Christopher V. Dietz, a former Union County Democratic Chairman who headed the State Parole Board under Gov. Brendan Byrne, and then spent seven years as a Superior Court Judge died on September 14. He was 83.
One a rising star in New Jersey politics, Dietz was a staffer on Lyndon Johnson’s re-election campaign, served as an Assistant Counsel to Gov. Richard Hughes, and was a modern day founding father as a delegate to the 1966 New Jersey State Constitutional Convention called to address redistricting issues following the U.S. Supreme Court’s One Man, One Vote decision.
Dietz ran a strong race for the New Jersey State Senate in 1971, at age 35.
He was a 1958 graduate of Georgetown University, served as a U.S. Navy officer from 1958 to 1961 and then went to Rutgers Law School.
Dietz served as New Jersey Chairman of Young Citizens for Johnson in 1964. After that, he took a job with the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.
In 1965, Dietz was one of five Union County Democrats who ran on a bi-partisan slate of candidates for delegate to the 1966 Constitutional Convention.
Dietz was the sponsor of a move to expand the State Senate from 21 to 29 members, each elected from single-member districts. Dietz’s plan also called for State Assembly members to be elected in countywide, at-large elections that were apportioned by population.
He said he expected the Assembly to consist of 86 members and acknowledged that the lower house could grow to as many as 129 seats after the 1970 U.S. Census.
The convention instead adopted a plan for 29 senators to be elected at-large in countywide elections – in some cases combining more than one county – and the Assembly remained at 60 seats, elected countywide.
He later opened a firm in Cranford and represented several PBA locals.
In 1971, Dietz became a Democratic candidate for State Senator in a Union County district against incumbents Matthew Rinaldo (R-Union), Frank McDermott (R-Westfield) and Jerome Epstein (R-Scotch Plains).
His running mates were John T. Connor, Jr., the son of Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Commerce, and Carmine J. Liotta, an Elizabeth attorney and uncle of actor Ray Liotta. Jerry Fitzgerald English, who later served as Byrne’s chief counsel, ran for an unexpired two-month term in the Senate.
Liotta finished fourth, losing to Epstein by just 400 votes. Dietz finished fifth, 4,044 votes behind Epstein and 29,212 behind Rinaldo. English was the only winner in the Senate race.
In June 1972, Dietz announced that he would run for Union County Democratic Chairman against the incumbent, James Kinneally.
Kinneally, who had been county chairman for seventeen years, had been indicted on bribery and extortion charges and decided not to seek re-election.
Dietz coasted into the post without opposition.
In 1973, Dietz endorsed State Sen. Ralph DeRose (D-South Orange) for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. DeRose was the choice of the Essex County Democratic Chairman, Harry Lerner.
Dietz was unable to deliver the organization line to DeRose in the June primary, and Union County wound up holding an open primary for governor.
He tried to establish an open convention to pick candidates for the organization line for State Senate in a contest between Elizabeth Mayor Thomas Dunn and Linden Mayor John Gregorio in a newly-created legislative district that was almost certain to go Democratic.
Dietz said that he screening committee process was the equivalent of a smoke-filled room.
The municipal chairs voted against Dietz’s convention plan and then took him to court when he moved forward on it anyway. A Superior Court Judge issued an order stopping the convention.
In a compromise, Dietz backed Dunn for Senate. Rather than force a primary, Gregorio sought an Assembly seat.
The result of that deal was re-election for Dietz as county chairman, again without an opponent, in 1973, 1974 and 1975.
Following Gregorio’s 1975 indictment, Dietz sought to force him off the Democratic ticket and threatened to resign his municipal chairs didn’t back them up. By a 19-6 vote, Union County Democrats rescinded their endorsement of Gregorio for a second term in the Assembly.
It didn’t matter, since Gregorio did not face any primary opponent.
Byrne nominated Dietz to serve as Chairman of the New Jersey Parole Board in August, and he resigned in September to take the post. He was succeeded as County Chairman by a close Byrne ally, Donald Lan.
Dietz remained as Parole Board Chairman under Gov. Thomas Kean appointed Somerset County Sheriff Louis Nikolopoulos in 1986.
Kean instead appointed Dietz to serve as an Administrative Law Judge, and in 1991 Gov. Jim Florio nominated him to serve as a Superior Court Judge.
In 1998, Gov. Christine Todd Whitman declined to renominate him to the Superior Court.
Two Senators from Union County, Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) and Louis Bassano (R-Union) accused an attorney who served on the judicial review board for the New Jersey Bar Association of tanking Dietz’s renomination to settle a personal score.
Instead, Whitman made Dietz a judge of the Worker’s Compensation Court. He was renominated by Gov. James E. McGreevey.
Dietz served until he reached the mandatory retirement age in 2006. He later retired to Cape May.
Lesniak recalled Dietz as his first political mentor and recalled a fundraiser he held at the Elizabeth Armory with Guy Lombardo, an “unheard of event in those years.”
“He sold tickets at $500-per-person, an unheard of price. It was a huge success,” Lesniak said.
A viewing will be held from 6-8 PM on September 17 at the Spilker Funeral Home in Cape May, and from 12:15-1:45 PM on September 18 at the Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Cape May, followed by a Mass.
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