Today is the 61st anniversary of the arrest of Freedom Rider Byron Baer, a longtime New Jersey legislator who was charged with attempting to desegregate a blacks-only waiting room at the Greyhound bus terminal in Jackson, Mississippi.
He spent 45 days in jail, most of it at the fabled Parchman State Prison. Baer chose the jail time instead of paying a $200 fine. Knowing he would get arrested, Baer made a miniature radio and smuggled it past Mississippi prison guards by putting the radio parts into a condom and hiding it in his rectum.
Baer had a long history as a civil rights leader and served 34 years as a Democratic assemblyman and state senator representing Bergen County before stepping down for health reasons in 2005. His story is one people in New Jersey politics ought to remember.
On July 29, 1961, Baer was one of ten riders who took a bus from Nashville to Jackson and went directly into the waiting room. Police ordered them to leave and forcibly removed them when they refused.
Three days later, a Mississippi court sentenced Baer and his fellow Freedom Riders to 45 days in jail.
Baer was a 31-year-old special effects technician in the film industry. One of his early movies was called The Brain That Wouldn’t Die, about “a doctor experimenting with transplant techniques keeps his girlfriend’s head alive when she is decapitated in a car crash, then goes hunting for a new body.”
He became one of the Freedom Riders, a group of young activists who rode interstate buses to protest racial discrimination and test local laws. His widow, former Bergen County Freeholder Linda Pollitt Baer, told the New Jersey Globe that Baer’s grandparents had emigrated from Germany and helped family members get out just as Nazism began to rise and that he felt an obligation to play a role in the civil rights movement.
Baer had learned that men were strip searched on their way into prison, but that the guards did not conduct body cavity searches.
“Byron was able to smuggle in an amazing variety of stuff. He had onion skin paper, pencil leads, strong thread wrapped around a toothpick or wooden matchstick, very fine pins and a piece of a razor blade,” wrote Rick Sheviakov, who was arrested with Baer and was his cellmate at Parchman. “These were all wrapped in tinfoil gum-wrappers which he placed between his cheeks and gums — upper and lower on both sides.”
Sheviakov recalled that Baer purchased a pair of glasses with a built in hearing aid in Nashville.
Wollcott Smith, another Freedom Rider who was arrested and jailed with Baer, said the transistor the future senator built was “close to state-of-the-art for 1961.
“It was totally homemade – an earpiece, a very thin twenty-foot long wire for the aerial, and the transistor circuits and a hearing-aid battery embedded in a smooth, oblong piece of plastic,” Wollcott recalled in a book about the Freedom Riders. “So in broad daylight, two of us would walk around, hands high in the air, with this thin wire stretched between us. The guards at the far end of the long room could only see wo prisoners doing some strange dance or pantomime.”
Imprisoned with Baer in Mississippi was New Jerseyan Alan Kaufman, a fellow Freedom Rider who later served as national staff representative for the Communications Workers of America.
Former Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher used to say that while many legislators went from Trenton to prison, Baer was the one who arrived in the Legislature after already serving a jail term. Linda Baer gave Karcher that talking point.
Baer made frequent trips to the South in the 1960s. As a leader in the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), he once led about 30 Bergen County activists at a demonstration in Baltimore to protest a whites-only restaurant called The Snow White. He went to Tennessee to register rural black voters that helped Albert Gore, Sr. win re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1964.
He was there for Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech during the 1963 March on Washington and participated in the Selma-to-Montgomery March in 1965. King called on Baer, the former special effects man, to help him with the lighting when he addressed the media.
At home in Englewood, Baer was part of a movement to desegregate the local public schools and fought for fair-housing in the city. When Arnold Brown (D-Englewood) became the first black assemblyman from Bergen County in 1965, he hired Baer as his legislative aide.
In 1969, when the Legislature was drawing new district maps following the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One Vote ruling, Baer worked with Assembly Democrats and drew district maps by hand.
During his second term in the Assembly, in 1974, Baer went to a migrant workers’ camp in Gloucester County to make a surprise inspection at the Rosario Sorbello & Son farm.
The foreman, Marcos Portalatin, who outweighed the assemblyman by about 125 pounds and was five inches taller, took a five-foot piece of board and hit Baer, breaking his arm in three places. He was lucky he used his arm to block Portalatin from hitting his skull.
A Star-Ledger photographer, Tom Hurd, was also injured in Portalatin’s attack.
Portalatin used the board to break the windshield and windows of Baer’s car.
Sorbello field trespassing charges against Baer and Charles Q. Finley, a Star-Ledger reporter. They were both arrested and later acquitted after a trial in the Clarksboro Municipal Court.
A state jury acquitted Portalatin of assault charges, a verdict Baer never quite understood.
An investigation by the U.S. Attorney led to slavery charges against Portalatin, who was accused of mistreating the workers. He was later acquitted.
The incident won national attention and caused federal and state prosecutors to review the way New Jersey’s 20,000 migrant workers were being treated. By the end of 1974, the Assembly approved Baer’s bill to make farmers responsible for the workers on their farms.
In the 1980s, Baer was arrested in New York for protesting apartheid in South Africa, along with Karcher and Assemblyman Willie Brown (D-Newark).
Baer was immortalized in New Jersey as the author of the sunshine law, now officially known as the Senator Byron M. Baer Open Public Meetings Act.
How Baer got to Trenton
Baer was elected to the State Assembly in 1971 to represent a newly-drawn eastern-Bergen County district anchored by Englewood, Fort Lee, Teaneck.
A Democratic screening committee chose Baer and running mate Albert Burstein over former Fort Lee Board of Education President Abraham Safro, Cresskill Democratic Municipal Chairman Charles Dadaian, and Michael Silver, who had lost a bid for East Bergen Assembly District Chairman in 1969.
