Donald P. Lan, a former New Jersey Secretary of State and a candidate for the 1981 Democratic nomination for governor, died on April 29. He was 88.
A major player in New Jersey politics through the 1970’s, he was Gov. Brendan Byrne’s top staffer and one of his closest friends and advisors until they had a falling out in 1980 while Lan was serving in Byrne’s cabinet.
Lan started out as a county committeeman and Springfield Democratic municipal chairman in Springfield and served as executive director of the Union County Democratic Committee.
He challenged Union County Democratic first vice chairman Charles Valvano in 1970 but lost by seventeen votes. That same meeting featured a walkout by Plainfield Democratic leader Jerry Green, who became angered over comments made to him by county chairman James Kinneally.
In 1971, Lan became the Democratic candidate for State Assembly in a newly-drawn Union County legislative district that included Rahway, Linden, Cranford, Mountainside, Garwood, Winfield Springfield and Union. The district included two incumbents: Herbert Kiehn (R-Rahway) and Henry Gavan (D-Linden). Kiehn ran with 29-year-old C. Louis Bassano of Union, while Lan ran with Gavan. Kiehn and Bassano won, with Lan finishing fourth and losing by 2,317 votes.
Lan won a seat as the Democratic state committeeman from Union County in 1973 – Democrats elected one male and one female in each county in those days – after a hotly contested screening committee vote. Democrats ousted incumbent Joseph Gannon and rejected Bob Weisinger, who had led the New Democratic Coalition.
Democrats also tossed incumbent state committeewoman Matilda McGowan, replacing her with June Fischer. Fischer won by two votes.
Lan was among a group of Democrats who convinced Byrne, a Superior Court judge from West Orange, to join the race
During the fall campaign, Lan served as the deputy campaign manager for Byrne’s successful bid for governor.
Byrne named Lan as his executive secretary, which was the precursor to the current chief of staff post.
Shortly after Byrne took office, Lan was also elected to serve as New Jersey’s Democratic National Committeeman. At that time, each state had two seats, one male and one female.
Lan left the Byrne administration in April 1975 to run for Union County Democratic chairman and was replaced by state lottery director Charles Carella.
A vacancy had occurred when Byrne named county chairman Christopher Dietz to serve as chairman of the state Parole Board.
In a meeting of the executive committee preceding the full county committee vote, Lan won an endorsement with 16 of 27 votes, Richard Samuel, who had become active in local politics as a leader of George McGovern’s 1972 campaign in Union County, and Cranford municipal chairman Edward Troy each received two votes; Thomas DeLuca, the Union County Democratic Committee controller, got one vote. Six Democrats abstained, including State Sen. Thomas Dunn, the mayor of Elizabeth.
In 1976, with Democratic State Chairman/State Sen. James Dugan feuding with Byrne, Lan lost his seat on the Democratic National Committee.
Two years later, Lan withdrew party support for Dunn’s re-election to the Senate and replaced him on the ticket with Assemblyman John Gregorio, the mayor of Linden. Dunn ran as an independent, but Gregorio won 47%-32%, with 19% for Republican Bob Walsh.
Gregorio’s Assembly seat was won by Raymond Lesniak, an Elizabeth attorney who ran with Lan’s support.
“He was committed to good government and good candidates for public office,” recalled Raymond Lesniak, who spent 40 years in the Legislature, including 34 in the Senate.
After Byrne won renomination in an eleven-candidate Democratic gubernatorial primary that included two congressmen and a former member of his own cabinet, Lan was nominated to serve as Secretary of State. That was an era when the Secretary of State traditionally served as the governor’s chief political advisor.
By 1980, the close relationship between Lan and Byrne had largely deteriorated and Lan was pressured to resign his cabinet post.
The problem stemmed from Lan’s interest in running for governor in 1981. Byrne became angry when Lan began lining up fundraisers and donors in early 1980. The governor felt that Lan had essentially launched an exploratory committee from the Secretary of State post.
Byrne, who had another candidate in mind – attorney general John Degnan — tried to take away Lan’s car and driver and sought to transfer the state arts council to the Department of Education.
In early 1981, Byrne ordered any cabinet member looking to run for governor that year to resign. While Degnan and Human Services commissioner Ann Klein complied, Lan refused.
Lan announced his candidacy for governor at a press conference outside the glass doors of Byrne’s office. He had already raised about $200,000 – funny as it seems, that was a lot of money in those days.
He proposed a complete overhaul of state government, consolidating several state departments, and proposed the direct election of a lieutenant governor who would run civil service commission.
Lan struggled to win organization lines and key endorsements, and within a six weeks his campaign was over. He dropped out at the end of April and endorsed Rep. Jim Florio (D-Runnemede) for the Democratic nomination.
While serving as the Secretary of State, Lan also took on a second full-time job as Florio’s deputy campaign manager.
During a statewide recount of the 1981 gubernatorial campaign, Republicans asked Lan to step aside, but he refused. Republican Tom Kean won by 1,797 votes.
Over the years, Lan and Byrne rekindled their friendship.
Lan was born on December 19, 1930 and grew up in Maplewood. He attended Seton Hall University and served in the U.S. Air Force before joining his family’s Hillside-based food processing business in 1952.
He returned to his business, Dell Products, after leaving state government in 1982. He sold the company six years later.
Lan is survived by his wife of 68 years, Hannah, three children, ten grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.
Funeral services are scheduled for 10 AM on Thursday at the Bernheim-Apter-Kreitzman Funeral Home in Livingston. The Lan family has asked that contributions in his memory be made to Trustbridge Hospice Foundation in West Palm Beach, Florida.