Home>Highlight>Donald Wernik, former Middlesex freeholder, Metuchen mayor, dies at 94

Former Metuchen Mayor Donald J. Wernik, right, with Mayor Jonathan Busch. Facebook Photo.

Donald Wernik, former Middlesex freeholder, Metuchen mayor, dies at 94

Popular Democrat was casualty of Florio tax increase in 1990

By David Wildstein, August 31 2019 4:57 pm

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Donald J. Wernik, an All-State football star at Metuchen High School and World War II veteran who became a pharmacist, mayor of Metuchen and three-term Middlesex County Freeholder, died on Friday.  He was 94.

Wernik began in politics in an era when a small town druggist had almost universal name identification.  Known as likable and hardworking, Wernik won five local elections in Metuchen.  After taking on the formidable Middlesex County Democratic machine, Wernik won a freeholder seat on his third try and spent nine years in county government before voter anger toward Gov. Jim Florio forced him from office in 1990.

He launched his political career in 1962 as a candidate for the Metuchen Borough Council after Democratic incumbents Robert Flanagan and George Olmezer declined to seek re-election.  He ran with Dr. Irvine Kerrison, a Rutgers University professor and a nationally prominent labor relations expert.

The council was split 3-3 at the time and the Mayor, Walter Timpson, was a Republican and the tiebreaker.

One of Wernik’s Republican opponents that year was attorney Richard Plechner, who in the months leading up to John F. Kennedy’s mid-term election was already backing Barry Goldwater for the 1964 Republican presidential nomination.

Plechner would become a hugely controversial figure in state Republican politics as head of a group of Young Republicans called the “Rat Finks,” which created song lyrics filled with slurs against African Americans and Jews.  Charlie Stile’s 2016 story on the Rat Finks is a must read.

Wernik was the top vote-getter in that race, defeating Plechner by about 850 votes, but Republican Nicholas Alicino edged out Kerrison by about 100 votes to give the GOP a 4-2 majority on the council.

In 1963, Democrat Thomas Weber, the chairman of the History Department at Douglass College, was elected mayor against Republican Walter Duff.

Seeking re-election to a second term in 1965, Wernik again received the most votes and defeated Republican Keith Kinyon, the director of Radio Free Europe, by about 450 votes.  With Alicino not seeking another term, Wernik’s running mate, John Koyen also won – by about 50 votes — and to give Democrats a 5-1 majority.

Weber ran for re-election in 1967 – the first incumbent to seek a second term in more than twenty years – but lost a rematch Duff.

Wernik did not seek re-election to the council in 1968 and Democrats held the seat by a narrow margin.

Metuchen Democrats nominated Wernik as their candidate for mayor in 1969.  Duff did not seek re-election and Wernik defeated Republican Saxon Palmeter.

Wernik defeated Palmeter by about 875 votes, with Democrats Eugene Haley and George McClausen also winning council seats.

He withstood Republican coattails at the top of the ticket, with William Cahill carrying Metuchen by nearly 1,500 votes against former Democratic Gov. Robert Meyner.  Republican candidates for State Assembly and Freeholder also carried Metuchen, albeit by narrower margins.

In 1971, Wernik was re-elected to a second term against perennial GOP candidate Ernest Hammesfahr by about 850 votes.  That year, Metuchen began electing mayors to four-year terms.

When he sought a third term in 1975, Metuchen voters gave Wernik a landslide win.  He defeated Republican Dorothy Stewart by a 2-1 margin.  He won by more than 1,700 votes, 67%-33%.

Democrats swept the council races that year, giving them a 6-0 majority for the first time since Franklin Roosevelt’s first mid-term election.

Middlesex County Freeholder John Rooney was seeking re-election in 1978 when the 59-year-old Democrat unexpectedly died of a heart attack on July 21.

As mayor, Wernik had emerged as a strong critic of Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Nicholas Venezia.  He had accused Venezia of strong-arming Democratic local officials who had hoped to move into higher office.

Wernik became one of nearly a dozen candidates to seek the Democratic nomination for Rooney’s seat.  His main opponents were Spotswood Mayor Joseph Spicuzzo, former Monroe Mayor Michael DiPierro, East Brunswick Councilwoman Nancy Blethen, Highland Park Mayor Harold Berman, Woodbridge Councilman Vincent Martino, former Sayreville Mayor Edward Fielek, and Milltown Mayor David Crabiel, the brother of former State Senator and New Jersey Secretary of State Edward “Concrete Eddie’ Crabiel.

Sayreville Councilman Felix Wisniewski,  the father of future Assemblyman and gubernatorial candidate John Wisniewski, briefly considered running.

At an special Democratic convention three weeks after Rooney’s death, Crabiel win a second ballot victory, 260 to 100, against Blethen.  His campaign was fueled by a sweep of 80 votes from Edison Mayor/Municipal Chairman Anthony Yelencsics and 46 votes from New Brunswick Mayor/Municipal Chairman John Lynch.

