Jeremiah F. O’Connor, an affable Democrat who won a State Senate seat at age 31 and sponsored a bill to give 18-year-olds the right to vote, died on May 13. He was 86.
O’Connor, who served two terms on the Bergen County Board of Freeholders, was an institution in Bergen County politics. He was one of the first elected officials in New Jersey to ban discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community in county government.
“I’ve never discriminated against anybody in my life and I never will,” he said at the time.
He was the last living senator to run on a ticket with Democratic Gov. Richard J. Hughes, who was elected in 1961 and re-elected in 1965.
Like many Democrats of his generation, O’Connor first became involved in local politics during John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign. He was appointed to the Saddle Brook Zoning Board and ran for township committee in 1962.
During his first campaign, the 28-year-old O’Connor faced a split local Democratic Party that had voted to censure Township committeeman Richard Kelly, the Democratic Municipal Chairman. O’Connor and running mate Edward Siepiola were allied with the anti-Kelly faction.
O’Connor and Siepiola defeated Republicans Otto Pehl and Raymond Coger for the open seats of Kelly and another Democrat not seeking re-election, John Jordan.
Saddle Brook Democrats won control of the township committee in 1964 after Donald McCormick defeated GOP incumbent William Schmidt. With his party in control, O’Connor became mayor of Saddle Brook in January 1965.
Until the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision in 1962, each of New Jersey’s 21 counties had one senator. In 1965, the Senate was expanded to 29 members, with seats apportioned based on population. Bergen was given four Senate seats.
Democrats ran O’Connor for one of the Senate seats, on a slate with former deputy state attorney general Ned Parsekian, Teaneck Mayor Matthew Feldman, and Hasbrouck Heights Democratic Municipal Chairman Alfred Kiefer.
Parsekian had moved from Flemington to Montvale in 1964 after the Republican state senator from Hunterdon County had blocked his nominations as state Division of Motor Vehicles director and as a Superior Court Judge. His move was made with the plan to run for the Senate.
Kiefer, the general counsel to the New Jersey Synod of the Lutheran Church, had lost four times as a candidate for mayor of Hasbrouck Heights. Feldman was considered a home-run recruit.
A reliably factionalized Bergen Republican organization dumped freshman State Sen. Pierce Deamer (R-Bergenfield) from their organization line and fielded a ticket that included Assembly Speaker Marion West Higgins (R-Hillsdale), Assemblyman Peter Moraites (R-Alpine), former Assemblyman Nelson Gross (R-Saddle River), and former Freeholder Arthur Vervaet (R-Oakland).
Deamer ran his own ticket that included Assemblymen Richard Vander Plaat (R-Fair Lawn) and Harry Randall (R-Westwood), and former Assemblyman Carmine Savino (R-Lyndhurst).
The Jones slate won the primary by a 3-2 margin. Deamer trailed Vervaet by 10,419 votes.
With Gov. Richard Hughes carrying Bergen County by 41,000 votes in his re-election bid, 1965 turned out to be a big Democratic year.
Democrats won all four Senate seats – their first win since William Ely defeated Hackensack Harry Harper in 1931.
Parsekian ran way ahead of the ticket with 174,438 votes, followed by Feldman (159,236), O’Connor (156,888) and Kiefer (152,844). The defeated Moraites (148,092), Higgins (148,035), Vervaet, (144,890) and Gross (143,532).
Democrats won six of the seven Bergen County Assembly seat – all were elected countywide — with only incumbent Joseph Woodcock (R-Cliffside Park) winning. Among the freshmen assemblymen elected in 1965 was Arnold Brown (D-Englewood), the first African American legislator from Bergen County.
The legislative terms were just two years and the full Bergen delegation faced the voters again in 1967. A new round of redistricting gave Bergen five Senate seats – all elected countywide — and five dual-member Assembly districts.
Republicans nominated Woodcock, Lodi Municipal Court Judge Alfred Schiaffo, Midland Park Mayor Garret Hagedorn, former Tenafly Mayor Willard Knowlton – and in what was considered a Republican candidate recruitment coup, pharmaceutical company president Fairleigh Dickinson, Jr.
The GOP swept all five Senate seats and all ten Assembly seats in 1967.
Dickinson easily outdistanced the rest of the field, winning 191,260 votes. He was followed by Woodcock (166,982), Schiaffo (162,420), Hagedorn (171,596) and Knowlton (167,379). The four Democratic incumbents – Parsekian (117,609), Feldman (114,760), O’Connor (113,888) and Kiefer (104,869) were all defeated. So was there running mate, Cliffside Park mayor Gerald Calabrese (105,450).
O’Connor also attempted to return to the Senate in 1973 in the newly-drawn 38th district. Kiefer and former Assemblyman John Skevin (D-Oradell) also sough the Senate seat.
O’Connor dropped out prior to the vote and Bergen Democrats, by a vote of 28-9, picked Skevin. He went on to oust Republican State Sen. Fred Wendel (R-Oradell) in the Democratic wave election that year.
