A political misstep in a closed-door party screening committee might have cost James J. Howard the chance to spends 24 years as a Democratic congressman from a heavily Republican Monmouth-Ocean district.
Howard, one of the most politically adept, naturally-gifted politicians in Monmouth County history, wound up flipping a Republican congressional seat in 1964 and fending off what looked like a lifetime of tough races until he died in office at age 60.
At the time of his death after a massive heart attack in 1988, Howard was the powerful chairman of the House Public Works and Transportation Committee.
Two years earlier, he had set himself up for a loss when he tried to challenge a longtime incumbent. It’s possible that had he not been denied the line by party leaders, he might never had gone to Congress.
Howard was a 34-year-old president of the Monmouth County Education Association in 1962 when he decided to challenge Rep. James Auchincloss (R-Rumson), a 77-year-old, ten term incumbent in a congressional district that included all of Monmouth and Ocean counties.
He appeared to secure party support to run against Auchincloss until he fumbled one of the most basic questions of a candidate interview: would he run in the primary if the party gave the organization line to someone else?
Howard, unopposed so far, told the Democratic screening committee that he would run anyway. He said he had already had enough signatures on his petitions and would file them with our without party support.
The answer enraged Democrats. Former Long Branch Mayor Paul Kiernan went out and recruited a new candidate, Peter J. Gannon, the chief of the state Bureau of Navigation, to run against Auchincloss.
Gannon, who had worked as a federal public works administrator during the Roosevelt administration and as secretary (the job title is now known as chief of staff) to a Democratic U.S. Senator in the 1930s, was awarded the line by a unanimous vote of the screening committee.
Howard figured out what he did wrong and decided to drop out of the race to preserve his option of running or something down the road.
After winning re-election in 1956 with 65%, the Auchincloss had watched his margins dip to 56% in 1958 and 53% against former Red Bank Mayor Katherine Elkus White in 1960.
Redistricting in 1962 removed the southern Middlesex portion of Auchincloss’ district after New Jersey gained a 15th congressional seat that wound up based in Middlesex County. White had carried the Middlesex towns by 19,459 votes (57%), while Auchincloss had won 56% in Monmouth and 61% in Ocean.
Auchincloss had suddenly found himself in a politically precarious situation in 1962 after Monmouth GOP chairman J. Russell Woolley had tried to push him into retirement.
Republicans had just lost a gubernatorial race they expected to win, and President John F. Kennedy’s youth had begun to invigorate the Democratic Party.
State Sen. Richard Stout (R-Rumson) had already completed his rotation as Senate President four years earlier, and at age 50 he was interested in running for Congress. Others, including Freeholder Joseph Irwin, had also been waiting for Auchincloss to retire.
Auchincloss, the first cousin of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s stepfather, cut a deal with Woolley to give him one more term if he agreed to retire in 1964. That allowed him to tie up lose ends related to his pet project as a congressman: he had founded the Capitol Hill Club, a private eatery for Republican lawmakers.
In the 1962 general election, Auchincloss defeated Gannon by 19,962 votes, a 57%-43% win.
The open seat
By early 1964, Auchincloss, now 79, was toying with the idea of backing out of his retirement pledge and running again. He began telling Republicans that he found it difficult to ignore the requests of so many constituents begging him to remain in Congress.
Before January was over, Auchincloss had announced his retirement. That ended a political career that began when he won a Rumson council seat in 1925. He was the mayor of Rumson when he ousted six-term Rep. William Sutphin (D-Matawan) in 1942.
Howard, humbled by his experience two years earlier, treated party leaders more deferentially as he sought the Democratic nomination for the open seat in 1964.
There had been some talk of White, who had become the first woman to chair the Garden State Parkway Authority, running again. But she had other aspirations: in March, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated her to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to Denmark.
Instead, Howard faced Ocean Township Democratic Municipal Chairman Norman Dorfman for the support of the Monmouth Democratic organization.
This time Howard said he’d abide by the choice of the screening committee. This time, they picked him.
Ocean County Democrats went in a different direction, picking Ruben D. Silverman, a Lakewood attorney and chairman of the Board of Elections, as their candidate for Conrgess. Also under consideration: former assistant prosecutor John Russo, who would later spend 18 years in the State Senate and serve as Senate President; and Bernard F. Hartnett, who eventually became the Hudson County Executive.
