The emergence of a serious grass roots, activist movement within the New Jersey Democratic Party has happened before.
One certainty is that Donald Trump’s presidency has engaged new people into state and local politics from both people who oppose the president and from those who support him. Certain issues, like gun violence, only served to fuel the activism.
The evidence of the role of activists in New Jersey is already clear: grassroots groups full of new people played pivotal roles in flipping three longtime Republican House seats in November 2018 and helping to keep the state’s United States Senate seat in the Democratic column.
Over the last few weeks, grassroots activists and organizations teamed up with Gov. Phil Murphy to oppose a plan pushed by Democratic legislative leaders to change the way legislative districts are drawn after the next census. Critics say New Jersey was trying to write gerrymandering into the State Constitution.
Splits in New Jersey’s majority party are not uncommon, and movement candidates at the national level don’t always produce drastic changes in the party.
Splits over the Jimmy Carter vs. Ted Kennedy primary in 1980 did not necessarily attract a wave of new people. Democrats who became involved in the 2008 Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton fight became absorbed within the current structure; it’s not like the Obama camp tried to take over the state party after their candidate won the White House.
The origins of the current activist movement can be traced to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 challenge to Hillary Clinton. Sanders won 37% of the vote in the Democratic primary, but the new people he attracted became part of the foundation of the current group of grass roots leaders. Another part of the foundation was built on women who were angered by Clinton’s loss to Trump.
The last time activists had such a strong impact was fifty years ago.
The Vietnam War engaged a new generation of political activists, especially after young voters first related to government through the presidency of John F. Kennedy.
With Lyndon Johnson dropping his bid for re-election in 1968, establishment Democrats largely supported Vice President Hubert Humphrey.
Senator Robert F. Kennedy had been scheduled to appear in Camden they day after Johnson’s nationally televised announcement that he would not run. Nearly 7,000 people – mostly college students – appeared at the rally. Most of the establishment Democrats stayed away, although Rep. Frank Thompson endorsed Kennedy the day after.
New Jersey didn’t have traditional presidential primaries, and no candidates filed to run in a meaningless beauty contest that came with no delegates.
In a race that was entirely write-in votes, Eugene McCarthy defeated Robert Kennedy by 1,303 votes statewide, 37%-32%, with Hubert Humphrey finished third with 20%.
Those results didn’t matter.
In those days, party leaders ran as uncommitted delegates unencumbered by any requirement that they abide by the wishes of primary votes.
The 1968 at-large slate of delegates included Gov. Richard Hughes. U.S. Senator Harrison Williams, former Gov. Robert Meyner, Jersey City Mayor John V. Kenny, and Democratic State Chairman/Secretary of State Robert Burkhardt.
Kennedy and Humphrey declined to file delegate slates in New Jersey, believing they had a better chance of negotiating with party leaders before the Chicago convention.
The McCarthy delegate slate was headed by C. Willard Heckel, the Rutgers Law School dean, and included: Jeanette Winslow Cascone, a prominent African American historian; Gregory Hulett, the editor of the Maplewood-South Orange News Record; author Fred Cosh; and Morris County Democratic State Committeeman Edwin Kruse.
The statewide establishment slate carried New Jersey by a margin of more than 2-1. But McCarthy’s delegate candidates won nineteen district delegate slots – a result that was viewed as embarrassing for the party bosses.
Five of them came from sweeping the 5th district, which included Morris and Somerset counties; that’s the district that Peter Frelinghuysen represented in Congress. Among the defeated candidates for delegate were Parsippany Mayor Henry Luther III, who would manage Gov. Brendan Byrne’s re-election campaign nine years later; industrialist Charles Engelhard, developer Philip Levin (whose son, Adam, would later mount a serious bid for Congress), and Robert Mulcahy, a former Rutgers University Athletic Director and a powerhouse in New Jersey politics for decades.
