Peter Shapiro was just 26 when he beat the powerful Essex County Democratic machine to win the primary in the first race for Essex County Executive.
Shapiro defeated Sheriff John Cryan by just 2,497 votes in the 1978 Democratic primary, a 35%-32% victory out of 82,544 votes cast.
His election set off seismic shifts in Essex County politics, causing realignments and rifts that partly exist more than 40 years after the election.
One year earlier, Essex County voters approved a charter change referendum that had become a cause for reformers – and Republicans – after Democratic bosses tried to kill a plan to change the way county government operates a few years earlier.
Shapiro had become the favorite of Democrats who became involved in politics during the political era that produced Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Robert F. Kennedy as presidential candidates. The organization Democrats he challenged played a key role in John F. Kennedy carrying New Jersey in 1960 by only 22,091 votes – Essex delivered a plurality of 50,30 – but then became identified with Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey on the national level.
Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner hated Shapiro. To put that into some perspective, George Norcross and Phil Murphy are blood brothers compared to the way Lerner and Shapiro spoke of each other.
By 1978, Lerner was spending his winters in Florida and was unable to control the ambition of Essex Democrats who could taste the power of the new County Executive post. With a party in shambles, Lerner – or his successor, May Maher, when he stepped down in April – was unable to settle on a single organization candidate to stop the Shapiro juggernaut.
Shapiro only won slightly more than 1/3 of the votes cast in the Democratic primary, where 64.6% of voters cast their ballots for one of three candidates who had been part of the Essex Democratic machine.
Born in Ireland, the 49-year-old Cryan – the father of State Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union) — served two terms in the State Assembly and unseated a Republican sheriff in 1970. He had the necessary political skills to muscle several other contenders out of the race, but not enough to get them all out.
Donald Payne, Sr., a two-term freeholder from Newark’s South Ward, finished a respectable third in the primary with 26% of the vote. He had hoped a split among Democrats would allow black voters to propel him into the nomination.
With the endorsement of Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson, Payne won 47.7% of the vote in Newark and 46.3% in East Orange. Of the total votes he received countywide, 81% came from Newark and East Orange. Payne got crushed in places like Livingston, where he received 56 votes, and Millburn, where 45 Democrats voted for him.
Even with Payne in the race, Cryan might have prevailed had it not been for Samuel Angelo, who had been a loyal machine soldier for nearly six years as a freeholder. Angelo resigned from the freeholder board to become County Treasurer, a relatively ineffectual position, just a few weeks before he decided to run for County Executive.
Angelo never got his campaign off the ground and won just 5.9%, but the 4,911 votes he received was nearly twice what Cryan lost by.
Speculation that Angelo was just a spoiler who had made some deal with Shapiro never panned out. In fact, Angelo was the first top county official Shapiro asked to resign. By 1984, Angelo was a Republican candidate for his old freeholder seat.
Despite his strong showing, Cryan only carried three towns: he won Belleville by 1,376 votes (60%), Bloomfield by 540 (50%), and Fairfield by 58 (56%). Shapiro and Cryan tied in Roseland, with each receiving 142 votes.
He outpolled Shapiro in the two cities Payne won, receiving 4,411 more votes in Newark than Shapiro (30%-16%) and 796 more in East Orange (31%-21%).
Shapiro won the primary by picking up huge pluralities in suburban Essex and in Irvington, which he had presented for three years in the State Assembly.
He won 81% in Millburn, 70% in Livingston, 66% in Maplewood and South Orange, 65% in North Caldwell, 64% in West Caldwell, 58% in West Orange, 57% in Glen Ridge, 55% in Montclair, 52% in Caldwell and 51% in Verona. More than half of Shapiro’s total countywide votes (54%) came out of these eleven towns.
Shapiro won Irvington by 611 votes over Cryan, 49%-36%, with Payne taking 11%.
In the general election, Shapiro romped Republican Robert Notte, the executive director of the Newark Redevelopment and Housing Authority, by 41,628 votes, 61%-39%.
Notte came within 199 votes of beating Shapiro in Newark’s North Ward, and lost Belleville by just 9 votes. He carried 11 of the 22 Essex municipalities: Bloomfield, Caldwell, Cedar Grove, Essex Fells, Fairfield, Glen Ridge, Millburn (by just 232, back when the township was a Republican stronghold), North Caldwell, Nutley, Roseland and West Caldwell.
Shapiro won Newark by 20,963 votes – a little less than half his total plurality. He too East Orange by 8,193, Irvington by 4,133, Livingston by 745, Maplewood (at the time a solidly Republican town) by 1,294, Montclair by 2,259, Orange by 2,208, South Orange by 1,526, Verona by 442, and West Orange by 3,539.
An independent candidate, Stuart Bronn, received 706 votes countywide.
Shapiro went on to serve eight years as County Executive. He was just 23 when he won a State Assembly seat in 1975 and was 33 when he became the Democratic nominee for governor in 1985, losing to Republican Gov. Thomas Kean.
He’s 67 now, out of office for 33 years – and out of the New Jersey Legislature for 41 years.1978 DEMOCRATIC PRIMARY FOR ESSEX COUNTY EXECUTIVE