Anthony M. Villane, Jr., a fierce advocate for protecting New Jersey’s beaches during his seven terms as an assemblyman from Monmouth County in the 1970s and 1980s and the Commissioner of Community Affairs under Gov. Thomas H. Kean, died on June 29. He was 92.
Villane, known as Doc, was a dentist from Eatontown who became active in local politics and later became one of the most influential lawmakers of his era. After Republicans took control of the State Assembly in 1985, Villane became chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee before leaving to join the Kean cabinet. He later served in George H.W. Bush’s administration.
Born and raised in Newark, he was a college wrestler at Rutgers and spent three years as a U.S. Air Force captain following is graduation from Temple University Dental School. He was a practicing dentist for over 50 years with an office in Eatontown.
He was elected Long Branch Republican municipal chairman in 1972.
Villane made a bid for the State Assembly in 1973, after incumbent Joseph Robertson dropped his re-election bid in August. Monmouth Republicans went with Daniel Kruman, and that turned out to be a blessing for Villane; in the Watergate wave election that year, the GOP lost all three legislative seats by over 4,000 votes.
Mayor Henry Cioffi appointed Villane to serve on the Long branch Board of Education in 1975.
One month later, Villane became a candidate for the 10th district Assembly, which was mostly Monmouth County and included a small part of Ocean. One of the Democrats elected in 1973, Gertrude Berman (D-Long Branch), was seeking re-election. The other seat was tragically left vacant in March 1975 when 34-year-old Assemblyman William P. Fitzpatrick (D-Point Pleasant) was killed in an automobile accident.
Brian Kennedy (R-Sea Girt), who had lost his Assembly seat in 1973, was seeking a comeback. Ocean Township Mayor Joseph Palaia, who would later serve in the Assembly and State Senate, expressed interest in running, along with Point Pleasant Mayor Michael Valenti, Allenhurst Mayor Martin Vaccaro, and Brielle Mayor Garett Pilling. William Dowd, a former Nixon White House aide who had challenged Rep. Jim Howard (D-Spring Lake Heights) in 1970 and 1972, had initially entered the race, but later withdrew. (Dowd eventually served in the Assembly and as Monmouth County GOP chairman.)
By the time the party screening committee met in May, the race to run with Kennedy was down to Villane and Vaccaro. Villane became the organization choice.
Vaccaro ran anyway, and Villane defeated him in the Republican primary by 4,093 votes. He ran just 360 votes behind Kennedy.
In the general election, Kennedy was the top vote-getter (27,403), with Villane unseating Berman by 2,077 votes, 26,227 to 24,150. Democrat Richard Connors, a professor at Seton Hall University, finished fourth with 22,570 votes.
In 1977, Kennedy ran for the State Senate against freshman Democrat Herbert Buehler (D-West Allenhurst) and won. Villane, who backed Kennedy for the seat, ran for a second term in the lower house on a ticket with Dowd. They defeated Berman and Spring Lake Heights Mayor Richard Rooney in a landslide. Villane outpolled Berman by 6,611 votes and Rooney by 7,795.
Villane was re-elected by massive margins in 1979, 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1987. He won by nearly 8,000 votes in 1983, even as Kennedy lost his Senate seat to Democrat Frank Pallone, Jr, a 32-year-old Long Branch councilman.
He served as Assembly Minority Whip in 1982 and as Deputy Assistant Minority Leader from 1982 to 1985.
In 1987, Villane declined to challenge Pallone for the Senate. Instead, he won his final term in the Assembly against a big name Democratic opponent, John D’Amico, was won by 5,857 votes.
But Villane almost ran against Pallone in a 1988 congressional race following Howard’s unexpected death.
Joseph Azzolina, a former legislator from Middletown, had already entered the race against Howard. Villane announced his candidacy for the open seat, but then withdrew after it became clear that party leaders intended to stick with Azzolina.
Pallone beat Azzolina by a 51.6%-47.4% margin in a district that backed George H.W. Bush for President against Michael Dukakis by a 62%-37% margin. Many political observers at the time believe that Villane would have been a stronger candidate against Pallone than Azzolina was.
Kean nominated Villane to serve as Commissioner of Community Affairs in July 1988 after Leonard S. Coleman left the cabinet. He remained in that post through the end of the Kean administration in January 1990.
In 1990, Villane joined the Bush administration as the regional administrator of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during the time Jack Kemp was the HUD secretary. He left after Bill Clinton became president.
As a legislator, Villane was the sponsor of the Fair Beaches Act which placed some limits on how much some municipalities could charge. He fought illegal dumping along the Jersey shore – and advocated the use of blimps as a cleaner way to watch polluters from the air — and pushed a bond referendum to provide funding for coastal communities through the legislature.
His efforts as an environmental leader drew plaudits from Howard, the Democratic congressman.
“No one has done more to protect our environment than Doc Villane,” Howard said.
Villane is survived by his wife of 69 years, Sarah, his four children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He was predeceased by his daughter, Cora.
A viewing will be held on July 1 from 2-4 PM and 7-9 PM at the Woolley-Boglioli Funeral Home in Long Branch, followed by a mass at St. Michael’s Church in Long Branch at 2 PM on Saturday.