Republicans had a little bit of a fight over who would run for Auchincloss’ open seat.
The contest became complicated when Auchincloss endorsed Monmouth County Freeholder Marcus Daly as his successor in his retirement announcement.
The front runner had been Irwin, a 60-year-old former Red Bank councilman and one-term assemblyman who had served on the freeholder board for 26 year, half of them as freeholder director.
By endorsing Daly, Auchincloss was essentially channeling his inner Bob Menendez – “To those who were digging my political grave so they could jump into my seat, I know who you are and I won’t forget you” – by trying to derail the candidacy of Irwin, who had made to secret of his long desire to serve in Congress.
Daly, a 56-year-old Middletown political science professor, had held a top diplomatic post in President Dwight Eisenhower’s administration before winning a freeholder seat in 1963 – in those days, freeholders sat on top of the political food chain in New Jersey.
Eisenhower nominated Daly to serve as the U.S. Ambassador to the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, which coordinated the resettlement of Wold War II refugees and the emigration of refugees who wanted to emigrate elsewhere. He became the Director General of the 28-nation organization.
When Freeholder Earl Woolley resigned in 1963 for health reasons, Daly was appointed to fill his vacant seat.
When he sought a full three-year term in 1963, Daly was the top vote-getter. He finished ahead of incumbent Charles Smith and more than 17,000 votes in front of Democrats Hugh Meehan a former Spring Lakes councilman, and Highlands mayor Cornelius Guiney, Jr.
Two other Republican prospects, Stout and Assembly Speaker Alfred Beadleston (R-Rumson), were both exploring U.S. Senate bids against freshman Harrison Williams, Jr. and declined to run for the House.
Ocean County Republicans briefly considered backing Jack Lamping, the executive director of the New Jersey Freeholders Association, for the nomination.
In February – New Jersey held their primaries in April in those days – the race began to heat up. Monmouth Republicans voted to give their line to Irwin, while the Ocean GOP line went to Daly.
By filing day in March, Irwin and Silverman gave up. Howard was unopposed in the Democratic primary and Daly won the GOP nomination with 81% of the vote against William Long, a World War II veteran and bottling company executive.
Howard turned out to be an exceptional campaigner and deftly tied Daly to the Republican candidate for president, Barry Goldwater. When supporters of the Ku Klux Klan and the John Birch Society in other parts of the country spoke out in favor of Goldwater, Howard made it local by tying the comments to Daly.
Daly accused Democratic vice presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey of being a socialist, saying that the Minnesota senator “didn’t have the guts to go all the way and be a communist.”
He tried to make pornography into a campaign issue, making a pitch at the end of October for the federal government to study the issue. In the days before the election, Daly went on a local radio station and charged that Howard supported admitted “Red China” into the United Nations and recognizing Fidel Castro’s regime in Cuba. He said that Howard would “abolish God in America.”
Howard won by just 1,740 votes, 50.4%-49.6%, over Daly. Monmouth County went for Howard by 1,118 votes (50.3%-49.6%), and Ocean gave Howard a 322-vote plurality (50.3%-49.7%).
The closeness of the House race suggests that Daly turned out to be a strong candidate.
Johnson carried the 3rd by 44,860 votes (60%-40%) against Goldwater, and Williams won it by 24,818 (56%-44%) against former Eisenhower White House cabinet secretary Bernard M. Shanley.
LBJ’s coattails extended into local politics in 1964 as two Democrats won posts for the first time since 1936.
Patrick McGann was elected assemblyman by more than 7,000 votes for the seat left vacant when Clarkson Fisher left for a judgeship). Eugene Bedell was ousted eight-term Republican Freeholder Abram Voorhees by about 325 votes.
Donald Cunningham became the new surrogate, the first Democrat to win the post since 1942, when he unseated two-term incumbent Edward Broege by more than 2,000 votes.
Howard keeps winning
Redistricting in 1966 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision change the lines in the 3rd congressional district. It now included all of Monmouth County, Old Bridge in Middlesex, and Lakewood, Jackson and Plumsted in Ocean.
