 of 10 congressional seats. They flipped three House seats, including the one held by Fowler.
The Tuttle Era
The winner of that race was William Tuttle (D-Westfield), the 40-year-old Union County Democratic Chairman and the owner of a lumber mill in Westfield. He defeated Plainfield Municipal Court Judge William Runyan, 39 and a former assemblyman, by 3,093 votes, 51% to 44%.
A new congressional map drawn for 1912 dropped Warren from the district, making it an entirely Union-Morris seat.
Tuttle faced Runyan in a rematch in 1912 and won by 3,135, 40% to 31%. Wilson headed the ticket that year as the Democratic presidential candidate, with Republicans split between incumbent William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt.
(Runyan later won a State Senate seat, and as Senate President in 1919 spent eight months as Acting Governor of New Jersey after Walter Edge resigned to become a U.S. Senator.)
Republicans flipped the congressional seat in Wilson’s mid-term election, 1914.
The GOP nominated John Capstick (R-Montville), a textile manufacturer who had served as president of the state Board of Health.
Capstick unseated Tuttle by 1,233 votes, 46%-42%.
Tuttle sought a rematch in 1916, but Capstick defeated him by 3,775 votes, 52% to 42%. Capstick won Morris, 50%-45%, and Union, 53%-41%.
After a long illness, Capstick died in March 1918 at age 61.
Capstick’s death set off a political firestorm. Democrats wanted an immediate special election, believing their chances during an early wartime election would be better than in Wilson’s second midterm.
The Republican governor, Walter Edge, instead decided to hold the special election concurrently with the November 1918 general election.
Ackerman and McLean
The leading Republican contender became Ernest Ackerman (R-Plainfield), a 55-year-old former state senator. As Senate President in 1911, he served as Acting Governor whenever Wilson gave an out of state speech in pursuit of the presidency.
There had been some talk of Hamilton Fish Kean, John Kean’s younger brother, getting in the race. Kean declined to run – ten years later, he won a U.S. Senate seat – as did Capstick’s top aide, John Nicol, a former Courier-News reporter.
To secure the backing of Morris County Republicans, Ackerman agreed to let former Assemblyman William Birch (R-Dover) fill the unexpired term. Birch got to spend four months as a congressman before heading back to Dover.
Ackerman beat Summit Mayor Ruthford Franklin in the Republican primary. Franklin won Union County, but Ackerman
Democrats tried to recruit Tuttle to run for his old seat, but he declined.
Instead, they went with Richard Clement, the elected Plainfield Superintendent of Schools. Clement beat Madison Mayor Otto Ross and to others in the Democratic primary.
Ackerman held the seat for Republicans in the general election, defeating Clement by 3.965 votes, 53% to 41%. Birch beat Clement in the special by the same margin.
He had little trouble holding his seat, winning re-election six time. In the 1930 Herbert Hoover mid-terms, he won 65% to 34% against Democrat Warren Gaffney.
The Ackerman vs. Gaffney race became a referendum on prohibition. Ackerman was a “dry” and Gaffney was a “wet.”
Gaffney frequently referred to Ackerman as a “sphinx-like philatelist from Plainfield,” and said the congressman spent more time worrying about his stamp collection that worrying about whether where his constituents would get their next meal.”
(Gaffney later switched parties, became Union County Republican Chairman in 1946, and later served as state Banking Commissioner in the cabinet of GOP Gov. Alfred Driscoll.)
On October 18, 1931, Ackerman became the second congressman in a row to die in office.
The lame-duck Republican governor, Morgan Larson – A. Harry Moore won the 1931 gubernatorial election – called a special election fill Ackerman’s seat. In times where elections were less complicated, Larson set the special primary for November 16 and the special general for December 1.
Democrats picked Percy Hamilton Stewart, 64, a former mayor of Plainfield and Union County Democratic Chairman, as their nominee. He had no primary opponent.
The Republicans wound up with a crowded field: Donald McLean, who spent nine years as a top aide to U.S. Senator John Kean, the great-great uncle of Senate Minority Leader Thomas Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield); Assemblyman Kenneth Hand (R-Elizabeth); Nichol, who had been Capstick’s top aide; and Wesley Stanger, a former Hearst newspaper reporter from Cranford who had won 29% as a “wet” candidate against Ackerman in the 1930 primary.
McLean, who had been in politics since his teenager years as a U.S. Senate page, defeated Hand by 2,104 votes, 40% to 30%, Nicol finished third with 22%, followed by Stanger at 8%. McLean won the primary with a 45% to 27% victory over Hand in the Union County portion of the district; Hand won Morris, 39% to 30%, over Nicol, with McLean finishing third with 23%.
Stewart won the general election by 1,805 votes, 49% to 46%, against McLean. He won Union, 51%-47%, while McLean took Morris, 45%-44%.
The Democratic hold over this congressional seat would not last long.
Stewart declined to seek a full term in the House and became a candidate for the U.S. Senate.
The Republican incumbent, Dwight Morrow, died on October 5, 1931 after serving less than one year in the Senate. (Morrow, an Englewood Democrat who served as Ambassador to Mexico, was the father-in-law of aviator Charles Lindbergh.)