Another five came from an upset victory by the McCarthy camp in the Bergen County-based 9th district, which was represented in Conrgess by Democrat Henry Helstoski. Among the defeated delegate candidates were former State Sen. Matthew Feldman and Cliffside Park mayor Gerald Calabrese. In the 7th, the other Bergen County district, the McCarthy forces won four out of five delegates. In that race, Bergen County Democratic Chairman Anthony Andorra, former State Sen. Jeremiah O’Connor and former Assemblyman Robert Hamer were defeated for delegate.
McCarthy’s delegate candidates won all five delegate slots in the 12th district, which included parts of Union County. Among the defeated candidates there was former Essex County Surrogate Adrian Foley, a founder of Connell Foley and the president of the 1966 New Jersey Constitutional Convention.
Establishment Democrats shunned and ridiculed the McCarthy delegates. By the time the Democratic National Convention started, the McCarthy delegates said they would not vote for Hughes if Humphrey nominated him for Vice President.
After four years of Richard Nixon, the internal fight between the establishment Democratic leadership and the increasingly well-organized grass roots activists came down to a primary day fight for delegates between Humphrey and McGovern.
That was the year big-name Democrats lost their races for delegate to the 1972 Democratic convention.
Seven relatively unknown candidates pledged to McGovern won statewide against Democratic State Chairman Salvatore Bontempo, Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner, New Jersey AFL-CIO president Charles Marciante, State Sens. William Kelly (D-Jersey City) and William Bate (D-Clifton), former Union County Register and Sen. Harrison Williams chief of staff James Delaney, and Democratic National Committeewoman Constance Woodruff.
In Bergen County, thirteen McGovern Democrats were elected delegate, including now-Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, future Democratic County Chair Barbara Werber, future Commissioner of Environmental Protection Scott Weiner,
Mercer County also went for McGovern, with future State Sens. Anne Martindell and Gerald Stockman launching their political careers as delegate candidates. Also on their ticket was Anne E. Thompson, who later served as a federal judge.
There was a stunning upset in Middlesex County, when eight McGovern delegates swept. Among those defeated were: Robert Wilentz, a former assemblyman and future chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court; Edison mayor and future State Senate Majority Leader and six-term congressman Bernard Dwyer, and New Brunswick mayor Patricia Sheehan.
Rep. Jim Howard lost his bid for delegate in Monmouth County. So, did Daniel O’Hern, the mayor of Red Bank and a future state Supreme Court justice.
Despite McGovern’s landslide defeat, Richard Nixon and Watergate kept the McGovern activists engaged.
Dan Gaby, an advertising executive who became the leader of McCarthy’s 1968 New Jersey campaign, sough the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate in 1972. Former Rep. Paul Krebs, a labor leader, beat him in the Democratic primary by a 43%-28% margin.
Martindell, whose brother had managed McCarthy’s national 1968 campaign, became the vice chair of the Democratic State Committee after McGovern supporters demanded expanded roles in the New Jersey Democratic Party. She won a heavily Republican State Senate seat the following year, ousting incumbent Bill Schluter. Her nephew, Tom Malinowski, was elected to Congress in 2018.
Assemblywoman Ann Klein (D-Morris), a McGovern supporter, ran for governor in 1973, but the nomination went to Brendan Byrne. Byrne was elected governor and Democrats won lopsided majorities in the State Senate and Assembly.
In 1974, Democrats flipped four Republican House seats three months after the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s resignation.
Many of the new activists who became involved through the McCarthy, Kennedy and McGovern campaigns ran for local office. Several won.
By 1976, with Nixon gone and Vietnam over, many of the activists who had become involved in politics during the 1968 and 1972 national political movements either became players within the Democratic establishment or simply lost interest. There was no significant progressive resistance after the McCarthy and McGovern era.
Weinberg has become the most successful of the New Jersey McGovern activists. She became a Teaneck councilwoman and has spent more than 25 years in the New Jersey Legislature – the last eight as the Senate Majority Leader.
One thought on “A story about Democratic grass roots activists in New Jersey”
Surprised that above history has no mention of Rep. Peter Rodino, an exemplar of N.J. Democratic politics.