Republicans figured they could take out Howard in 1966, given the district’s GOP leanings in LBJ’s mid-term election. The race was slow to start since reapportionment issues pushed the filing deadline to August and the primary in September.
Stout, who had sought support for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1965, said early on that he would not run for Congress.
That left Monmouth Republicans with two real contenders: Irwin, who wanted a second shot, and Assemblyman James M. Coleman (R-Asbury Park), a 42-year-old freshman legislator and former Asbury Park councilman sometimes known as “Chip” who was considered a rising star in Monmouth GOP politics.
Irwin decided not to run and Coleman became the unanimous party pick in a closed-door screening committee meeting where two other minor candidates, William Ryan and John Conover, were also nominated.
Howard proved himself to be an effective incumbent and campaigner, working non-stop in the district every weekend – something Auchincloss never did – and making constituent service one of his priorities.
In a mid-term election where Republicans picked up 47 House seats and three U.S. Senate seats nationally, Howard won a second term by 9,339 votes, 53%-47%, against Coleman.
Howard won Monmouth by 6,255 votes (52%-47%) and Ocean by 1,134 (55%-44%). Middlesex delivered Howard a 1,950-vote margin (55%-45%).
After his loss, Daly remained on the freeholder board. He was re-elected in 1966 by more than 16,000 votes – his running mate was first-time freeholder candidate Harry Larrison — and received national attention when he suggested that unmarried parents who apply for welfare be referred to the county prosecutor and charged with fornication and adultery.
Daly also took some heat – although not from Monmouth voters – for booing Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during his appearance at Monmouth University.
He announced his bid for a rematch against Howard in early 1968 but had to wrestle two-term Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina (R-Middletown) and Monmouth Young Republican chairman Brian Kennedy – a future assemblyman and state senator — for party support. (Azzolina and Kennedy would play pivotal roles in the political career of Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. in the 1980s.)
Monmouth Republicans went with Daly and Azzolina dropped out of the race. Daly won the June Republican primary with 87% against William Mullaney.
Howard was considered vulnerable in 1968 in a district that Richard Nixon would carry by ten percentage points in the presidential election that year. Republicans had scored massive wins in 1967 legislative and county races in Monmouth and Ocean.
In 1967, Howard made national news as a freshman congressman when he went to the House floor to read a letter from a Marine in Vietnam who alleged that more than 150 American soldiers killed in the Battle of Hill 881 died became their M16 rifle jammed.
Two days after Labor Day, Daly withdrew from the race after announcing that he would undergo stomach surgery. He said he would have an abdominal hernia repaired, requiring eight weeks of recuperation time. He died of stomach cancer the summer at age 61.
Initial speculation about a replacement candidate centered around Azzolina, but party leaders sensed an opportunity to flip the seat and drafted Stout, who was re-elected to his sixth term in the State Senate one year earlier by a plurality of more than 3,000 votes.
The race received considerable attention in August when syndicated Washington columnist Drew Pearson alleged that Stout was receiving huge campaign contributions from out of state donors. These were the days when campaigns didn’t publicly disclose their contributors – and when “huge” was in the $150,000 range.
Stout denied the claims and said that someone planted the story with Pearson. Howard said it wasn’t him, but jumped on the issue anyway.
Despite Nixon’s 51%-41% victory over Humphrey in the district, Howard beat Stout by 31,146 votes, 58%-42%.
In 1970 and 1972, Howard faced Bill Dowd, a onetime aide to Stout and Coleman who went to Washington after the 1968 presidential election and worked as a speechwriter for U.S. Secretary of the Treasury David Kennedy. He left in October to join Bill Cahill’s gubernatorial campaign staff.
In late 1969, Dowd was offered a job as a White House staff assistant under President Richard Nixon. He worked directly for Harry Dent, the White House Political Director, and for Leonard Garment, a top policy advisor.
Dowd returned to New Jersey in 1970 to run for Congress and was 26 at the time he entered the race. He held Howard to 55% in Nixon’s mid-term election.
In 1972, Dowd ran against Howard again and this time held Howard to a narrow 11,608 vote margin – 53%-47%. He was preparing to run again in 1974, but the Watergate scandal made his Dowd’s association with the Nixon White House – an advantage in his first two campaigns – into a negative. Instead, he finished law school.
