Editor’s note: the White House briefing memos at the end of this obituary are a must-read for political junkies.
Andre Gruber, who served as the Middlesex County Republican Chairman from 1974 to 1978, died on February 18. He was 84.
The son of a local chicken farmer, Gruber was elected to a South Brunswick GOP county committee seat in 1958, while sill in law school, and was elected Republican municipal chairman in 1964 at age 28. The post became unexpectedly available when the incumbent, John Neefus, resigned to take a job out of state.
Early in his local chairmanship, Gruber suffered a loss when a slate led by 24-year-old Daniel Horgan narrowly won control of the South Brunswick Township Committee in 1965.
Horgan, who became mayor, later served as executive director of the Democratic National Committee, managed Carter’s 1976 campaign in Ohio, and then worked on the White House staff. One week before the 1983 Democratic primary, Horgan suffered a fatal heart attack at the West New York campaign headquarters of Joseph Simunovich, who was challenging former Assembly Speaker Christopher Jackman for the State Senate seat left vacant following the criminal conviction of Union City mayor William Vincent Musto.
Republicans won back control of the governing body in 1967 and Gruber became the township attorney. He later became the executive director of the Middlesex County Republicans, which won two freeholder seats in 1972.
Gruber ran for county chairman in 1974, when Fuller Brooks declined to run for a full term after filling a vacancy in late 1973.
He beat Metuchen GOP municipal chairman, John Strelecki by a vote of 172 to 103. Strelecki had the support of Jack Gallagher, a former county chairman who later served one term in the New Jersey State Senate.
Five months into his term, Edison Republican municipal chairman James Sheldon sough to oust Gruber and got 153 county committee members to sign a no-confident petition. Gruber beat a bid to oust him the following February by a vote of 235 to 63.
Crucial role in Ford vs. Reagan in 1976
Gruber was elected as a delegate to the 1976 Republican National Convention on a slate that was uncommitted to either of the presidential candidates, President Gerald Ford and former California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
With no apparent nominee after the primary season was over, uncommitted delegates like Gruber – who had a block of three or four – became in high demand.
Ford’s state campaign chairman, Assembly Minority Leader Thomas Kean (R-Livingston) sent word to the president’s campaign manager, future U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, that Gruber was leaning to Ford but still had not made a final decision.
White House call logs from the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Library show that the president and Gruber spoke for thirteen minutes on July 14, 1976.
According to Ford’s handwritten notes, Gruber told him that he “has been uncommitted” and that he was “not intending to commit for R.R. (Ronald Reagan).”
Ford’s notes reflect that Gruber told him he “will be praying” and that “hope(d) for the opportunity to vote for me.”
Gruber committed to visiting Ford at the White House the following week and told the president that “two in (the) delegation (are) conservative, but will vote on a pragmatic basis.”
On July 19, Ford met with the New Jersey delegation to the Republican National Convention at 5 PM in the State Dining Room.
A briefing memo from the files of then-White House Chief of Staff Dick Cheney describe Gruber as the “Middlesex County Republican Chairman who is a very strong conservative and also deeply devout. He is truly uncommitted and told the President that in a telephone conversation. He is an attorney who puts his county first so that he can be persuaded to vote for the President based on the damage Reagan would do to his ticket.”
The other three Middlesex delegates joined Gruber at the White House, including current Republican State Committeeman Donald Katz.
The White House member described Katz as a “very conservative former Young Republican who is not very well known in the state or his area but was put on the slate by Gruber. He is listed as uncommitted but if we get Gruber, we should get Katz.”
The Middlesex County GOP vice chair, Eudora Fike, “will be strongly influenced by Gruber because she is his county vice chairman. She also has a crush on movie idol, Ronald Reagan, if not Presidential candidate Reagan. Listed as uncommitted but could be troublesome unless Gruber exerts pressure, once he swings to the President,” the briefing memo said,
A fourth Middlesex delegate, former freeholder Elliot Mayo, was listed as solidly for Ford.
Gruber and Pike wound up committing to Ford, but not until two weeks later. He found himself being courted by Reagan and Vice President Nelson Rockefeller.
Katz, the youngest New Jersey delegate, voted for Reagan.
Ford defeated Reagan at the convention by a relatively slim vote of 1,187 to 1,070.
Years later, Gruber said he made the wrong choice and deeply regretted not voting for Reagan.
In 1977, Gruber faced a challenge for re-election as county chairman from Robert Main, a former candidate for sheriff, and South Plainfield GOP municipal chairman James Eckert.
On the first ballot, Gruber led Main by just 10 votes, 144 to 134, with 50 votes going to Eckert. Gruber was re-elected on a second ballot, defeating Main, 172 to 122.
Gruber was ousted as county chairman in a 1978 rematch against Main, losing by 43 votes, 205 to 162.
Gruber remained active in South Brunswick, serving as the president of the YMCA board, and practicing law.
He was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan in 1980.Gerald Ford call to Andre Gruber
Convention Delegates - New Jersey