William E. Schluter, a moderate Republican and self-proclaimed maverick who championed ethics reform during 21 years in the New Jersey Legislature, and an independent candidate for governor, died today. He was 90.
Schluter served two separate tenures in the Legislature after losing re-election to the State Senate as a casualty of the anti-Republican tide that swept New Jersey after the Watergate scandal. Three year after that, he narrowly lost a bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.
While closely aligned with a wing of the New Jersey GOP that backed candidates like Clifford Case, Tom Kean and Christie Whitman, Schluter had tilted toward the conservatives early in his political career. As a delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco, Schluter was one of twelve New Jersey delegates to back Barry Goldwater for president, while 22 of his fellow delegates were supporting Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton.
In 1963, Schluter began his political career as a councilman in Pennington. Two years later, he challenged legendary State Sen. Sido Ridolfi (D-Trenton) and lost by a 62%-37% margin.
When reapportionment gave Mercer County a second at-large State Senate seat in 1967, Schluter opted to avoid a campaign against Ridolfi and Democrat Richard Coffee (D-Lawrence), and instead ran in one of two Mercer County Assembly districts. Running with John Selecky, he defeated Francis McManimon (D-Hamilton) by 2,845 votes. This time running with Karl Weidel, he was re-elected in 1969 against Archibald Alexander Jr. (the son of the former State Treasurer), and future Freeholder Paul Sollami (the father of County Clerk Paula Sollami Covello).
After Ridolfi and Coffee declined to seek re-election in 1971, Schluter made another bid for the State Senate. New lines had been drawn and this time he was running in a district that included all of Hunterdon County and part of Mercer. He defeated Democrat Robert Klein, a former White House aide in the Johnson administration, by 5,981 votes. Democrat Joseph Merlino easily won the other Mercer County Senate seat.
Schluter sought re-election to a second term in 1973 in a new district that strongly favored the Republicans. It had all but one town in Hunterdon County, the Princetons, the Hopewells, Ewig and Pennington in Mercer County, Plainsboro and Cranbury in Middlesex County, and Mount Olive, Roxbury, Mount Arlington and Washington Township in Morris County.
The Democrats nominated Anne Clark Martindell, who had become active in politics as a supporter of the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972. She was the aunt of Tom Malinowski, the Democratic candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 7th district.
Ten days before the election, President Richard Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre.
Martindell defeated Schluter by 1,757 votes. She won Mercer by 937, Morris by 1,114; Schluter carried Hunterdon by 266 and Middlesex by 28. Republicans held both the Assembly seats.
Schluter ran for Congress in 1976, challenging freshman Rep. Helen Meyner (D-Phillipsburg) in a heavily Republican district. Meyner, a former First Lady of New Jersey, had unseated an embattled Rep. Joseph Maraziti (R-Boonton) in 1974. Maraziti was wounded by his support of Nixon as a House Judiciary Committee member during the nationally televised impeachment hearings, and had been caught putting his girlfriend on his congressional payroll.
The district included part of Mercer County, all of Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties, and part of Morris County.
Schluter won the Republican primary with 70% of the vote after Maraziti and State Sen. James Vreeland (R-Montville) decided not to run.
In the general election, Meyner defeated Schluter by 5,241 votes, 50%-48%. Schluter carried Hunterdon by 1,324, and Sussex by 666. Meyner won Mercer by 810, Morris by 1,920, and Warren (where her husband, former Gov. Robert Meyner, had served as State Senator), by 4,501. Future Assemblywoman Barbara McConnell managed Meyner’s campaign.
After his close call, Schluter sought a rematch against Meyner in 1978. This time, Schluter faced a strong primary opponent, Assistant Warren County Prosecutor Jim Courter. Courter beat Schluter by just 134 votes in a campaign managed by Roger Bodman, who would go on to run Tom Kean’s campaign for governor and later serve in his cabinet. Courter unseated Meyner that year by a 52%-48% margin.
Schluter was able to launch a political comeback in 1987. State Sen. Walter Foran (R-Flemington) had died and Assemblyman Dick Zimmer (R-Delaware) moved up to the Senate. In battle for the open Assembly seat – it was just before New Jersey switched to special election conventions – six other candidates came forward to run: Maraziti, who had already lost two comeback bids; former Hunterdon County Freeholder George Muller; former Clinton Councilwoman Maud Dahme; attorney Jeff Moeller; perennial candidate Joseph Shanahan; and Leonard Lance, a 34-year-old Assistant Counsel to Gov. Kean and the son of former Senate President Wesley Lance.
The district included parts of Mercer, Hunterdon, Warren, Sussex and Morris counties.
Hunterdon County Republicans voted to endorse Lance, but Schluter refused to participate in the March endorsement vote and announced that he would take his campaign directly to Republican primary voters. Schluter beat Lance by 640 votes, 3,893 to 3,553, followed by Moeller (2,817), Maraziti (2,144), and Shanahan (912). Incumbent Assemblyman C. Richard Kamin (R-Flanders) finished first in that primary with 5,875 votes.
Schluter then won a special election in July with 75%.
With Zimmer the favorite to win a congressional seat after Courter retired in 1990, Schluter began organizing his own campaign to succeed Zimmer in the State Senate. In a January 1991 special election convention, Schluter won 127-80 against Hunterdon GOP Vice Chair Connie Myers. Weidel, who had left the Assembly in 1986 to take a state post, received 12 votes. Lance won Schluter’s Assembly seat, defeating Myers 117-92, with 7 for Weidel.
Schluter easily held the seat in the 1991, 1993 and 1997 general elections.
In 2001, Schluter watched his Senate seat essentially eliminated by redistricting. His hometown was placed in the heavily Democratic 15th district, which included Trenton and Ewing, and he declined to run against another Senator, Shirley Turner (D-Lawrence), in the general election.
Schluter mulled entering the Republican primary for governor against Donald DiFrancesco, who was then Acting Governor and Senate President, and Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler.
Instead, he decided to skip the GOP primary and run as an independent. As his political consultant, he hired Doug Friedline, who had engineered Jesse Ventura’s successful independent bid for governor of Minnesota.
As a candidate for governor, Schluter won just 1% of the statewide vote.
After leaving the Senate, Schluter served on the State Ethics Commission and authored a book, Soft Corruption: How Unethical Conduct Undermines Good Government and What To Do About It.
In a statement issued today, Lance mourned the loss of his onetime rival-turned-close friend.
“Bill Schluter epitomized public service in New Jersey. A person of impeccable integrity, he significantly raised the ethical standards of our State Legislature. A fine hockey player in his youth at Exeter and Princeton, he was the consummate gentlemen on the playing field of life. I have lost a close friend and political mentor,” Lance said. “Heidi and I extend our deepest sympathy to Nancy, his wonderful wife of 68 years, to their six children and to their many grandchildren.”
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Westfield) said that Schluter was “everything a true public servant should be.”
“He held his Legislative colleagues to a very high ethical standard – a bar he never failed to meet. He was a courageous leader in the fight for good government reform,” said Kean. “There is no question that we are a better off as a state because of his advocacy. My heart goes out to Bill’s family and friends, and all those who are mourning this tremendous loss.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney said that Schluter served in the Legislature “with honor and distinction.”
“He believed in the value of public service, he put progress ahead of partisanship and he was always willing to work with others with the selfless goals that served the needs of the public.
He was a passionate advocate for ethical conduct in political life and a dedicated public servant.” Sweeney said. “Senator Schluter represented what all of us who enter elected office aspire to be – honest and committed to making government work efficiently and effectively for all citizens.”