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Donald Bigley, former NJ Senator, dies at 93

Camden Democrat served as prosecutor, judge

By David Wildstein, September 02 2019 12:36 pm

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A. Donald Bigley, a Camden County Democrat who served in the New Jersey State Senate from 1966 to 1968, died on August 30. He was 93.

Bigley also served two terns as an assemblyman, five years as the Camden County Prosecutor, and nineteen years as a Superior Court Judge.

Bigley became involved in politics at an early age, serving as president of the Young Democrats of Camden County and as Camden’s state committeeman for the New Jersey Young Democrats.

After the 1960 Census, Camden gained a fourth Assembly seat, and after former Assembly Speaker William F. Hyland, left the Legislature to become President of the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities, there were two open Assembly seats.

He was a 34-year-old solicitor for the Camden City Board of Education when Camden County Democratic Chairman Oscar Moore picked him to run for State Assembly in 1961.

Bigley joined two incumbents on the ticket: Frank Meloni (D-Pennsauken), the president of the South Jersey Industrial Union Council, and Francis Werner (D-Camden), an insurance executive. Meloni, who later served as president of the Philadelphia AFL-CIO and as Camden County Democratic Chairman, was seeking his sixth term in the Assembly and Werner his fifth.

Also on the ticket was Robert Yost, the Mayor of Gloucester Township.

After easily fighting back a primary challenge, the four Democrats settled in for a general election in what was still a politically competitive, albeit Democratic-leaning, Camden County.

Bigley finished second in the race, just 272 votes behind Meloni and 8 ahead of Werner. Yost came in 363 votes behind Werner, but beat the top Republican, William K. Dickey, by 7,545 votes.

At the top of the ticket, Democrat Richard Hughes carried Camden County by 14,046 votes.

All four incumbents sought re-election in 1963 in what turned out to be an exceedingly close race.

Bigley was the top vote-getter (66,116), followed by Werner (65,936), but the other two Democratic assemblymen lost their seats.

The winners were Sidney P. McCord, Jr. (R-Collingswood), who had served as a Camden City Commissioner from 1951 to 1955, and Dickey (R-Collingswood), who would go on to spend a decade in the Legislature and serve as Speaker in 1970.  Tom Kean was Majority Leader under Dickey and succeeded him as Speaker.

McCord (65,181) and Dickey (65,144) ousted Meloni (64,986) and Yost (64,149).   Dickey’s margin over Meloni was just 158 votes.

Camden County Republican Chairman Paul Roth (64,821) finished in between Meloni and Yost, 1,115 votes behind Werner.

In the same election, Republican Frederick Scholz, a banker making his first bid for public office, upset two-term State Sen. Joseph Cowgill (D-Merchantville) by 13,629 votes, 55%–44%.

Following the U.S. Supreme Court One-Man, One-Vote decision, New Jersey was forced end the practice of one State Senate seat per county.

The Senate expanded its size from 21 to 29 and created an odd map.  Some counties were combined into a single Senate district – and others received increased representation in the upper house.

Camden County went from one Senate seat to two.

Democrats picked Bigley and Camden Mayor Alfred Pierce to run for the Senate against Scholz and John Mohrfeld, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney.

To replace Bigley and challenge the GOP incumbents in the Assembly, Democrats picked John Horn (D-Camden) — later the Assembly Minority Leader, State Senator and New Jersey commissioner of Labor – and Richard Hyland (D-Cherry Hill), the brother of the former Speaker.

Even though Hughes carried Camden in his bid for a second term as governor by 20,685 votes, the race for the Senate seats was competitive.

Scholz finished first with 66,509 votes and Bigley won the second Senate seat with 62,396.

Bigley beat out Pierce by a margin, of 1,111, with Mohrfeld running 7,150 votes behind Scholz.

Werner, mounting a political comeback as an independent candidate, could have been a spoiler in the bid to oust Scholz.  He received 5,252 votes – 28 more that the difference between Scholz and Pierce.

In the Senate, Bigley chaired a special legislative commission to decide whether the South Jersey Port Commission should be forced to close its doors.

After the 1966 special Constitutional Convention to deal with the legislative apportionment crisis, Camden received a third State Senate seat for the 1967 election.

Gov. Hughes announced in May 1967 that he was nominating Bigley to serve as the Camden County Prosecutor.  Hughes and Pierce wanted Bigley, a strong vote-getter, to run for re-election, but both accepted the senator’s desire to become Camden’s top law enforcement official.

The Senate confirmed Bigley in June, leaving his Senate seat vacant for the rest of the year.  Democrats still had a ten-seat majority in the Senate, but it left them without senatorial courtesy as a bargaining chip with Scholz over Camden County appointments by a Democratic governor.

Scholz also declined to run again.  In the 1967 Hughes mid-term elections, Republicans won all three Camden Senate seats.

Bigley served as prosecutor until 1972, when Gov. William Cahill, a Camden County Republican, replaced him.

Cahill nominated Bigley to server as a District Court Judge in 1973 and was quickly elevated to the Camden County Court.  He was a Superior Court Judge from 1978 until his retirement in 1992 and served as the Assignment Judge in Camden County from 1989 to 1992.

Bigley served two years in the U.S. Air Force before graduating St. Joseph’s College and Rutgers Law School.

He was predeceased by his wife, Mary Jane, and is survived by his four children and six grandchildren.

A viewing will be held from 7-9 PM Thursday and 9:30-10:30 Friday at the Healy Funeral Home in Haddon Heights.  A funeral mass will be held at St. Rose Lima Church in Haddon Heights at 11 AM Friday.

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