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Some 1960s Bergen County political history

By David Wildstein, March 03 2019 10:22 pm

Until the U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote ruling, Bergen County began the 1960’s with one state Senator – Walter Jones (R-Norwood) — and seven Assembly seats.

Jones gave up that Senate seat after eight years in 1961 to run for governor – he lost the GOP primary to former U.S. Secretary of Labor Jim Mitchell – and was succeeded in the Senate by his preferred successor, freshman Assemblyman Pierce Deamer (R-Bergenfield). Deamer beat Democrat Fred Galda – who as mayor of Paramus imposed the borough’s blue laws — by 35,633 votes (56%-43%).

After losing the gubernatorial primary, Jones became the Bergen County Republican chairman.  Over the next four years, former friends Jones and Deamer became bitter rivals.

Before one-man, one vote, each county had one senator; in 1965, the Senate was expanded from 21 seats to 29.  Bergen County would now have four Senate seats.

Jones dropped Deamer from the organization line, endorsing Assembly Speaker Marion West Higgins (R-Hillsdale), Assemblyman Peter Moraites (R-Alpine), former Assemblyman Nelson Gross (R-Saddle River), and former Freeholder Arthur Vervaet (R-Oakland).

Deamer ran his own ticket that included Assemblymen Richard Vander Plaat (R-Fair Lawn) and Harry Randall (R-Westwood), and former Assemblyman Carmine Savino (R-Lyndhurst).

The Jones slate won the primary by a 3-2 margin.  Deamer trailed Vervaet by 10,419 votes.

Democrats nominated four Senate candidates: former state attorney general Ned Parsekian, Teaneck mayor Matthew Feldman, Saddle Brook mayor Jeremiah O’Connor, and Hasbrouck Heights Democratic municipal chairman Alfred Kiefer.

Parsekian had moved from Flemington to Montvale in 1964 after the Republican state senator from Hunterdon County had blocked his nominations as state Division of Motor Vehicles director and as a Superior Court Judge.  His move was made with the plan to run for the Senate.

O’Connor, at age 31, was considered a rising star in Bergen County politics.  Kiefer, the general counsel to the New Jersey Synod of the Lutheran Church, had lost four times as a candidate for mayor of Hasbrouck Heights.

With Gov. Richard Hughes carrying Bergen County by 41,000 votes in his re-election bid, 1965 turned out to be a big Democratic year.

Democrats won all four Senate seats – their first win since William Ely defeated Hackensack Harry Harper in 1931.

Parsekian ran way ahead of the ticket with 174,438 votes, followed by Feldman (159,236), O’Connor (156,888) and Kiefer (152,844).   The defeated Moraites (148,092), Higgins (148,035), Vervaet, (144,890) and Gross (143,532).

Democrats won six of the seven Bergen County Assembly seat – all were elected countywide — with only incumbent Joseph Woodcock (R-Cliffside Park) winning.  Among the freshmen assemblymen elected in 1965 was Arnold Brown (D-Englewood), the first African American legislator from Bergen County.

The legislative terms were just two years and the full Bergen delegation faced the voters again in 1967.  A new round of redistricting gave Bergen five Senate seats – all elected countywide — and five dual-member Assembly districts.

Republicans nominated Woodcock, Lodi Municipal Court judge Alfred Schiaffo, Midland Park mayor Garret Hagedorn, former Tenafly mayor Willard Knowlton – and in what was considered a Republican candidate recruitment coup, pharmaceutical company president Fairleigh Dickinson, Jr.

The GOP swept all five Senate seats and all ten Assembly seats in 1967.

Dickinson easily outdistanced the rest of the field, winning 191,260 votes.  He was followed by Woodcock (166,982), Schiaffo (162,420), Hagedorn (171,596) and Knowlton (167,379).  The four Democratic incumbents – Parsekian (117,609), Feldman (114,760), O’Connor (113,888) and Kiefer (104,869) were all defeated.  So was there running mate, Cliffside Park mayor Gerald Calabrese (105,450).

The ten Bergen Assembly seats were up again in 1969, along with a new round of redistricting.  The New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the 1967 map and imposed their own computer-drawn map of five Bergen districts.  The justice’s map put three incumbents in two of the districts.

