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Madeleine Edison Sloane, the daughter of inventor Thomas Edison, sought the Republican nomination for Congress in an Essex County district in 1938

Thomas Edison’s daughter couldn’t beat the line in congressional primary

The first time an NJ-11 group sought change in bid to flip a district with a woman challenger

By David Wildstein, August 04 2019 7:00 pm

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In case you missed it: a 1938 congressional primary where Thomas Edison’s daughter couldn’t win off the line against the organization choice, a municipal court judge from East Orange.

Two years earlier, in President Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election year, 33-year-old Edward O’Neill ousted two-term Republican Rep. Peter Cavicchia in New Jersey’s 11th district, which included parts of Newark and the Essex County suburbs.

Five Republicans lined up for the chance to take on O’Neill, including West Orange resident Madeleine Edison Sloane, 50, the daughter of the renowned inventor of the light bulb.

At the forefront of the effort to flip the 11th was a fight between two factions of the Essex GOP for an open State Senate seat in an era when each county had just one senator and Essex was a swing county that leaned Republican.

Rev. Lester Clee, a prominent Newark minister, was giving up his Senate seat one year after running an nearly successful race for Governor of New Jersey.

The Clee faction was branded as the “Clean Government Republicans of Essex County,” even though they had been in control of county government since ousting longtime Republican County Chairman Jesse Salmon in 1935 after fourteen years as the party boss.

The Essex Clean Government movement, originally called the “Essex County Republican League,” had begun in 1919 when Arthur Vanderbilt, a prominent lawyer and future Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court – he was the Thomas Jefferson of the 1947 New Jersey State Constitution — who mounted an insurgency against the Republican organization that took him fifteen years to win.

Clee and his Clean Government group was backing Assembly Appropriations Committee Chairman Homer Zink for the Senate against a splinter group, the Suburban Republican Organization.

Maplewood Township Committeeman James Clark entered the Senate race as Zink’s primary opponent.

The suburban group had the backing of Newark Commissioner Pearce Franklin, a political rival of Clee and Newark Mayor Meyer Ellenstein, who was looking to take control of the Essex GOP.  Since some things never change: Franklin’s power base was his chairmanship of the North Jersey District Water Commission.

Both slates had full tickets that included twelve candidates for State Assembly and three candidates for Essex County freeholder.

The Clee organization candidate was East Orange Municipal Court Judge Albert Vreeland, 37, a former assistant corporation counsel and municipal prosecutor.

Three other Republicans entered the race: former Assemblyman Frank Calabrese (R-Newark), 36, who served in the legislature in 1933 and 1934 and then became the Republican municipal leader in Newark’s 14th ward – he was among the Republicans who broke from Salmon in the 1935 count chairman election;  Gustave Huhn, 27, who would later win a State Assembly seat in 1943; and William Ross Strickland, a South Orange lawyer who had run for State Assembly in Union County 20 years earlier.

Sloane and her husband, airplane manufacturer John Eyre Sloane, were originally allied with Clee and Vanderbilt, but later became disenchanted with Vanderbilt.

Sloane painted herself as an anti-New Dealer and promised to be a “No Yes Man,” if she went to Congress.

Vreeland swamped Sloane in the September 20th Republican primary, 14,1019 (56%) to 7,272 (29%) for Sloane.  Calabrese (2,097) on 8%, with 5% to Strickland (1,176) and 2% of Huhn (373).   Vreeland beat O’Neill 50%-45% in the general election.

More importantly for the Clee organization, Zink won the State Senate primary.  He defeated Clark by more than 12,000 votes.

Two years after Sloane lost the Republican primary for Congress, her younger brother, Charles Edison, was elected Governor of New Jersey as a Democrat.

Roosevelt had named Edison as the Assistant U.S. Secretary of the Navy in 1938 and then in January 1940 as Secretary of the Navy – a cabinet post at the time.

Almost immediately following his nomination as Navy Secretary, New Jersey Democrats led by Middlesex County boss David Wilentz, began efforts to draft Edison to run for governor.  He left the FDR cabinet after just six months to enter the race.

John Eyre Sloane
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