Wernik made it to the second ballot but received just 22 votes.

South Plainfield Mayor Henry Tellone suffered a heart attack while attending the special convention.  A Democratic County Committeeman from South Brunswick administered CPR until first responders arrived.

Wernik did not seek re-election in 1979, and instead mounted another bid for freeholder.

Venezia backed Crabiel, Martino and New Brunswick Councilman Thomas Boylan.  Wernik was defeated by a wide margin.

In a speech to county committee members at the convention, Wernik launched a vitriolic attack on Venezia and party bosses.  He criticized Venezia’s decision to dump Assemblymen David Schwartz (D-Highland Park) and John Froude (D-South River) from the organization line to make room for the county chairman’s allies.

In Metuchen, Wernik endorsed Councilman John Wiley to succeed him. Wiley won, giving Democrats another sweep in the council races.

Shortly after the 1979 elections, Wernik briefly became a candidate for freeholder when it looked like incumbent Stephen Capestro would become the new Middlesex County Sherriff.  The incumbent, Joseph DeMarino, was resigning following his election as Mayor of Woodbridge.

Instead, Democrats announced that Spicuzzo would become sheriff.  Wernik announced he would not challenge any of the incumbent freeholders and dropped out of the race.

In 1981, Wernik launched his third bid to become a freeholder.  He sought the seat of Frank Pelly, who was instead seeking a State Assembly seat in the 18th district.

Sayreville Democratic Municipal Chairman Leo Nowicki and South Amboy Mayor Thomas Cross also mulled freeholder bids, but in a bid for unity among a growing call for change, Venezia decided to back Wernik.

In the general election, Wernik and two-term incumbent Dorothy Power easily defeated Republicans Joseph Bodnar, a South River Councilman, and Middlesex County College political science professor John Frary.

Wernik and Power had no trouble winning re-election in 1984 against Monroe Councilman Michael Leibowitz and John O’Sullivan, a Republican from Woodbridge.  Three years later, Wernik and Power easily defeated state Assistant Labor Commissioner Grace Applegate and party switcher Peter Cassano.

A bid for a fourth term in 1990 turned into an unexpected problem for Wernik as Middlesex County Democrats became collateral damage following Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase.

With Power stepping down, Wernik ran with former Piscataway Mayor Ted Light.  Light had been the organization candidate for Assembly in 1979 but lost the primary to Schwartz.

Republicans won seats on the Middlesex County Board of Freeholders for the first time since 1972, with East Brunswick Municipal Prosecutor Roger Daley and high school history teacher Ronald Roman defeating Wernik by more than 15,000 votes.

Democrat Raniero Travisano lost his bid for re-election as County Clerk, and Rep. Bernard Dwyer (D-Edison) nearly lost his seat in Congress.

In 1991, Republicans took control of the freeholder board and won two State Senate seats and four Assembly seats in an ani-Florio landslide.

That lasted until Crabiel returned to county government and ousted Roman by less than 5,000 votes in a race that saw Daley win re-election by about 2,000 votes against South Plainfield Councilman John Pulomena.

While Wernik remained active in community affairs, he never ran for office after his 1990 defeat.

Born in 1925 to immigrant parents, Wernik was just a few months old when he moved to Metuchen.  He was an All-State Football player for Metuchen High School in 1942 and served as U.S. Marine Corps sergeant in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

He graduated the Rutgers College of Pharmacy in 1950 and became owned Wernik’s Pharmacy in Metuchen, a business founded by his grandfather.  His son, Hal, became a fourth-generation pharmacist.

Wernik served on the Metuchen Board of Health from 1956 to 1962, and as president of the Metuchen Chamber of Commerce from 1959 to 1960.  He later served on the New Jersey Board of Pharmacy.

“As Mayor and Councilman, Don presided over a period of dynamic growth in the Borough and today’s Metuchen serves as a lasting tribute to his glorious legacy,” Metuchen Mayor Jonathan Busch said in a statement posted on Facebook.  “Mayor Wernik always had a great sense of humor and was well-known for his responsiveness to residents.”

Busch credited Wernik for establishing Metuchen’s first recycling program, building a municipal pool, renovating the local train station, engaging in long-term planning, and guiding the borough through the civil rights era.

“I am so profoundly grateful for the time we had spent talking about the issues he faced as Mayor and those we face now,” Busch said.

Wernik is survived by his wife of nearly 70 years, Joyce, four children, eight grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren.

Funeral service will be held on Sunday, September 1 at Temple Neve Shalom in Metuchen.

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One thought on “Donald Wernik, former Middlesex freeholder, Metuchen mayor, dies at 94

  1. Actually, in 1991, the Republicans won more than 2 senate seats and 4 assembly seats. They won every senate seat and every assembly seat in every district which included any part of Middlesex County – with the sole exception of the 17th LD.

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