Paul Bontempo is the longest-serving Democratic State Committee member in New Jersey history.
He was 26 when he was elected to represent Morris County in 1977, back in the days when each county had two seats. He’s been there for 42 years – serving through the administrations of twelve Democratic state chairs.
Now he’s set to vote in a contested race between the incumbent, John Currie, and Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones.
Bontempo’s mind is made up.
“I love LeRoy. He’s a great guy,” Bontempo told the New Jersey Globe. “But I’m with John Currie.”
The political legacy of Paul’s father, Salvatore Bontempo
The thing to know about Bontempo is that he descends from political royalty.
His father, Salvatore Bontempo, was one of New Jersey’s most powerful Democrats for more than 30 years. He was the New Jersey Democratic State Chairman from 1969 to 1973.
What would Salvatore Bontempo have said about the current fight for State Chairman?
“You get behind the leader of the party,” Paul Bontempo said, channeling the thoughts of his late father. “We elect a governor and he should have his state party chairman.”
And Bontempo, like his father, is old school.
“My vote is loyal to my chairman,” Bontempo explained, noting that Morris County Democratic Chairman Chip Robinson has endorsed Currie.
The son of Italian immigrants, Salvatore Bontempo became Newark’s purchasing director when he was 24 and served there almost nine years before enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II. He later rose to the rank of colonel in the Air Reserves.
Bontempo won a seat on the Newark City Commission in 1953, one year before a charter change created the current system of electing a mayor, along with at-large and ward city council members.
He served in Gov. Robert Meyner’s cabinet as Commissioner of Conservation and Economic Development – now the Department of Environmental Protection — from 1957 to 1961. New Jersey’s Green Acres program was his idea.
For a while in early 1961, he was short listed as a potential Democratic gubernatorial candidate. Frankly, this was a different era and a man named Salvatore Bontempo might have had trouble winning a statewide election.
Salvatore Bontempo and Hubert H. Humphrey
President John F. Kennedy named him Assistant U.S. Secretary of State in 1961, and later as the U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Conference on Refugees.
Bontempo was became state chairman in 1969, the choice of Meyner, who won the Democratic gubernatorial primary that year in his bid to regain the post he held from 1954 to 1962.
He was one of Hubert Humphrey’s closest friends. The vice president slept at Bontempo’s home “dozens and dozens of times,” his son said.
But after George McGovern’s delegate at-large delegate slate won the 1972 New Jersey Democratic primary – Bontempo had run on the Humphrey ticket, along with Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner, State Sen. William F. Kelly (D-Jersey City), and AFL-CIO president Charles Marciante – the New Jersey party chairman became the first in the nation to endorse McGovern.
The endorsement came after Bontempo secured a commitment from the Democratic presidential nominee to work within New Jersey’s existing political structure.
About a month after Richard Nixon won re-election, Bontempo sensed the Republican Gov. William Cahill, who beat Meyner in 1969, was vulnerable.
Bontempo compiled a list of about 25 possible candidates –he called it the A to W list, because it started with former Assemblyman Vito Albanese of Bergen and ended with Assemblyman S. Howard Woodson of Mercer.
Salvatore Bontempo first to put Brendan Byrne on a list of potential gubernatorial candidates
The list in alphabetical order, so Superior Court Judge Brendan Byrne was second. That was the first time Byrne made an in-print list of potential 1973 gubernatorial candidates.
Two years after Salvatore Bontempo left office – after the gubernatorial primary, Byrne picked his guy, State Sen. James Dugan (D-Bayonne)—Paul Bontempo emerged as a Democratic leader in his own right.
He became the Democratic nominee for State Assembly in the 24th district – now known as the 26th.
The district was mostly Morris County, although it included a couple of towns in Passaic and Summit in Union – back when Summit was an impenetrable Republican stronghold.
In the 1973 Watergate landslide, the district split in the race for Assembly. Incumbent John Sinsimer (D-Pompton Lakes), a union leader who was elected to a Passaic seat in 1971 and redistricted into the Morris-based district, won one of the seats. Barbara Curran (R-Summit), the former executive director of the Republican State Committee, won the other seat by 203 votes.
Bontempo ran with Sinsimer against Curran and Morris County Freeholder Dean Gallo.
In Brendan Byrne’s mid-term election, 1975 was a Republican year. Curran and Gallo won, and the GOP hasn’t lost the district since.
Life worked out well for Paul Bontempo, a former Democratic National Committeeman who enjoyed a long career as a Trenton lobbyist with strong relationships on both sides of the aisle – just like his father.
Click play for audio version of this story