Baer ran 327 votes ahead of Burstein, who defeated Bergenfield Mayor Charles (Bill) O’Dowd by 2,332 votes. Tenafly councilman Ken Bloom finished fourth.
Legislative districts were again redrawn in 1973, creating the new 37th district. Democrats ran Matthew Feldman, the Bergen County Democratic Chairman who had served as a state senator from 1966 to 1968, against incumbent State Sen. Joseph Woodcock (R-Cliffside Park), while Burstein and Baer sought second terms in the Assembly.
In a rematch with O’Dowd in 1973, Baer won by 14,989 votes. Feldman ousted Woodcock by 11,166 votes, a 59%-41% margin.
Baer remained in the Assembly until Feldman retired in 1993. He won the organization line by one vote, 154 to 153, at the Bergen County Democratic Convention against Englewood Mayor Donald Aronson.
Aronson decided to challenge Baer in the primary. Baer beat him by 2,131 votes, 60%-40%. He won the general election by 13,573 votes, 60%-38%), against former Hackensack Councilman Mauro Mecca.
He won a second term in the Senate in 1997 by 10,301 votes, 59%-39%, against Bogota Mayor Steve Lonegan. Baer was re-elected with 66% of the vote against Teaneck attorney Jonathan Bender in 2001 and with 62% in 2003 against Barry Honig, a businessman from Tenafly.
Citing poor health, Baer resigned from the Senate in September 2005. His successor was Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck).
How Baer was almost a congressman
In 1976, Baer came excruciatingly close to winning a congressional seat in a race that may have been stolen from him.
The congressman from the 9th district was Henry Helstoski, a six-term Democrat with a trademark crew cut who made his mark as an opponent of the Vietnam War. Helstoski was the 39-year-old Mayor of East Rutherford when he beat a nine-term Republican incumbent Frank Osmers by 2,428 votes in the Democratic landslide of 1964.
Amidst the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Helstoski turned his Chicago hotel room into an infirmary for McCarthy delegates and volunteers who were injured during the anti-war demonstrations. He ran for Governor in 1969, becoming a candidate just thirty minutes before the filing deadline, and finished third in the Democratic primary for Governor.
In 1975, Helstoski became the target of a federal corruption investigation that last two years and spanned four grand juries. In April 1976, his brother was convicted of filing a false income tax return and his chief of staff plead guilty to extortion charges.
Sensing the vulnerability of the incumbent, Baer decided to challenge Helstoski in the Democratic primary. Helstoski received the organization line in Bergen County; in Hudson County, where 35% of the voters lived, Democratic County Chairman Bernard Hartnett (a reformer allied with Mayor Paul Jordan) gave the line to Baer.
On the Thursday before the primary, Helstoski was indicted on charges of extorting a total of $8,375 from illegal aliens from Chile and Argentina in exchange for sponsoring special legislation to allow them to remain in the United States. He was also accused of obstruction of justice, giving false testimony before a grand jury, and conspiring to influence other witnesses to lie. Helstoski steadfastly denied each allegation, saying that the charges were politically motivated.
In an NBC debate on Sunday, Baer hit the incumbent hard, saying that if Democrats went with Helstoski, they would be handing the seat over to the Republicans.
Election Day provided one of the closest races in New Jersey political history. Helstoski outpolled Baer by 106 votes, 18,547 to 18,441. A third candidate, Fairview attorney Robert Mauro, received 4,377.
In post-election developments, Helstoski watched his margin grow, thanks to the support of some old-fashioned machine politicians in North Bergen and Union City (including Mayor/State Sen. William Vincent Musto), who came up with 1,642 additional absentee ballots for Helstoski and only 79 more for Baer.
Allegations of fraud surfaced quickly, and Hudson County Superintendent of Elections Jerome Lazarus, a Hartnett ally, ordered the absentee ballots impounded. As Lazarus was impounding the Hudson County votes, Helstoski was in Federal Court for a 10 AM arraignment.
Baer maintained that the Hudson results were fraudulent and quickly challenged the election in court. Baer said that irregularities in the absentee ballots included erasures and similarities in handwriting.
The challenge lasted well into the summer. Baer picked up 200 votes on June 24 when Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Brien ordered a recount of voting machines in North Bergen. On August 11, more than two months after the primary, Superior Court Judge John Marzulli ordered that a new primary election be held on September 21. Helstoski willingly agreed to the new election, partly out of fear that the Judge was prepared to disqualify enough votes to certify Baer as the winner.
Meanwhile, the disarray of the Democratic primary was good news for Republicans. Their candidate was Harold Hollenbeck, a 37-year-old attorney who served four years in the Assembly and two in the State Senate before the Watergate scandal helped Democrats sweep Bergen County three years earlier.
Despite the indictment, Helstoski mounted an aggressive campaign for re-election, and in the September 21 rerun of the congressional primary, he won a decisive 55%-45% victory over Baer. 35,313 Democrats came out to vote in the unprecedented do-over of the Democratic primary — a turnout that was 43% heavier than the June primary that also included a critical presidential primary where New Jersey’s votes made a difference. Helstoski won because Democratic machines in North Bergen and Union City delivered large pluralities, while Baer’s constituency in the eastern part of Bergen County did not deliver.
The indictment and two primaries against Baer took their toll on Helstoski, and he lost the general election to Hollenbeck by a 54%-46% margin.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the legislation he sponsored could not be used against him, and Helstoski never was tried on the bribery charges. He tried twice to regain his seat in Congress, winning just 13% as an independent in 1978, and losing the 1980 Democratic primary to Gabe Ambrosio. In 1981, he became the North Bergen Superintendent of Schools.
Byron Baer died on June 24, 2007. He was 77.
This story was originally published on July 29, 2019.