Home>Feature>Biden’s ties to New Jersey go back to his first local campaign in 1970

President-elect Joe Biden with now-Rep. Bill Pascrell in a photo that looks to be from the 1980s. (Photo: Bill Pascrell.)

Biden’s ties to New Jersey go back to his first local campaign in 1970

President-elect’s first opponent came from South Jersey GOP family

By David Wildstein, November 08 2020 1:38 am

President-elect Joe Biden’s long history with New Jersey politics goes back to his first two campaigns for public office, as a candidate for New Castle County Council in 1970 and for the U.S. Senate in 1970.

Biden’s first opponent was a New Jersey native, Republican Lawrence T. Messick. The two faced off in a race for the GOP-leaning 4th district county council seat.  Then a 27-year-old lawyer, Biden won the race by 2,318 votes, 10,577 to 8,259, with American Party candidate Kenneth Horner garnering 317 votes.

Messick grew up in East Greenwich and his brother, J. Robert Messick, served as a Republican on the Gloucester County Board of Freeholders from 1954 to 1963.  

Lawrence Messick and Joe Biden became friends after the 1970 race, his nephew told the New Jersey Globe, and Messick visited the former vice president at the White House in 2016, three months before he died at age 94.

Biden was just 29 when he unseated incumbent J. Caleb Boggs, a two-term Republican Senator who had spent eight years as governor of Delaware and six years as a congressman – he was a member of a House freshman class that included John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.

Boggs started the 1972 race with a lead of nearly 30 points against Biden, a New Castle county councilman – in New Jersey, that would be like an Ocean County freeholder (if there was a young one) running against Cory Booker. Biden won the race by 3,162 votes.  Nixon carried Delaware by 92,401 votes.

John Martilla answers questions from reporters after Joe Biden dropped his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination on September 23, 1987. Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.

Biden’s sister managed his campaign and his consultant was John Martilla, a young Democratic strategist from Boston who had run Father Robert Drinan’s successful campaign to oust a fourteen-term incumbent in the 1970 Democratic primary. The following year, Martilla ran Boston Mayor Kevin White’s re-election campaign against a Democratic congresswoman who was a staunch opponent of school desegregation.

Also in 1972, Martilla was the consultant for a young Vietnam veteran who was running for Congress.  His client, John Kerry, blew an early lead and lost by eleven points.

Martilla came to New Jersey in early 1973 as the consultant for Dick Coffee’s bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

Coffee, a 48-year-old former state senator and the Mercer County Democratic chairman, was seeking to be the consensus candidate between the moderate old guard and the younger, progressive wing of the party that became involved in politics during George McGovern’s presidential campaign.  Coffee was a county chairman who held a statewide position in the 1972 McGovern campaign – giving him a credible claim at being labeled a McGovernite.

For a time, Coffee was a top-tier candidate for the nomination, but he dropped out after Superior Court Judge Brendan Byrne entered the race just days before the April filing deadline.  Coffee took an active role in the Byrne campaign and became Democratic state chairman after the primary.

Martilla died in 2018 at age 78.

Biden spent his first year in the Senate focused on his two young sons after his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident five weeks after his election.   His only out-of-state political appearance in 1973 was in October, when he campaigned for Byrne at a $20-per-person fundraising dinner for Morris County Democrats.

Over the years, Biden made countless numbers of political appearances in New Jersey but never won any major endorsements from state Democratic leaders when he sought the presidency in 1988 and 2008.

The Delaware senator went to Bridgewater in late October 1974 to stump for Fred
Bohen, a former LBJ White House aide running for Congress against Millicent Fenwick. It was the open seat being vacated by Peter Frelinghuysen.  Later that day, he campaigned in Ridgewood for Andrew Maguire, a former Johnson administration State Department official challenging longtime Republican Rep. William Widnall (R-Saddle River).

Biden made countless visits on behalf of Democratic candidates in New Jersey over the years, but that never generated any loyal political support.

When  he ran for president in 1988 and 2008, he never picked up any significant New Jersey Democratic endorsements.

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