Home>Highlight>James Dugan, former senator and Dem state chairman, dies at 92

Democratic State Chairman/State Sen. James Dugan, left, brought Gov. Jerry Brown to NJ in May 1976 to meet with uncommitted delegates in a bid to stop Jimmy Carter from becoming the Democratic presidential nominee. (Photo: David Wildstein Collection).

James Dugan, former senator and Dem state chairman, dies at 92

Former Bayonne lawmaker was one of the most influential people in New Jersey politics in the 1970s

By David Wildstein, December 12 2021 3:28 pm

James P. Dugan, a former New Jersey Democratic State Chairman and state senator from Bayonne who was once among New Jersey’s most powerful political insiders, died on Sunday.  He was 92 and had been in failing health.

Dugan, who represented Hudson County in the State Assembly from 1970 to 1972 and in the State Senate from 1972 to 1978, had served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and was a top political lieutenant of the legendary Bayonne Mayor Francis Fitzpatrick.  He served as Bayonne Corporation Counsel from 1962 to 1969.

The passing of Dugan leaves former Superior Court Judge Gregory Castano as the only living delegate to the 1966 New Jersey Constitutional Convention called to put the state’s legislative redistricting process in line with the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision.

He was the husband of Ruth Dugan, who recently sought a State Senate seat in the 39th district.

Dugan was elected to the Assembly in 1969, on a ticket with another Bayonne Democrat, Joseph A. LeFante.  They replaced Assemblyman John J. Fekety (D-Bayonne), who did not seek re-election, and Addison McLeon (D-Jersey City), who was redistricted form Hudson County’s District 12-A to District 12-C.  LeFante and Dugan defeated Leon Tluchowski and Timothy B. Benford by more than 10,000 votes in the Democratic primary.  (Benford later became well-known as an author).

Between the November general election and taking office in January, Dugan explored a bid for an Assembly leadership post, making calls to become the Assistant Minority Leader.  He sought to leverage some Hudson votes in a fight for minority leader between John Horn (D-Camden) and S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton) but wound up backing down after another young assemblyman from his county with more seniority, David Friedland (D-Jersey City), decided he wanted the post.

In 1971, Hudson County Democrats dumped State Sen. Frederick Hauser (D-Hoboken) from the organization line and replaced him with Dugan.  That was the last year Senate candidates ran at-large in countywide elections.

The 70-year-old Hauser had spent 20 years in the Assembly and four in the State Senate.  He had been closely tied to the Hudson County Democratic boss, John V. Kenny, who was facing legal issues, as part of what party leaders described as a youth movement.

“When you’re 70, it’s time to go bye bye,” the Hudson County Democratic Chairman, Walter Wolfe, said in his announcement that Hauser would not get party support for a second term in the Senate.

Hauser mounted an off-the-line challenge to the Hudson County Democratic Organization.

Running on a ticket with two incumbents, William Vincent Musto (D-Union City) and William F. Kelly (D-Jersey City), Dugan defeated Hauser in the Democratic primary by 21,433 votes.

(Kelly was the grandfather of Assemblywoman DeAnne DeFuccio, an Upper Saddle River Republican who won a 39th district seat in 2021 against a ticket led by Dugan’s wife, Ruth.)

In the general election, Musto, Dugan and Kelly faced an independent slate allied with Dr. Paul Jordan, who had been elected as the candidate of reformers in a 1971 special election for mayor of Jersey City.

Musto finished first with 81,522 votes, followed by Dugan (78,293) and Kelly (76,177).  They defeated future Bayonne Municipal Court Judge and mayoral candidate  Patrick Conaghan (47,082), former first assistant Jersey City Corporation Council Francis X. Hayes (47,036) and West New York Mayor Anthony DeFino (44,703).  Three Republicans ran about 10,000 votes behind them.

DeFino had emerged as a leading critic of Kelly, who became Hudson County Democratic Chairman in the summer of 1971.

When New Jersey created 40 separate legislative districts in 1973, Dugan was placed in the 31st district that included Bayonne and parts of Jersey City.  He ran on a slate with LeFante and freshman Assemblyman William O. Perkins (D-Jersey City).