In 1974, O’Connor ran for Bergen County Freeholder on a ticket with two former freeholders, D. Bennett Mazur (D-Fort Lee) and Doris Mahalick, the mayor of Wallington.
Republicans, who lost three seats in the 1973 Democratic landslide, ran two incumbents, William Dorgan (R-Palisades Park) and Walter Margut (R-Wallington), along with Saddle Brook Mayor Edward Kugler, Jr.
Democrats won all three seats by about 25,000 votes, giving them their first majority since the 1966 and 1967 and their second since Woodrow Wilson had coattails as a gubernatorial candidate in 1910 and a presidential candidate in 1912.
O’Connor, Mahalick and Mazur were re-elected in 1977 by more than 20,000 votes, defeating Woodcliff Lake Council President Joan Wright, Allendale attorney Thomas Bruinooge and former Oakland Mayor LeRoy Wright.
He served as freeholder director from 1975 until Mahalick won the post in 1980.
O’Connor did not seek re-election to a third term in 1980 and led an unsuccessful bid to change Bergen County’s form of government.
Following the death of Republican Freeholder Archie Hay in 1983, the Bergen County freeholder board was left with each of the two parties occupying four seats. Democrats blocked the GOP from replacing Hay at a time before county committees filled vacancies.
At the time, Democratic County Chairman Joseph Parisi said that he was considering O’Connor, former Assemblyman Albert Burstein (D-Tenafly) and retired Superior Court Judge Fred Galda for the open freeholder seat. O’Connor considered running, but eventually withdrew from the race.
Democrats picked Galda, who defeated Woodcock, the former Senate Majority Leader, in a November special election that gave Democrats a 6-3 majority on the Board of Freeholders.
In 1990, O’Connor became the Democratic nominee for Bergen County Executive after defeating former Assemblyman Edward Hynes and former Freeholder John F. Curran for the organization line.
In an open seat race – the first elected county executive, William D. McDowell, did not seek re-election to a second term – Assemblyman William P. Schuber (R-Bogota) defeated O’Connor by 28,910 votes, a 56%-44% margin.
Gov. Jim Florio nominated O’Connor to serve on the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities in early 1991. He succeeded another Bergen County Democrat, Scott Weiner, who had been named commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.
He served on the utilities commission until the new Republican governor, Christine Todd Whitman, replaced him with former Essex County Freeholder Herbert Tate in 1994.
O’Connor worked for the fledgling Jersey Capital, a company that served as the underwriter for government bond issues that emerged as a major player in Bergen politics in the 1980s.
A graduate of Iona College, he retired from Bell and Howell Corporation in 1987 as a senior vice president for marketing. He was a founder of the Interchange State Bank and served as vice-chairman. He also helped create the New Jersey Bank for Savings and the Bridge View Bank.
He served as a trustee of Bergen County Community college, on the advisory board of Felician College, and a member of the Hudson River Development Commission.
Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg, who counted O’Connor as a friend more 50 years, called the former senator “a visionary” and said that his family “will find solace in knowing how many lives he touched and how many more will miss him.”
“As Freeholder Director in Bergen county, he was responsible for enabling Our county to qualify for hundreds of millions of dollars in community development federal funds, created first program and the first shelter for victims of domestic violence￼. He presided over a county government which implemented the first affirmative action program of any county in the state of New Jersey,” Weinberg said. “It was under his tenure as director that the county established the office on women, the first office devoted to help the disability community; the county office for transportation, and so much more.”
According to Weinberg, O’Connor’s “wonderful sense of humor made going to work every day fun.”
“I hope the younger generation of elected officials in Bergen county look at his record and try to learn a little bit from it, she said.
Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano said that “Bergen County lost an icon, a dedicated public servant and pillar of our Democratic Party.”
“Jerry was a mentor whose guidance was actively sought and valued by so many,” Juliano said. “His contributions to our county and state will not be forgotten and his passion for public service and unwavering commitment to Democratic ideals will carry on through his family. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire O’Connor family during this difficult time.”
Democratic State Committeeman Kevin O’Connor, said his father “was a great man with many friends and our family appreciates all of the kind wishes we are receiving.”
“He was known for his Irish wit and for being a man of his word above all else,” his son said. “He was a wonderful family man and we will all miss him very dearly.”
O’Connor said that his father and his wife, Terry, shared “a life of Democratic politics, travel and love of family for thirty years.”
O’Connor was also praised by Gov. Phil Murphy.
“Jeremiah O’Connor was a rarity in New Jersey politics – an official who put serving at the local and county level, where he believed government had its greatest impact on the people it serves, over serving in the State House,” he said.
Senate President Steve Sweeney called O’Connor “a shining example of what it means to be a public servant: upstanding, selfless and dedicated to his Bergen County community. He led by example as an early champion of the LGBTQ community and advocate for domestic violence survivors.”
“He was a staple in Bergen County politics long after he left office and a role model for the next generation,” Sweeney said. “He will be missed but his impact on New Jersey will continue to be felt for years to come.”