Michael J. Piarulli, a former Camden County freeholder and the 1966 Democratic candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 1st district, died on August 21. He was 94.
He entered local politics in 1959 when he came the Camden City Solicitor – that’s South Jersey for municipal attorney – when he was named by Mayor Alfred R. Pierce. At the time, he was the youngest solicitor in city history and had been practicing law for just five years.
Piarulli made his first bid for public office in 1961 as a candidate for the Camden City Council on Pierce’s seven-candidate slate.
Despite a non-partisan May election, city elections were overtly political and Pierce, a Democrat, was on the outs with the Camden County Democratic organization in an era where a two-party system still flourished locally.
The Pierce slate was carefully balanced to appeal to a wide segment of Camden’ population: it included Black, Hispanic and Jewish men and a woman. One of Piarulli’s running mates was Elijah Perry, a local civil rights leader and World War II veteran who was well-known locally as a musician who appeared on the radio with Lionel Hampton’s Band.
The council slate faced 11 challengers.
Pierce was re-elected with 83% of the vote against George Ewing and all seven of his running mates were successful.
Piarulli was the top vote-getter in the council race, polling just about 500 votes behind Pierce. He defeated the 8th place finisher, John Marini, by nearly 15,000 votes.
When the new council reorganized in June, Piarulli was named Council President.
In 1964, Piarulli became a candidate for Camden County Freeholder in a primary between two feuding factions of the county Democratic organization.
Piarulli ran on a slate backed by Pierce and Camden County Democratic Chairman Frank Melini that included Cherry Hill Councilman E. Stevenson Fluharty and former Berlin Board of Education member Edward Carey. The faced candidates backed by former State Sen. Joseph Cowgill (D-Camden).
Cowgill, who was serving as Minority Leader of the New Jersey State Senate when he lost re-election in 1963 to Republican William Rohrer, was looking to take back control of the Camden Democrats and possibly seek a return to the State Senate in 1965.
Piarulli ran third in the freeholder race, but was still more than 6,000 votes ahead of the top vote-getter on the Cowgill ticket, Mount Ephraim Mayor Paul Maxwell.
In the general election, Piarulli faced two incumbent Republicans, N. Leonard Smith and Edward Hahn, and their running mate, Gloucester Township Mayor Bernard Gurick.
This was a control election: Republicans had a 6-1 majority on the Camden County Board of Freeholders, and Democrats needed to take all three seats to take over.
Helped by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory – he carried Camden County by 63,776 votes, 67%-33% — Piarulli and his running mates won easily.
Piarulli ran third, about 3,500 votes behind top vote-getter Fluharty, but he beat Gurick by more than 14,000 votes to give Camden Democrats a 4-3 majority on the freeholder board.
Congressional redistricting in 1966 that followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision, eliminated congressional seat in Essex County – it was held by freshman Rep. Paul J. Krebs (D-Livingston), a former president of the New Jersey Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) – and created a new South Jersey House seat that included Gloucester and part of Camden County.
Democrats picked Piarulli to run for the open House seat against Republican State Sen. John E. Hunt (R-Pitman), a former Gloucester County Sheriff.
Piarulli won 79% of the vote in the Democratic primary against Raymond Miller, who wound up losing five elections – mostly as an independent – between 1964 and 1981.
After suffering massive losses in the 1964 LBJ landslide, Republicans rebounded nationally and picked up 47 House seats in the 1966 mid-term elections.
Hunt was well known in South Jersey. In 1965, he ran in a newly-drawn Atlantic-Cape May-Gloucester district that had two senators – his running mate was incumbent Frank “Hap” Farley (R-Ventnor, the legendary Atlantic County political boss – and won Gloucester by nearly 6,000 votes.
In October 1966, U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy stumped for Piarulli at rallies at Glassboro State College (now Rowan University) and at a shopping mall in Stratford.
Piarulli labeled Hunt an extreme conservative, while Hunt accused Piarulli of being a Camden machine politician controlled by party bosses like Pierce.
In a Republican year, Hunt defeated Piarulli by 6,779 votes, 51%-46%. Hunt won Gloucester by 13,667 votes (62%-36%), while Piarulli carried the Camden portion of the district — part of Camden was represented by four-term Rep. William T. Cahill (R-Collingswood) – by 6,777 votes (53%-44%).
Hunt wound up serving eight years in Congress until Assemblyman Jim Florio (D-Runnemede) unseated him in the 1974 Watergate wave election.
Piarulli sought re-election to a second term on the Board of Freeholders in 1967, but lost his seat in what turned out to be a heavily Republican year across New Jersey to Oaklyn Mayor Raymond Marini, Lindenwold Mayor David Ernst and former freeholder candidate Thomas Conley. That gave the GOP a 5-2 majority on the freeholder board.
Democrats lost all three freeholder seats, with Piarulli losing by almost 13,000 votes.
Pierce, still the mayor of Camden, lost a bid for State Senate that year to Republican Frank Italiano, a former Camden city councilman, and the GOP also swept Senate and Assembly seats in every South Jersey county. Assemblyman John Horn (D-Camden) was the only survivor.
During his time on the Camden County freeholder board, Piarulli helped found Camden County College and the Camden County Vocational schools.
Piarulli later served as solicitor for the Camden County Sewerage Authority,
He backed Robert F. Kennedy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1968.
As a youth, Piarulli was the Student Council president at Camden High School and worked as a lifeguard in Wildwood before entering the U.S. Army during World War II. He was a graduate of the University of Notre Dane and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Piarulli was predeceased by his first wife, Dorothy, and his son, Joseph. He is survived by his wife, Roselyn, five children, ten grandchildren, four step-children and six step-grandchildren.
Funeral services are private.