Jack Rafferty, an affable and transformational former six-term mayor of Hamilton Township, died on Wednesday night. He was 82.
Rafferty was elected mayor in 1975 and held the post for 24 years. He also served one term in the New Jersey State Assembly and sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1981.
In 1980, Rafferty was the New Jersey co-chairman of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign. He up for the post a time when Reagan’s nomination was less than certain.
“Mayor Rafferty left an indelible mark on Hamilton Township,” said Hamilton Mayor Jeff Martin. “We can all learn from his example and strive to be more like Jack.”
He made his first bid for public office in 1968, at age 30, losing a GOP primary for Mercer County freeholder. He won a seat on the Hamilton Township Council in 1969.
The retirement of five-term State Sen. Sido Ridolfi (D-Trenton), a former Senate President, triggered an opportunity for Rafferty to run for the New Jersey Legislature in 1971.
Assemblyman Joseph Merlino (D-Trenton) ran for the Senate, and Rafferty ran for the open Assembly seat.
One of Rafferty’s Democratic opponents in the 1971 race was Francis J. McManimon, the Hamilton recreation director.
McManimon was the top vote-getter, running 4,629 votes ahead of his running mate, four-term Assemblyman S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton). One of the Republicans was Jack Rafferty, a 33-year-old Hamilton Township councilman who would go on to serve 24 years as mayor.
Woodson defeated Rafferty by 2,838 votes, with Republican Peter Rossi finishing 2,732 votes behind Rafferty. McManimon’s plurality over Rafferty was 7,467 and 10,199 over Rossi.
After Hamilton changed its form of government to create the first directly-elected mayor, Rafferty sough the post and won.
He was re-elected five times.
Rafferty passed on a run for Congress in 1980 against 13-term Rep. Frank Thompson, Jr. (D-Trenton). That paved the way for 27-year-old Christopher Smith to run and win the seat.
“Jack Rafferty was an extraordinary leader—a visionary and doer of great deeds—especially for the people of Hamilton Township. He was smart, tenacious, selfless and had a sense of humor that always brought a smile to anyone he met,” Smith said. “He was kind and caring—and had a great big heart.”
Rafferty played a key role in Smith’s campaigns, helping to deliver large pluralities in Hamilton, New Jersey’s ultimate swing town.
Hoping to benefit from his support of Reagan, Rafferty launched a gubernatorial bid in 1981.
Eight Republicans ran for governor that year and Rafferty finished seventh with 3% of the vote in a race that was won by former Assembly Speaker Tom Kean.
n 1985, with popular Republican Gov. Thomas Kean winning a landslide re-election, Rafferty sought the 14th district Assembly seat.
Rafferty beat Patero by 1,253 votes. Bocchini ran 516 votes ahead of Rafferty, and 4,287 ahead of Colitsas, who was making his third consecutive bid for the legislature.
Rafferty has initially hoped to frighten McManimon out of the 1987 Senate race. Indeed, internal Republican polling that year showed that if Rafferty attempted to run for re-election as mayor and jeep his Assembly seat, he could lose both.
Instead, Rafferty left the legislature after one term and refocused on his local post.
After his retirement from local office in 1999, he remained active in local politics and served several years as the Republican State Committeeman from Mercer County. He served as executive director of the Hamilton Partnership.
Rafferty served in the U.S. Navy before going to college and law school. He clerked for U.S. District Court Judge George Barlow and for the New Jersey Division of Taxation.
Gov. William Cahill named him director of the Division of Administrative Procedure at the New Jersey Department of State.
“As the can-do mayor, Jack made Hamilton a great place to live and improved the quality of life for all. All Hamiltonians were his priority,” Smith said. “I was privileged to work with Jack on many projects including establishing the Hamilton train station and securing Hamilton’s postal identity. Like a great quarterback, he knew how to effectively lead the Rafferty team of dedicated professionals.”
Smith said that Rafferty and his wife, Doris, “made all of us Hamiltonians proud.”
“My wife Marie and I considered Jack a good friend who lent his political expertise to many of my campaigns,” Smith said. “We mourn Jack’s passing but celebrate a life that has made all the difference in the world. Rest in peace, our friend.”
Rafferty also received tributes from his successors.
“As Mayor of Hamilton Township and on behalf of our entire community, I wish to express my deepest sympathies and condolences to his wife Doris and the entire Rafferty Family during this very difficult time,” said Martin. “I trust his family, friends, and loved ones will find solace in knowing Jack’s many years of dedicated service to our community will live on in Hamilton Township, Mercer County and New Jersey for eternity.”
Glen Gilmore, a Democrat who succeeded Rafferty in 199, said that “Rafferty’s legacy of leadership will forever loom large over Hamilton.”
“He always cared about people more than politics – which is what we could use more of now,” Gilmore said. “He was always a friend to me and I will miss his smile.”
Former Mayor John Bencivengo said that Rafferty “will never be forgotten.”
“We lost our shining star, a friend to all, a great public servant, a family man, and our mayor for more than two generations. Once a mayor, always a mayor. To me, he was my mentor, friend, and a blessing in my life. Hamilton will forever be in his debt,” Bencivengo said. “He turned a place into a township, a township into a strong community of families, parks, schools, and thriving businesses – ‘Safe, Clean and Beautiful.'”
In a joint statement, State Sen. Linda Greenstein (D-Plainsboro) and Assemblymen Dan Benson (D-Hamilton) and Wayne DeAngelo (D-Hamilton) said that Rafferty was “the only mayor a whole generation of Hamilton residents ever knew.
“His witty sense of humor, warm-hearted nature and tremendous pride in his town made him a true man of the people, Greenstein, Benson and DeAngelo said. “He will be remembered as Hamilton’s first ‘full-time’ mayor, redefining the role for his successors, and never swaying from his firm commitment to bettering his community.”
This story was updated at 12:28 PM with comment from former mayors, at 2:31 PM with comment from Smith, and at 3:01 PM with comment from Greenstein, Benson and DeAngelo.