Michel J. “Jerry” Breslin, a former Bergen County Chairman and a high-powered trial lawyer, died today. He was 85.
“Jerry Breslin was a hell of a lawyer and a hell of a guy,” said his college friend, Rep. Bill Pascrell, Jr. (D-Paterson). “Jerry’s character was a rock and unmistakable to everyone who met him. Always a loyal and supportive friend, we go way back to Fordham University days. On campus, people called us the ‘Two Kibitzers,’ and just to be associated with Jerry was my honor.”
At age 35, Breslin was elected county chairman in a March 1973 special election after Matthew J. Feldman (D-Teaneck) resigned to challenge State Sen. Joseph Woodcock (R-Cliffside Park) in the new 37th district. He defeated Barbara Werber, who ran George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign In Bergen County, by 66 votes, 373 to 307, a margin of ten percentage points.
Werber immediately announced her plans to run again in June.
In the 1973 gubernatorial election, Breslin was among the first county chairs to endorse Brendan Byrne, a Superior Court Judge who made a late entrance into the race. But Assemblywoman Ann Klein (D-Morris Township) carried Bergen by 3,888 votes over Byrne, 42%-33%.
He also had some setbacks during the first month of his chairmanship, attempting to get the Democratic State Senate nomination in the 36th district for Carlstadt Mayor Dominick Presto instead of the leading candidate, Lyndhurst Mayor Anthony Scardino. Presto declined to run, leaving Scardino angered by Breslin’s bid to take him out.
In the 38th district, Breslin tried to deliver the Senate nomination to former State Sen. Jeremiah O’Connor (D-Saddle Brook). O’Connor turned down the chance to enter a party fight between former Assemblyman John Skevin (D-Oradell) and former State Sen. Alfred Kiefer (D-Hasbrouck Heights). That left Skevin, who unseated State Sen. Frederick Wendel (R-Oradell), unhappy with the new county chairman.
Werber criticized Breslin for failing to deliver Bergen to Byrne, promising to make sure Byrne carried Bergen County in the general election. She had remained neutral during the primary, although many of her supporters backed Klein.
Byrne also refused to take sides in the Breslin vs. Werber matchup. One week after the primary, Breslin lost a rematch with Werber by 16 votes, 473 to 456.
“I’m deeply saddened by the passing of Jerry Breslin, a tireless fighter and great leader who was always working to making a difference for the community he loved,” said Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano. “Jerry’s memory and his contributions to our Party, our county, and our state will not be forgotten. My heart goes out to Jerry’s family and all who loved him.”
In 1974, Byrne nominated Breslin to a seat on the Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commission. He served there for eight years before resigning to protest the freeholder board canceling plans to build a trash recycling plant in Ridgefield.
Breslin took the HMDC seat on the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, but Byrne tossed him from that post in 1975 after he voted to keep a Republican, William McDowell – he became the first Bergen County Executive in 1986 – as executive director. After one year in the doghouse, Byrne reinstated him to the Sports Authority.
In 1977, Breslin stuck with Byrne in a hotly-contested Democratic primary for governor. Werber personally endorsed State Sen. Raymond Garramone (D-Haworth), but the Bergen County Democratic Organization declined to back a gubernatorial candidate.
Byrne carried Bergen that year by a 36%-34% margin over Rep. Bob Roe (D-Wayne). Garramone, who gave up his 39th district Senate seat to run for governor, finished fifth in Bergen County with 3.4% of the vote.
In 1978, Breslin endorsed Bill Bradley for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate despite Byrne’s endorsement of former State Treasurer Richard Leone. He backed former Attorney General John Degnan, Byrne’s choice to succeed him, in the 1981 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
In 1984, Breslin was the finance chairman of Bradley’s re-election campaign.
After his graduation from Fordham Law School, Breslin joined the Hackensack law firm of his uncle, John J. Breslin, Jr., the Bergen County Democratic chairman from 1931 to 1933, the Bergen County Prosecutor from 1934 to 1944, and a close personal friend of political leaders like Frank Hague and John F Kennedy. With his uncle, he began to try complex personal injury, medical malpractice, and product liability cases.
He later formed his own law firm.
Breslin also served as the Northvale borough attorney from 1973 to 1978, attorney for the Oradell Board of Education from 1974 to 1987, the redevelopment attorney for Hackensack from 1979 to 1982, the Tenafly Planning Board attorney from 1996 to 1998, and the Closter municipal attorney from 1999 to 2003. In the 1970s, Breslin served as a trustee of the Boardwalk Regency Casino in Atlantic City.
His father, John Breslin, Sr., also served as Bergen County Democratic Chairman in the 1930s.
“He accomplished many great things throughout his life,” said John Hogan, the Bergen County Clerk. “He was a friend to all.”