Republicans still won all ten seats.

In 1971, Republicans held their five Senate seats by more than 25,000 votes.

Dickinson didn’t love Trenton and declined to seek re-election.  He was replaced by Oradell mayor Fred Wendel.  Republicans dumped Knowlton – who was under indictment on bribery charges and won less than 1% of the vote running as an independent — and replaced him with Assemblyman Harold Hollenbeck (R-Rutherford).

Democrats picked up two Assembly seats in an eastern Bergen district, with Byron Baer and Albert Burstein defeating Bergenfield mayor Bill O’Dowd and Tenafly councilman Ken Bloom.  The two incumbents didn’t seek re-election.

EPILOGUE

Parsekian has been viewed as a future statewide candidate even before he won his Senate seat.

Despite losing re-election in 1967, Parsekian sought the Democratic nomination for governor in 1969.  He finished a weak fourth behind his onetime mentor, former Gov. Robert Meyner.  Meyner won 45% in the primary, outdistancing Jersey City State Sen. William Kelly (23%), Bergen County Rep. Henry Helstoski (16%), former New Jersey Turnpike executive director Louis Toni (9%) and Parsekian (6%).

Parsekian made his last bid for public office in 1974, losing a Democratic primary for Congress to Andrew Maguire by a 52%-25% margin.  Maguire went on to unseat eleven-term Rep. William Widnall (R-Ridgewood).

Feldman came back to win the new 37th district State Senate seat in 1973, unseating Woodcock by a 59%-41% margin.  He spent twenty more years in the Senate and serving as Senate President.

Woodcock resigned from the Senate a few weeks after he lost when Cahill appointed him Bergen County Prosecutor during the lame duck session of the legislature.  He briefly ran for governor in 1977, then ran for Congress in 1978.  Former Ridgewood school board member Marge Roukema defeated him in the Republican primary by 1,634 votes (39%-32%).

O’Connor also attempted to return to the Senate in 1973 in the new 38th district seat.  Democrats, by a vote of 28-9, backed former assemblyman John Skevin (D-Oradell) against Kiefer.  O’Connor dropped out prior to the vote.  Skevin defeated Wendel in the general election.

In 1974, O’Connor won a seat on the Bergen County Board of Freeholders.  He served six years before retiring in 1980; in 1990, he lost a bid for Bergen County Executive.

Two years after losing the Senate primary, Moraites returned to the State Assembly.  The following year, he came within 2,332 votes (51%-49%) of unseating Helstoski in a race for Congress.  Moraites became Assembly Speaker in 1969, but his career ended in 1970 when he was indicted on bank fraud charges.  He later served a nine-month sentence.

Instead of running for re-election to the Senate in 1973, Hollenbeck ran for Bergen County freeholder and lost.  He was elected to Congress in 1976, defeating Helstoski, and served six years before losing his seat to Democrat Bob Torricelli.

Hollenbeck’s successor in the Senate was Lyndhurst mayor Anthony Scardino, who had lost a 1971 Assembly race for Hollenbeck’s open Assembly seat by 418 votes.

Randall returned to the Assembly in 1967, but was odd man out two years later when redistricting put Moraites and incumbent Richard DeKorte (R-Franklin Lakes) in his district.  He ran for the Senate in 1973 but won 46% in the 39th district against Haworth mayor Raymond Garramone.

Knowlton was acquitted after an eleven-day trial in 1973.  He later moved to Lambertville and worked as a staff attorney for the Legislature’s Office of Legislative Services.

Gross became the Bergen County Republican Chairman in 1966, one year after losing the Senate primary.  He backed Richard Nixon for president in 1968 and William Cahill for Governor in 1969, becoming the Republican State Chairman.

He was the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in 1970, but despite speculation that the race was competitive – two-term incumbent Harrison Williams had been censured by the NAACP for showing up drunk at their meeting – he lost by 254,048 (54%-42%).

Gross was convicted for concealing campaign contributions to Cahill’s gubernatorial campaign and served six months in prison.

In 1997, he was kidnapped and murdered.

Calabrese later served as a freeholder and Bergen County Democratic chairman.  He died in 2015 at age 90 after 40 years as mayor and 60 years in public office.

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