Joseph E. Gonzalez, Jr., a master of statehouse politics who spent thirteen years as the executive director of the Assembly Republican Office from 1970 to 1983, has died. He was 86.
The popular Gonzalez served as the Assembly Majority’s top staffer when future Gov. Thomas H. Kean served as Assembly Speaker from 1972 to 1974. He shifted to the minority staff after Republicans lost control in the Watergate landslide, and Kean began a four-year stint as minority leader.
He served as a young Plainfield city councilman in the 1960s and later headed the New Jersey Business and Industry Association.
In 1960, Gonzalez was hired as the information research director for the New Jersey Republican State Committee by Carl Edman, the GOP state chairman.
That October, he was tapped Committee to organize a rally in Plainfield with Vice President Richard Nixon, who was in a tight presidential race against Democrat John F. Kennedy. Baseball legend Jackie Robinson accompanied Nixon, and over 5,000 people turned out.
Gonzalez became a candidate for the Plainfield City Council in 1961, at age 24, challenging Fourth Ward incumbent Democrat Robert A. MacConnell. In those days, Plainfield leaned Republican, and the GOP had an 8-3 majority on the city council.
McConnell defeated Gonzalez by just 15 votes, 992 to 977, 50.3% to 49.7%.
Gonzalez ran again for an at-large city council seat in 1963 when Republican incumbent John Bliss declined to seek re-election.
Running with incumbent Stephen Furino and Brice deGanahl, the three GOP candidates easily defeated Democrats Lester Barsky, Vincent Rapisardi, and Francis Sahaj. Gonzalez finished second, outdistancing the top Democratic vote-getter, Barsky, by about 1,900 votes.
Another young Plainfield Republican, Peter J. McDonough, then a Union County freeholder, was elected to the State Assembly the same day.
After two years as a councilman, Gonzalez declined to seek re-election to a second term in 1965.
He joined the Rutgers University staff in 1966 as a special assistant for legislative relations.
In January 1970, Assembly Speaker William Dickey and Majority Leader Barry Parker announced that Gonzalez would serve as the new executive director of the Assembly Majority Office.
From his perch as executive director, Gonzalez played a key role in one of the most incredible deals in the history of the New Jersey Legislature.
When Democrats captured a razor-thin 40-39 majority in Gov. William Cahill’s 1971 mid-term election — independent Anthony Imperiale of Newark also won — Rev. S. Howard Woodson, a Mercer County Democrat and former minority leader, emerged as the Democratic candidate for Speaker. Horn was to be Majority Leader on Woodson’s ticket.
But Woodson’s campaign for speaker ended when Friedland and three other Democrats – Michael Esposito, David Wallace of Hudson, and Joseph Higgins of Union – made a deal that made Republican Tom Kean the new Speaker. Friedland became chairman of the new Assembly Conference Committee, influencing which bills would make it to the floor. He controlled all the Assembly patronage jobs on the Democratic side. Friedland also negotiated committee chairmanships for some Democrats of his choosing.
After Kean left his legislative leadership post to run for governor in 1977, Gonzalez remained the top aide to the new minority leader, James Hurley.
In 1981, when Kean was elected governor by a mere 1,797 votes against Democrat Jim Florio, Gonzalez was named to the transition team. He had been one of Kean’s representatives in the statewide recount.
There was speculation that Gonzalez would become Kean’s chief of staff, but the post went to Lewis Thurston, the executive director of the Senate Republican Office. Thurston lasted about a year and was replaced by Greg Stevens.
Gonzalez joined the N.J. Business and Industry Association in 1983 and became president in 1996 when Bruce Coe retired. He held that post until his retirement in 2003.
“During his tenure, NJBIA experienced growth in its membership, outreach, and depth of research that supported its influential advocacy,” said NJBIA president Michele Siekerka. “To go along with his considerable achievements in Trenton and in business, Joe was also incredibly well-liked and a gentleman.
The son of a minister, Gonzalez grew up in Plainfield and graduated from Gettysburg College in 1958 and received an M.A. in political science from Rutgers in 1959. He had been a public affairs staffer at the American Petroleum Institute and Western Electric. He served as Plainfield Young Republicans president, a Union County GOP executive committee member, and on the Plainfield Housing Authority.
Gonzalez also played a key role in legislative and congressional redistricting in the 1970s.