Larson had appointed W. Warren Barbour, a businessman and former heavyweight boxer who had served as mayor of Rumson, to replace Morrow.
Stewart was unopposed for the Democratic nomination to take on Barbour.
In the general election, Barbour defeated Stewart by 16,223 votes, 49.6% to 48.5%.
Union County was Republican enough in 1932 that President Herbert Hoover won it by 16, 155 votes against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt. Barbour beat Stewart in Union County by 13,541 votes.
Following the census, the legislature redrew the congressional district to include only Union County; Morris was shifted to a district that included Somerset and part of Middlesex.
The Republican congressional primary was a rematch between McLean and Hand. McLean won it by 10,028 votes, 64% to 36%.
In the general election, McLean defeated Fred Hyer, the Rahway city attorney, by 17,715 votes, 57% to 42%.
McLean was re-elected five times, sometimes by less than comfortable margins. In 1936, with Roosevelt carrying Union County by 11,260 vote (53.6% to 45.1%) against Alfred E. Landon, McLean defeated Democrat Frank Moore, the superintendent of the state prison in Rahway, by a narrow 50.2% to 49.3% margin in an election that took until the text day to county all the votes.
In 1944, McLean decided to retire. (He would later be appointed Union County Prosecutor before getting a judgeship.)
The emergence of Clifford Case
The congressional seat went to Assemblyman Clifford P. Case (R-Rahway), a promising young lawyer who had won a Rahway City council seat in 1937, at age 34, and then served two terms in the State Assembly.
Case won the seat by more than 12 points, 55.5% to 43.1%, against Democrat William Van Hoesen, a former Courier-News reporter. He ran 4 points ahead of the top of his ticket, Republican Thomas Dewey, who outpolled Roosevelt in Union County, 51.6% to 48.3%. (Roosevelt carried New Jersey in his final election by a narrow 26,539 votes, 50.3% to 48.9%.)
After four relatively easy re-election bids, Case made a bid for the Republican nomination for Governor in 1953.
(The Republican governor, Alfred Driscoll, had been elected in 1946 to a three-year term under a State Constitution that prohibited governors from seeking re-election. But the new State Constitution adopted in 1947 permitted Driscoll to run for a four-year term in 1949 – and if he wanted to, re-election in 1953. He declined to run a third time.)
Along with Case, eleven other Republicans were interested in running for Governor: New Jersey Turnpike Authority Chairman Paul Troast; State Senators. Malcolm Forbes (R-Bedminster), Samuel Bodine (R-Flemington), David Young (R-Boonton), Alfred Clapp (R-Montclair), and Kenneth Hand (R-Elizabeth) – McLean’s old rival; State Treasurer Walter Margetts; state Conservation and Economic Development Commissioner Charles Erdman; Assemblyman Fred Shepard (R-Elizabeth), who had headed Robert Taft’s 1952 presidential campaign in New Jersey; former New Brunswick Mayor Frederick Richardson; and Republican State Committee Finance Chairman Webster Todd, the father of future Governor Christine Todd Whitman.
U.S. Senator H. Alexander Smith endorsed Case, but he wasn’t able to string together a base of solid Republican counties.
Case dropped out when county chairmen rallied largely behind Troast, who won the GOP primary by a 52% to 39% margin over Forbes, with Hand, Richardson, Shepard and two others trailing far behind.
The days of Harrison Williams — and Flo Dwyer
In August 1953, Case resigned from Congress to take a new job as president of The Fund for the Republic, a 1950s think tank funded by the Ford Foundation formed to protect free speech in the aftermath of McCarthyism.
Driscoll decided to hold the special election for Case’s Union County congressional seat on the same day as the 1953 gubernatorial election. There would be no primary; county committee members from both parties selected the nominee.
At that point, Troast had a strong lead over Democrat Robert Meyner (D-Phillipsburg), a former State Senate minority leader, and Republicans felt they would hold Case’s seat.
Republicans nominated George Hetfield, a former Plainfield City Council President whose father and brother were both judges in Union County. Hetfield defeated former Westfield Councilman Horace Baker by just ten votes at the county GOP convention, 143 to 133. Two other potential GOP candidates, former Westfield Mayor Charles Bailey, and Shepard, withdrew.
The Democratic nomination went without opposition to Harrison A. Williams, Jr., a 33-year-old World War II aviator and lawyer who had already lost races for the State Assembly in 1951 and Plainfield City Council in 1952.
Meyner beat Troast in Union County by 14,171 after the Republican gubernatorial campaign wound up tanking. That helped Williams, who turned out to be a strong campaigner, beat Hetfield by a narrow 2,075-vote margin, 50.8% to 49.2%.
Republicans targeted Williams for defeat in 1954, Eisenhower’s mid-term election, but couldn’t settle on a candidate.
