Home>Articles>Erma Gormley, former Sussex county clerk, dies at 86

Former Sussex County Clerk Erma Gormley. (Photo: Amy Frato Lobban).

Erma Gormley, former Sussex county clerk, dies at 86

Gormley came from a political family; her brother’s campaign for mayor of Palisades Park in 1964 went all the way to the N.J. Supreme Court

By David Wildstein, August 27 2022 4:28 pm

Erma P. Gormley, a former Sussex county clerk and freeholder, died on August 25.  She was 86.

She is the fourth woman to serve as a freeholder in New Jersey to die in recent weeks, following Susan Zellman of Sussex, Laurelle Cummings of Camden, and Dorothy Power of Middlesex.

Gormley began her political career in the early 1970s when she won a seat on the Sandyston-Walpack Consolidated School Board of Education.  She was elected to three terms.

She was elected to the Sandyston Township Committee in 1983, winning an independent against incumbent Harold Haskin with 64% of the vote.  Gormley was re-elected as a Republican 1986, 1989 and 1992, and served as mayor four times during her twelve years in local government.

After Sussex County expanded their freeholder board from three members to five for the 1989 election, Gormley became a candidate for countywide office.  Democratic Freeholder Michael LaRose declined to seek re-election.

Nine candidates ran for three open freeholder seats, with Gormley teaming up with Andover Township Committeeman (and future Republican county chairman) David Mortimer, and Vernon Township Committeeman John R. Warren.   They were part of a coalition backed by the other two freeholders, Joseph DelBagno and Victor Marotta.

Also in the race: Hopatcong Mayor Richard Hodson (who later became a Democrat), Vernon Township Committeeman Peter Mangone, Hampton Township Committeewoman Anne Vaccaro, former Ogdensburg Councilman Joseph Maser, and two newcomers, teacher H. Ralph Smith, and Sparta businessman Jeffrey Staple.

Staple turned out to be the top vote-getter, with Gormley finishing second, about 400 votes behind Staple and approximately 300 votes in front of Warren, who captured the third spot on the general election ballot after edging out his running mate, Mortimer by roughly 80 votes.  Staple had run with Hodson and Mangone, who finished about 1,600 votes behind him.

Gormley and her running mates easily defeated Democrats Gary Struble, a Sussex Borough councilman, Diane Bucino and Greg Matthews.

She was re-elected in 1992 and 1995.

After Assemblyman C. Richard Kamin (R-Flanders) resigned in 1994 to become director of the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles under Gov. Christine Todd Whitman, Gormley became a candidate for the open Assembly seat.

While a number of Republicans mulled running, including former Green Township Mayor David Mullen and former Chester school board member Pat Scherr, Gormley’s main opposition came from Guy Gregg (R-Long Valley), the owner of the Publick House in Chester and a former New Jersey Restaurant Association president.

Gormley won the first ballot by a vote of 94 to 85 against Gregg, but she failed to hit the 50% mark after some votes went to John Kearney and Tom Kenyon.  Gregg won the Assembly seat on the second ballot by just three votes, 104 to 101.

In 1997, Sussex County Clerk Helen “Honey” Ackerman declined to seek re-election atter 20 years in the post.  Ackerman was a political legend in Sussex who became involved in local politics as a supporter of President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s and served a GOP county chair for three years after a bitter party split led her to take on the county’s political boss, Arthur Sears.

Gormley quickly entered the race for county clerk, along with Nancy Freundlich, the owner of a Byram restaurant, Unkie’s Place,  and the wife of Byram Republican municipal chairman and former mayor Harold Freundlich, and Ellen Z. Leahey, who ran the legislative office of Assemblyman Scott Garrett (R-Wantage).

Freundlich, who had challenged Ackerman in the 1992 primary, wound up dropping out of the race.

In the primary, Gormley defeated Leahey by about 1,300 votes, 53%-47%.  She had no general election opponent.

Gormley served as county clerk from 1998 until her retirement in 2011.  She was replaced by the current county clerk, Jeffrey M. Parrott.  In her last campaign in 2007, she defeated Democrat Elizabeth Kaplan with 72% of the vote.

Gormley’s connection to one of the great local races in Bergen County history

Erma Pollotta Gormley at Leonia High School in the early 1950s. (Photo: Erma Gormley).

Born Ermalina Pollotta, she grew up in Palisades Park.  Two of her late brothers, Michael and Frank, served on the Palisades Park Board of Education.   Gormley served at the same time as Frank, making them among the few brother-sister teams to hold local public office in New Jersey.

In 1964, Michael Pollotta became the Democratic candidate for mayor of Palisades Park against Republican incumbent William Dorgan and appeared to have won by four votes.

Dorgan challenged the election results, including the votes of his cousins, Frank and Mary Pallotta.  Dorgan alleged that the Pallotta’s had moved to California a few years earlier and had not returned to Palisades Park until August 1, 1964.  In those days, state law had a six-month residency requirement to vote, and both Pallotta’s admitted that they voted.

When Superior Court Judge Morris Malech asked Frank Pallotta who he voted for, he refused to answer.  Malech put Pallotta in jail for two days on contempt charges before he finally admitted he voted for his cousin.  On the witness stand, Mary Pallotta told the judge that she could not remember who she voted for.

Because of the Pollotta votes and other irregularities, including voters who had moved before Election Day, Malech found that some votes had been illegally cast ballots and voided the election results after a two-week hearing, and ordered a special election to be held.  Malech also ordered the borough to select an interim mayor without ties to Pollotta or Dorgan and referred the matter to a grand jury to investigate allegations of voter fraud.  William Marvin became mayor.

In April, the New Jersey Supreme Court reversed Malech’s ruling, but later found that neither candidate could be certified as the winner. Pollotta’s lawyer was T. James Tumulty (D-Jersey City), a former congressman and the nephew of President Woodrow Wilson’s White House Chief of Staff, Joseph Tumulty.

In May, the grand jury indicted thirteen people for election fraud, including Frank Rotundo, the uncle of future Palisades Park Mayor James Rotundo.   Charges against the thirteen Palisades Park voters under indictment were eventually dropped.

Palisades Park voters returned to the polls on August 3 for a special election that was to be fought under different circumstances.  Pollotta no longer had the coattails of President Lyndon B. Johnson, who had caried Palisades Park by 907 votes, 58%-42%, over Republican Barry Goldwater.

Dorgan defeated Pallotta by 279 votes, 53%-47%.  Dorgan later served one term in the New Jersey State Assembly and was twice elected to the Bergen County Board of Freeholders.

Michael Pollota again became the Democratic candidate for mayor in 1976 – he had also lost in 1969 against Thomas Toscano – against Republican Robert Pallotta, who had lost two bid for a borough council seat.  Robert Pallotta won 63% of the vote and later went on to serve as a Bergen County freeholder.  His nephew, Frank, is challenging Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff) in New Jersey’s 7th district.

Among Gormley’s survivors are her husband of 69 years, Eugene, with whom she co-owned her family excavating business.

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