Home>Highlight>Bernard M. Hartnett, former Hudson County Executive, dies at 91

Former Hudson County Executive Bernard M. Hartnett, Jr. Photo: McLaughlin Funeral Home.

Bernard M. Hartnett, former Hudson County Executive, dies at 91

Paul Jordan ally served as Hudson County Democratic Chairman in 1970s

By David Wildstein, December 23 2020 11:33 am

Former Hudson County Executive Bernard M. Hartnett, Jr., a respected Jersey City political leader who provided stability and leadership during a rocky time in county politics, died on December 22.  He was 91.

He won an October 2001 special election convention to replace Robert Janiszewski, who resigned under a federal corruption probe.  It was later revealed that Janiszewski, who appeared to have disappeared and would go to prison for accepting bribe, was in federal protective custody at the time.

Viewed as an interim replacement when Hudson mayors picked him at the time, Hartnett ran in a 2002 Democratic primary for the remaining year of Janiszewski’ s term.   He was challenged by former Jersey City Council President Thomas DeGise.

Hartnett had served as the Hudson County Democratic Chairman before resigning to become county executive.  He was replaced by Bob Menendez, then a five-term congressman from Union City.

The Hartnett vs. DeGise primary set off a warette in Hudson County that year between Menendez and Cunningham.  Cunningham wanted Hartnett to stay on, while Menendez and a majority of the Hudson mayors backed DeGise.

DeGise, who had lost a runoff election for mayor to Glenn Cunningham the previous year, beat Hartnett by a 73%-27% margin.

Hartnett was a key ally of reformer Paul Jordan, a 30-year-old Jersey City physician who mounted a successful insurgency to win a 1971 special election for mayor that followed Thomas Whelan’s resignation.  Whelan had been convicted of federal extortion charges.

Jordan later took control of the local Democratic organization and Hartnett became the Jersey City Democratic Municipal Chairman.

In 1974, Jordan convinced Gov. Brendan Byrne to name Hudson County Democratic Chairman Francis Fitzpatrick, the three-term mayor of Bayonne, as the executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

That cleared a path for Hartnett to become county chairman.

In 1976, Hartnett backed Assemblyman Byron Baer (D-Englewood) for Congress in his primary challenge to Rep. Henry Helstoski (D-East Rutherford) in a Bergen-based districts that included the Hudson Democratic strongholds of Union City and North Bergen.

Union City Mayor and State Sen. William Vincent Musto and North Bergen Mayor Peter Mocco were backing Helstoski.

Helstoski led Baer by 106 votes, but the margin expanded after more votes from Hudson suddenly began to materialize.  Hudson added 1,642 new votes for Helstoski and just 79 for Baer.

Allegations of fraud surfaced quickly, and Hudson County Superintendent of Elections Jerome Lazarus, a Hartnett ally, ordered the absentee ballots impounded. As Lazarus was impounding the Hudson County votes, Helstoski was in Federal Court for a 10 AM arraignment on federal corruption charges.

Baer maintained that the Hudson results were fraudulent and quickly challenged the election in court. Baer said that irregularities in the absentee ballots included erasures and similarities in handwriting.

The challenge lasted well into the summer.

Baer picked up 200 votes on June 24 when Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Brien ordered a recount of voting machines in North Bergen. On August 11, more than two months after the primary, Superior Court Judge John Marzulli ordered that a new primary election be held on September 21.

Helstoski willingly agreed to the new election, partly out of fear that the Judge was prepared to disqualify enough votes to certify Baer as the winner.  Fueled by the Union City and North Bergen machines, the six-term congressman beat Baer in the do-over primary, but then lost the general election to former Republican State Sen. Harold Hollenbeck (R-East Rutherford.)

Following the election of Thomas F.X. Smith as mayor of Jersey City in May 1977, Hartnett stepped down as county chairman.  He was replaced by Smith’s choice, former State Sen. Frank Guarini (D-Jersey City). The following year, Guarini leveraged his post to oust freshman Rep. Joseph LeFante (D-Bayonne) and replace him with himself.

Smith’s upset victory ended Jordan’s gubernatorial.  Jordan and Hartnett had backed Bill Macchi to replace him, but lost by 28 points.

After Jordan’s exit from the race, Hartnett endorsed Byrne.

Hartnett’s father, Bernard M. Hartnett, was elected Hudson County Supervisor in 1951 as part of a slate backed by the county political boss, Jersey City Mayor John V. Kenny.

The two had a falling out and Hudson Democrats dumped Hartnett from their ticket in 1954.

The Hudson Democratic war of 1958 set up a massive battle between Kenny and the current mayor, Charles Witkowski.

Hartnett sided with Witkowski and ran for freeholder on the anti-organization Victory slate that included former world heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock of North Bergen.  Hoboken Mayor Fred DeSapio ran for county clerk on the Victory ticket, along with former Rep. T. James Tumulty (D-Jersey City), seeking to regain the congressional seat he lost two years earlier.

The Kenny forces won the primary.

A graduate of St. Peter’s College and Seton Hall Law School, Hartnett began his career in 1956 as a National Labor Relations Board attorney.  He later became labor counsel for Western Electric and general counsel for New Jersey Bell.

Later, Hartnett became a partner in a Jersey City law firm that later merged with Connell Foley.

During his career, Hartnett held multiple appointed positions in the administrations of governors from both parties: Richard Hughes, William Cahill, Thomas Kean, Jim Florio and Byrne.  He served on the Public Employee Relations Committee and as a Montclair State University trustee.  He is a former chairman of the Friends of Channel 13.

Hartnett served as chairman of the Liberty State Park Advisory Committee and on the Liberty State Park Development Corporation.  In those roles, he played a critical role in getting the state to fund the cleanup of the park in time for the July 4, 1976 bicentennial celebration.

In 2000, the New York Times called Hartnett “a tireless Jersey City booster.”

‘We have the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, the science center, Liberty State Park,” Hartnett said.  “People laugh at me, but I think there will come a time when travel agents book vacations to Jersey City. You’ll see.”

Assembly Minority Whip Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne) said that he met Hartnett in the 1990s.

“Hudson County lost a legend today,” Chiaravalloti said.  “Bernard was a man who believed in public service and carried himself honor and dignity.”

He was predeceased by his wife of more than 60 years, Eleanor, and his son, Bernard Hartnett III.  He is survived by three children, seven grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.

Hartnett died at his summer home in Avon-by-the-Sea.  A virtual wake will be held tonight from 7-8 PM, and a memorial service will be held in the future.

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