Howard won with 69% in the 1974 Democratic wave election against former Freehold Mayor Kenneth Clark, 62% against Middletown Township Committeeman Ralph Siciliano in 1976 – Gerald Ford carried the district by 12-points over Jimmy Carter – and 56% against Bruce Coe, a former investment banker and Cahill administration official, in 1978.
Coe became so frustrated by Howard’s increasing popularity in Republican Monmouth County that he openly threatened to run against the GOP county chairman, Benjamin Danskin.
Howard faced the toughest re-election of his political career in 1980 against three-term Assemblywoman Marie Muhler (R-Marlboro). He won by just 2,085 votes (50%-49%) after Muhler beat him in Ocean by 88 votes and held him to a 2,173-vote margin in Monmouth.
The defeat of House Public Works Committee Chairman Harold “Bizz” Johnson in his Northern California district that year put Howard into a full committee chairmanship.
Muhler sought a rematch in 1982, but Howard beat her in a landslide, 62%-36%, a 43,540-vote plurality.
Howard faced an unexpectedly tough race in 1984 when Kennedy, who had lost his State Senate seat to Pallone one year earlier by just 927 votes, decided to run for Congress.
Ronald Reagan carried Howard’s district by a 2-1 margin against Walter Mondale, and Kennedy came within 7 points of ousting Howard despite being outspent by a 5-1 margin.
In a 1986 rematch against Kennedy, Howard was re-elected to a twelfth term in Congress by 21,861 votes, 59%-41%.
On March 24, 1988, Howard was playing golf at a country club in suburban Washington, D.C. when he suffered a massive heart attack. First responders and emergency room doctors worked for two hours to revive the congressman. Unconscious and breathing through a machine, he was flown to a Washington hospital where he died the following day.
His death came just three weeks before the primary election filing deadline.
He was succeeded by Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-Long Branch), who defeated Azzolina by a 51.6%-47.4% margin.
Irwin was re-elected to the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders in 1965, and re-elected in 1968 and 1971. He lost his for for re-elected after 36 years as a freeholder in the Democratic Watergate wave of 1974. He died in 1987.
Coleman was re-elected to the Assembly in 1967 and 1969 but didn’t seek re-election in 1971. Gov. William Cahill appointed him Monmouth County Prosecutor in 1972. He served as a Superior Court Judge from 1980 to 1987. In 2001, he married Judith Stanley, the Republican National Committeewoman from New Jersey. Both were widowed. She died in 2010 and he passed away four years later.
Stout was re-elected to the Senate in 1971 – he ran more than 15,000 votes ahead of the top Democratic vote-getter – but lost his seat in the 1973 Democratic Watergate landslide by a 55%-45% margin to former Ocean Township Councilman Herbert Buehler, the chairman of the social studies department at Ocean Township High School. Stout died in 1986.
After Monmouth received a third Senate seat in 1971 redistricting, Azzolina move up top the Senate. He lost his seat two years later to Bedell, who had won an Assembly seat two years earlier. Bedell beat Azzolina 59%-35%, with Assemblyman Peter Garibaldi (R-Monroe) running as an independent. In a 1977 rematch, Bedell defeated Azzolina by a 54%-41% margin. Bedell finally lost in 1981 to former Middlesex County GOP Chairman Jack Gallagher, the former executive director of the New Jersey Highway Authority.
Azzolina came back and won an Assembly seat in the Tom Kean 1985 landslide. He lost a Senate race in 1987, a congressional race in 1988, and then returned to the Assembly in 1991. He remained there until Amy Handlin (R-Middletown) ousted him in the Republican primary by 624 votes in 2005. He died in 2010 at age 84.
Dowd won a State Assembly seat in 1977 and served seventeen years as the Monmouth County GOP chairman before losing in 2004. He passed away in 2018.
After making a bid for the open congressional seat in 1964, Kennedy won election to the State Assembly in 1971. He lost re-election in the Watergate landslide, but returned to the Assembly in 1975. He ran for the Senate in 1977 and unseated Buehler by a 54%-45% margin. After his losses to Pallone and Howard, he lost GOP primaries for Congress in 1988 and 2000 and U.S. Senate in 1994. Kennedy died in 2012.