William J. Kohm, a legendary and influential New Jersey lobbyist and former reporter who advised some of the most powerful Republicans in the state for five decades and served as Clerk of the New Jersey State Assembly in 1956 and 1957, died on December 31. He was 92.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, Kohm became a reporter for the Hudson Dispatch before beginning a nine-year stint as the North Jersey bureau chief of the Newark Evening News.
After the 1955 election, Assembly Republicans picked the 25-year-old Kohm as the new Assembly Clerk.
The $7,000-a-year part-time post (adjusted for inflation, the post paid $74,237 in today’s dollars) was the top Assembly patronage position at the time and since 1943 had belonged to the six-member Bergen delegation. He was picked by the Bergen GOP policy committee to replace William Ludlum, a former Bergen County freeholder and Glen Rock mayor. At the time, Kohm was the youngest Assembly Clerk in state history.
In addition to serving as Assembly Clerk, Kohm was also a top staffer at the Bergen County Republican Organization. In 1957, he married Norma Fichter, who was a secretary to State Sen. Walter H. Jones (R-Norwood); they were married for 63 years until her death in 2020.
Democrats won control of the Assembly in 1957 and replaced Kohm with Harry Dudkin, the Newark South Ward Democratic municipal chairman and a two-time Democratic candidate for Congress against Rep. Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston). Dudkin’s 1987 murder remains unsolved.
In 1958, Kohm passed up a chance to become clerk of the Bergen County Grand Jury and became took a job working for Jones on the legislative committees investigating the New Jersey Legalized Games of Chance Commission and local garbage collection.
In July 1958, he joined Kean’s campaign for the U.S. Senate in a post that would today be considered a regional communications director. That came after Jones endorsed Kean’s primary opponent, former White House Cabinet Secretary Bernard Shanley.
Kean was the favorite for the open seat of retiring U.S. Senator H. Alexander Smith, but the Democratic wave in President Dwight Eisenhower’s second mid-term election led to the upset election of former Rep. Harrison Williams (D-Plainfield) by a 51%-47% margin.
After the election, Kohm served as Jones’ administrative assistant – the post is now called chief of staff – and as executive director of the Bergen County Republican Organization. In 1961, Kohm helped lead the Jones’ unsuccessful bid for the Republican nomination for governor.
Kohm opened a public affairs firm, Kohm Associates, in Hackensack soon after Jones, the Senate Majority Leader, lost the primary to former U.S. Secretary of Labor James P. Mitchell by a 44%-35% margin. His first client was the Bergen County Republican Organization. In 1962, Senate Majority Leader Charles Sandman (R-Erma) named him as the press secretary and spokesman to the Senate GOP during an era before the New Jersey Legislature had partisan staffs.
In 1963, Kohm managed one of the epic legislatve races in state history in a bid to flip the open Essex County Senate seat from Democratic to Republican.
Democrats decided to dump their two-term incumbent senator, Donal C. Fox (D-South Orange) from their ticket after he feuded with the county chairman, Dennis Carey and replace him with Assembly Speaker Elmer Matthews (D-South Orange).
Republicans nominated Assembly Minority Leader C. Robert Sarcone (R-Newark). This was the only time in New Jersey history that the sitting Assembly Speaker and Minority Leader faced off for a State Senate seat. Sarcone defeated Matthews by 15,902 votes, 51%-44%, with Assemblyman George Richardson (D-Newark), the only Black member of the legislature, winning 4% of the vote as an independent.
After Shanley again became a U.S. Senate candidate in 1964, Kohm joined the campaign as a campaign strategist and spokesman. Williams defeated Shanley in his bid for a second term.
Kohm faced a setback in 1965 when Democratic Gov. Richard J. Hughes carried Bergen County by 13 percentage points and the Republican legislative slate he ran lost four state senate seats and six of seven Assembly seats in the county. Kohm gave up his Bergen GOP contract in 1966.
That year, Kohm and a Democrat, Joseph W. Katz, worked together as press aides to the 1966 New Jersey Constitutional Convention.
In 1968, Kohm became the New Jersey state director for Gov. Nelson Rockefeller’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination. The following year, served as communications director for William Cahill, a South Jersey congressman who was elected governor of New Jersey. Cahill named Kohm to his transition staff.
After Cahill took office, Kohm’s firm became the biggest contract lobbying group in the state with a huge roster of private and public sector clients, including the newly-formed New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Kohm also acquired Attitude Analysis Research Services, a Paramus-based polling firm.
In 1986, Kohm joined with Harold Hodes, a Democrat and former chief of staff to Gov. Brendan Byrne, to form Public Strategies. His firm, which included another Hudson Dispatch reporter-turned-political insider, James McQueeny, later merged his lobbying shop with one headed by Republican Roger Bodman, who was Gov. Tom Kean’s campaign manager and cabinet, to form the mega Public Strategies Impact. He retired in 1993.
He is survived by his daughter, granddaughter and sister.
A memorial mass will be held at Sacred Heart Church in Haworth on Saturday January 14, 2023.