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Former Assemblyman Harry A. McEnroe (D-South Orange.) (Photo: New Jersey Legislature.)

Harry McEnroe, 8-term Essex assemblyman, dies at 90

Former Essex freeholder was longtime South Orange Democratic municipal chairman

By David Wildstein, February 09 2021 2:05 pm

Harry A. McEnroe, Jr., a popular South Orange Democrat who served on the Essex County Board of Freeholders and in the New Jersey State Assembly during a political career that began as the Democratic challenger against Assembly Majority Leader Thomas H. Kean (R-Livingston) in 1971, died on February 8.  He was 90 and had been battling cancer for several years.

McEnroe served sixteen years in the legislature and was an expert on solid waste and recycling issues.  He was the sponsor of legislation that created the New Jersey Poison Control Center.

McEnroe was the 40-year-old South Orange Democratic Municipal Chairman when Essex Democrats picked up to challenge Kean and Assemblyman Philip Kaltenbacher (D-Short Hills) in 1971.

Kean and Kaltenbacher were re-elected to third terms by wide margins over McEnroe and his running mate, former Livingston Democratic Club President Gerard Simons.  McEnroe finished 11,540 votes behind Kaltenbacher.

Two years later, Essex County Demcoratic Chairman Harry Lerner tapped McEnroe to run for freeholder.

He was re-elected in 1976, but his second term was cut short when Essex voters approved a charter change referendum that created a county executive form of government and put all nine freeholder seats on the ballot in 1978.  He was freeholder director in 1976.

Democrats changed up their 28th district Assembly delegation in 1979.  The district had one vacancy – Assemblyman Peter Shapiro (D-South Orange) had won the county executive post – and Mary Scanlon, who had replaced her late husband in the legislature two years earlier, was not given party support for re-election.

In a district that included Irvington and the West Ward of Newark, Democrats picked McEnroe and Newark Fire Director John Caufield to run for Assembly.  They easily won a seven-candidate primary.

After the primary, State Sen. Martin Greenberg (D-South Orange) resigned and Caufield became the Democratic candidate in a special election for his seat.  Democrats replaced Caufield on the Assembly ticket with James Zangari, a former freeholder from Irvington.

Former Assemblyman Harry A. McEnroe. (Photo: O’Brien Funeral Home.)

McEnroe and Zangari defeated Republicans Bill Conway and Marian Jackson by more than 5,000 votes.  Scanlan, who ran as an independent, finished a distant third with 1,756 votes less than Jackson.

In a solidly Democratic district, McEnroe had no trouble dispatching Republican opponents in seven re-election campaigns.

He did face Demcoratic primary challenges from time to time.

Legislative redistricting in 1981 moved South Orange into the next-door 26th district, and McEnroe shifted to representing East Orange, Orange, and West Orange.

A slot on the ticket was open when State Sen. Frank Dodd (D-West Orange) gave up his Senate seat to run for governor and Assemblyman Richard Codey (D-Orange) moved up to the Senate.

McEnroe joined Assemblywoman Mildred Barry Garvin (D-East Orange) on the Democratic organization line with Codey.

In the Democratic primary, McEnroe defeated Mims Hackett, then an Orange public school teacher, and 72-year-old former Assemblyman Murray R. Klepesch (D-East Orange), out of office for 20 years, by more than 9,000 votes.

In 1983, McEnroe faced a primary challenge from Thomas Addonizio, the son of the former Newark mayor and congressman, and former Essex County Freeholder Lorryne “Renee” Lane.  He beat them by around 4,000 votes.

After Essex Democrats dumped Garvin from their ticket in 1987, McEnroe was the top vote-getter in a contested primary.  Garvin, running off the line, lost to Bush by 1,259 votes.

McEnroe faced less competitive primaries in 1985, 1989, 1991 and 1993.

Following the retirement of Rep. Robert Roe (D-Wayne) in 1992, McEnroe sought the Democratic nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 8th district.

A late entry into the race, McEnroe got caught up in an intra-party Democratic fight between Essex County Demcoratic Chairman Raymond Durkin and County Executive Thomas D’Alessio.  McEnroe was allied with Durkin.

Also in the race was Claire Lagermasini, a Montclair resident who worked as an aide to Rep. Hugh Carey (D-New York) and a staffer on Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential campaign.  Lagermasini scored endorsements from the National Organization for Women and activist Gloria Steinem.

With most of the 8th in Passaic County, McEnroe lost the primary to former Assemblyman Herb Klein (D-Clifton) by 2,670 votes, 39%-28%, with 27% for Lagermasini.

Lagermasini won Essex by 1,133 votes over McEnroe, 39%-30%, with Klein receiving 24%.  Passaic gave Klein a 3,394-vote margin over McEnroe, 54%-25%.

In 1995, Essex County Democrats decided not to support McEnroe or Zangari for re-election to ninth terms in the State Assembly.

Zangari retired, but McEnroe chose to seek re-election off the line against Wilfredo Caraballo, a Seton Hall law professor and former New Jersey Public Advocate, and Craig Stanley, a nephew of Rep. Donald M. Payne, Sr. (D-Newark).

McEnroe teamed up with Irvington Mayor Michael Steele and nearly pulled off an upset in the Democratic primary.  He came within 622 votes of defeating Stanley in a primary that ended his political career at age 64.

In 2000, McEnroe briefly re-emerged to endorse his former Assembly colleague, Republican Bob Franks, in a U.S Senate race against Democrat Jon Corzine.

Codey, the former governor, praised McEnroe’s career in politics.

“He was a very competent legislator and politician.  He was very accomplished,” Codey said.  “Always with a smile, he did a good job for his constituents.  I was always proud to run with him.”

State Sen. Joseph Cryan (D-Union), who grew up in South Orange where his father had been sheriff and McEnroe was his municipal chairman, has fond memories of his former assemblyman.

“Harry was a family friend, great legislator, and an even better person. he made his mark by caring about people and dealing with their concerns,” Cryan said.  “He was a true gentleman who made his mark. He will be missed.”

McEnroe, the father of seven and an executive with the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company, became involved in politics at a young age and served as Essex County Young Democratic Chairman.  He was a U.S. Army veteran.

His father, Harry A. McEnroe, Sr., was a minor league baseball catcher for two teams in 1926.  His brother, Eugene, had run for Monmouth County Freeholder, and his sister, Bunny Golding, was a South Orange Village Trustee.

As a student at St. Bonaventure University, McEnroe played baseball and basketball.

McEnroe is survived by his wife of 65 years, Peggy, who was his junior prom date while attending Seton Hall Prepartory, his seven children, and twelve grandchildren.

A wake is scheduled for Thursday, February 11 from 4-7 PM at O’Brien Funeral Home in Brick. A funeral Mass will be held on Friday, February 12 at 9:30 AM at St. Mark’s Church in Sea Girt, with in-person attendance limited to 200. The Mass may also be viewed by live stream: https://player2.streamspot.com/?playerId=7d00d653.

Essex County Democratic Committee ticket, 1971. (David Wildstein Collection.)
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