Home>Articles>Dr. Joseph Riley, former Cumberland Democratic Chairman and Freeholder, dies at 87

Dr. Joseph J. Riley, a former Cumberland County Democratic Chairman and freeholder. (Photo: Riley Family.)

Dr. Joseph Riley, former Cumberland Democratic Chairman and Freeholder, dies at 87

Bridgeton physician won freeholder seat in 1968

By David Wildstein, December 30 2020 9:54 am

Dr. Joseph J. Riley, a popular and respected Cumberland County political leader, died on December 10.  He was 87.

Riley was the father of Celeste Riley, the Cumberland County Clerk and a former assemblywoman from the 3rd legislative district.  His son, Joseph P. Riley, served as a Cumberland County Freeholder.

A Bridgeton physician, Riley made his first bid for public office in 1967 as a candidate for Cumberland County Freeholder.  He was the top vote-getter in a Democratic primary that saw his running mate lose to insurgent John Rose, a former freeholder.

In the general election, Rose narrowly unseated 9-term GOP freeholder Max April, edging out Riley by 121 votes.  Another Republican freeholder, Harry Freitag, won easily.

Riley again sought the freeholder post in 1968, seeking the one-year unexpired term of James R. Hurley, who had been elected to the State Assembly.  He ran on a ticket with former Assembly Speaker Robert Halpin and incumbent Freeholder Joseph Franzwa.

In that election, Riley defeated Rulon Peak, a retired New Jersey State Police lieutenant who had been appointed to replace Hurley on the freeholder board.  He won by 378 votes, 50.5% to 49.5%.

The election of the 35-year-old Riley and Halpin flipped control of the Cumberland County Board of Freeholders to the Democrats.

Riley lost his bid for re-election in a 1969 Republican landslide that swept William T. Cahill, a South Jersey congressman, into the governor’s office.  Cahill won Cumberland with 60% of the vote.

He lost to Joseph Chinnici, a Bridgeton coat manufacturer who would later serve 16 years in the New Jersey State Assembly.  Chinnici defeated Riley by 3,409 votes.

A split in the Cumberland Democratic Party in 1971 led to Riley challenging Halpin for a Demcoratic State Committee seat.  He lost by just three votes.

But Riley came back and was elected Democratic County Chairman against Paul Porreca in a special election when incumbent, former State Sen. Robert Weber, retired.  Riley won, 69 to 40.  On the same day, his eighth of eleven children were born.

In 1974, Riley did not seek re-election as county chairman and was replaced by Halpin.

Gov. Brendan Byrne appointed Riley to serve as a commissioner of the Delaware River and Bay Authority, where he served for eight years.

He later served as a trustee of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and of Cumberland County College.  Riley also became the director of medical services at the Cumberland County Medical Center.

In 1976, Riley led the effort to create the School of Osteopathic Medicine at UMDNJ, now the Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine.

In 1993, Riley ran for the State Assembly on a ticket headed by Gov. Jim Florio.

The four-term incumbents, Majority Leader Jack Collins (R-Elmer) and Gary Stuhltrager, defeated Riley by 16, 054 votes.

Born in Philadelphia, Riley served in the U.S. Army and moved to Bridgeton after medical school.

He is survived by his wife, Judith, eleven children, 27 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.

“I am saddened by the loss of Dr. Riley, and my thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Judith, and their loving family, including daughter Celeste Riley, the County Clerk, and his son Joseph P. Riley,” said State Sen. Michael Testa, Jr. (R-Vineland).  “As a County Republican Chairman, I am particularly aware of the challenges and duties Dr. Riley faced in his dual role as an elected official and political chair. He performed his responsibilities with the calm demeanor befitting of a physician. His presence will be missed in Cumberland County.”

This story was updated at 2:24 PM with comment from Testa.

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