Unopposed in the Democratic primary, Dugan defeated Republican Henry Kolakowski by 27,378 votes, 79%-21%, in the general election.

Dugan had been among the first people to back Superior Court Judge Brendan Byrne for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1973.  Dugan accompanied Byrne to Trenton to turn in his resignation as a judge at the suggestion of Fitzpatrick, who had become Hudson County Democratic Chairman in 1972.   Hudson and Bergen forged an alliance that helped coax Byrne into becoming a late entrant into the gubernatorial race.

After Byrne won the Democratic primary, he picked Dugan to serve as the state party chairman.  Dugan succee Salvatore Bontempo and took office as part of a Byrne slate that included 19-year-old Robert Torricelli, a future United States Senator, as the sergeant-at-arms.

The relationship between Dugan and Byrne became strained as the two engaged in a public feud that began with the Bayonne senator’s opposition to Byrne’s proposal to create a state income tax.   The fight led to a cash-strapped Democratic State Committee after the incumbent governor refused to raise money for the state party.  Dugan, as Senate Judiciary Chairman, publicly opposed Byrne’s call to eliminate senatorial courtesy.

Strife between Dugan and Byrne also split Dugan’s relationship with Fitzpatrick.  That led Jersey City Democratic Municipal Chairman Jack Finn to call for Dugan to resign from the Senate

In 1976, Dugan was part of a move to stop Jimmy Carter from winning the Democratic presidential nomination despite Byrne’s endorsement of the former Georgia governor.

The movement to nominate either former Vice President Hubert Humphrey,  then a U.S. Senator from Minnesota, or California Gov. Jerry Brown, was joined by U.S. Senator Harrison Williams, Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Nicholas Venezia, New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charles Marciante, Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner, and Jordan.  The Dugan-backed “Uncommitted” slate won a huge majority of the delegate seats in the June primary – a major embarrassment to Byrne.

Under much pressure, Dugan later delivered New Jersey’s delegates to Carter on the first ballot.

In 1977, Dugan endorsed Jordan in the Democratic primary for governor against Byrne.   Nine other Democrats entered that race, including two congressmen – Robert Roe (D-Wayne) and James Florio (D-Runnemede), former State Sen. Ralph DeRose (D-South Orange), former state Labor Commissioner Joseph Hoffman, and State Sen. Raymond Garramone (D-Haworth).

By running for governor, Jordan had to forego a third term as mayor of Jersey City.   Instead, he picked William Macchi, Jersey City’s director of Human Resources, to run in his stead.

But Macchi lost the May 1977 non-partisan municipal election City Clerk Thomas F.X. Smith by a 54%-26% margin.  The upset caused seismic shift in Jersey City politics that led to Jordan’s withdrawal from the gubernatorial race.

Dugan became a casualty of that election, and of his fights with Byrne and Bayonne Mayor Dennis Collins.

In the June 1977 Democratic 31st district Senate primary, Walter Sheil, a professor at Jersey City State College and an ally of Tommy Smith, won 49% of the vote to win the nomination.  Bayonne High School football coach Donald X. Ahern, who was backed by Collins, received 29%, and Dugan finished third with 20% of the vote, 8,328 votes behind Sheil.  A fourth candidate, Frank Gorman, received 2%.

Two weeks later, Byrne, who won renomination with 30% of the vote, replaced Dugan as state chairman with former State Sen. Richard J. Coffee (D-Lawrence).

Dugan made slight comeback in 1980 as a leader of U.S. Senator Ted Kennedy’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.  Kennedy won the June New Jersey presidential primary by a 56%-38% margin against Carter.  Kennedy won 68 of New Jersey’s 113 delegates to the convention in New York.  Hudson went for Kennedy by 1,625 votes and Dugan captured a delegate slot.

A U.S. Marine Corps captain during the Korean War, Dugan was a graduate of Fordham University Law School.  He later served as a partner at Waters McPherson McNeill, a Jersey City law firm, where he specialized in Hudson River waterfront development projects.

After leaving the Senate, Dugan lived in Saddle River.

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