Seven Republicans sought the nomination: Shepard, who had just completed a four-year stint in the State Assembly; Baker; Union County GOP Chairman Francis Lowden, a former mayor of Roselle; Guy Gabrielson, Jr., a young attorney and Air Force veteran from Summit whose father had served as Assembly Speaker and, from 1949 to 1952 as Republican National Chairman; former newspaper reporter Robert Walsh; Raymond Matthews, a GOP county committeeman from Summit; and Fred Haley, a parole supervisor from Fanwood.
The GOP primary was divisive – and close.
In an election that went to a recount, Shepard defeated Lowden by just 97 votes, 22.22% to 21.98%.
Gabrielson finished third with 18, followed by Baker (16%), Walsh (12%), Matthews (6%) and Haley (4%).
Case returned to electoral politics in 1954 as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate – GOP incumbent Robert Hendrickson was retiring — and carried Union County by 22,714 votes against Rep. Charles Howell (D-Pennington).
Statewide, Case beat Howell by just 3,370 votes in a contest where conservative Republicans cast 7,025 write-in ballots for conservative former Rep. Fred Hartley (R-Kearny), the sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act and a congressman from 1929 to 1949.
But Shepard was never able to fully unite Union County Republicans behind his candidacy, and Williams was re-elected by 21,620 votes, 56% to 42%.
In 1956, with popular President Dwight Eisenhower heading the GOP ticket, Republicans were again optimistic about their chances to oust Williams.
But first, they had to get through a Republican primary.
The organization choice was Assemblywoman Florence Dwyer (R-Elizabeth), who had won four countywide elections in Union County.
Former Assemblywoman Irene Griffin (R-Westfield) challenged Dwyer in the Republican primary. It was the first key primary fight between two women candidates in New Jersey history; another like this would not occur until Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing) and Linda Greenstein sough another Central Jersey seat in 2014.
Griffin was the first women to represent Union County in the State Assembly when she won the seat Case gave up in 1944 to run for Congress In the GOP primary, she placed fourth for four seats in a field of fourteen candidates.
In 1946, she didn’t run for re-election – until 1949, the State Assembly had one year terms. Griffin tried to become the first woman in the New Jersey State Senate in 1947, when Herbert Pascoe (R-Elizabeth) stepped down, but lost the GOP nod to Kenneth Hand.
Griffin challenged incumbent Assemblywoman Florence Dwyer (R-Elizabeth) in the 1951 GOP primary, but lost.
Dwyer won the congressional primary a 2-1 margin, 67% to 33%.
Eisenhower carried Union County over Adlai Stevenson by 78,688 votes with plenty of coattails.
Dwyer unseated Williams by 4,399 votes, 50.6% to 48.5%.
She became the second woman — and first Republican woman — to represent New Jersey in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Williams left Congress in January 1957, but he was back two years later as a U.S. Senator.
Meyner had won an unexpectedly big re-election victory in 1957 and H. Alexander Smith, the incumbent U.S. Senator, decided to retire in 1958. In Eisenhower’s second mid-term election, Democrats were bullish over their chances to pick up the seat.
Williams had been campaigning for the Senate since before he lost to Dwyer, but there was no shortage of interested candidates.
At the top of the list was Howell, Case’ 1954 opponent and now Meyner’s Commissioner of Banking and Insurance. Reps. Peter Rodino (D-Newark), Hugh Addonizio (D-Newark) and Frank Thompson (D-Trenton) were all interested in running. So were State Sens. John Waddington (D-Salem), James Murray (D-Jersey City)
Also on the list: New Jersey Highway Authority Chair Katharine White; Secretary of State Edward Patten; Attorney General Grover Richman; former State Treasurer Archibald Alexander; Mercer County Democratic Chairman Thorn Lord; New York Stock Exchange President James Kellogg; and industrialist Charles Engelhard.
By March, Democratic county leaders – led by Middlesex Democratic boss David Wilentz – met behind closed doors and agreed on Williams. Only Hudson County didn’t attend the meeting.
In the Democratic primary, he defeated Hoboken Mayor John J. Grogan by 12,808 votes, 43.1% to 39.56%, with former state Commissioner of Conservation and Economic Development (now the Department of Environmental Protection) Joseph McLean finishing third with 17%. (McLean had managed Meyner’s 1953 campaign for governor.)
Grogan carried only Hudson, Camden, Atlantic and Hunterdon counties.
1958 was a Democratic year nationally – they picked up 15 U.S. Senate seats and 49 House seats – and Williams was part of that wave.
He defeated 10-term Rep. Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston), the father of future Gov. Thomas Kean, by 84,545 votes, 51% to 47%.
Dwyer held the seat for 14 years.
She had a close call in 1958 – Democrat Jack B. Dunn, a Westfield businessman and World War II Army Colonel came within 7,305 votes (51%-47%) of winning – but after that, Dwyer was solid. By the late 1960s, she was winning 2-1.
Dwyer retired in 1972, at age 70, and was replaced by Republican State Sen. Matthew Rinaldo (D-Union).
When Rinaldo retired in 1992, Assemblyman Bob Franks (R-New Providence), the GOP State Chairman, took the seat.
Franks ran for U.S. Senate in 2000 and was followed in Congress by Michael Ferguson (R-Warren). After Ferguson walked away in 2008, his successor was Lance, a state senator.