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Joseph Tighue, a popular Mercer County vote-getter during more than twenty years as a countywide elected official, died on August 24. He was 87.
Tighue first ran for office in 1969 as the county organization candidate for Mercer County Freeholder. He faced a rancorous primary battle in his first race from a slate of liberal Democrats backed by supporters of 1968 presidential candidates Eugene McCarthy and Robert F. Kennedy.
Tighue’s primary opponents were John S. Watson, an insurance executive and the father of Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing), and attorney Gerald Stockman.
About ten weeks before the primary, Mercer County Democratic Chairman Joseph Bash died of a heart attack at age 60. He was replaced by State Sen. Richard Coffee (D-Lawrence), who took over the campaigns of Tighue and his running mate, Trenton City Council President Peter Radice.
The race caused the relationship between Coffee and Rep. Frank Thompson (D-Trenton) to become strained after the congressman refused to endorse the organization slate for freeholder. Thompson and Stockman were close friends.
Radice ran about 125 votes ahead of Tighue, with Stockman coming in third, about 1,400 votes behind Tighue. Watson ran approximately 550 votes behind Stockman.
Stockman would go on to serve as an assemblyman and state senator before losing his seat in the 1991 Republican landslide. Watson later served six terms in the State Assembly.
The 1969 general election was highly competitive, back in an era when Mercer County sported a two-party system.
Tighue was the top vote-getter, and Radice lost to Republican Clifford Snedeker, a Lawrence Township Committeeman who later served ten years as an assemblyman.
Radice blamed his defeat on bumper stickers that said, “Radice Loves Sam the Plumber,” a reference to Simone Rizzo “Sam the Plumber” DeCavalcante, the reputed head of the La Cosa Nostra crime family and the subject of the FBI’s “Goodfella Tapes.”
Republican John Scozzari, who was also an Italian American, finished fourth.
Coffee, an astute political insider who understood the emerging importance of black voters in Mercer County elections, picked Watson to fill a vacancy on the Board of Freeholders in 1970 after Charles Kovacs resigned to become Sheriff.
Watson, the first black freeholder from Mercer, lost his bid for a full three-year term in 1970 to Rider University professor Dominick Iorio. Watson was the only Democratic freeholder candidate to lose that year, with incumbent Paul Sollami — who was also appointed in 1970 — and Gilbert Lugossy winning the other two seats. One of the unsuccessful Republican candidates that year was Regina Haig Meredith, the sister of General Alexander Haig.
When Tighue sought re-election to a second term in 1972, Coffee picked Watson to run with him over another candidate, Washington Township (now Robbinsville) Mayor Albert Driver.
They faced Snedeker and former Trenton Mayor Carmen Armenti in the general election.
President Richard Nixon carried Mercer by 7,123 votes (52%-47%) over Democrat George McGovern. Tighue was the top vote-getter and Watson ousted Snedeker in what was viewed as an upset.
Tighue openly mulled a bid for the legislature in 1975 against Speaker S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton) and Assemblyman Francis McManimon (D-Hamilton) in the Democratic primary. Hamilton Mayor Albert DeMartin did run against Woodson and lost by 2,985 votes.
Instead, Tighue sought a third term as freeholder and won easily. Tighue and Watson defeated Republicans Rita Stremensky and Joseph Diskorowski.
He did not seek re-election as freeholder in 1978 and was replaced on the ticket by another Hamilton Democrat, Fred Gmitter.
Tighue became the Democratic candidate for Mercer County Surrogate in 1981 and easily defeated Republican Frank Metzger in the general election.
In 1983, Tighue won the Democratic nomination for Mercer County Executive but lost to incumbent Republican Bill Mathesius.
The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that year that as quasi-judicial officials, the only political office a Surrogate can run for is re-election. The court carved out an exception for Tighue and the Hudson County Surrogate, West New York Mayor Anthony DeFino, saying they can run but could only hold one of the offices.
Tighue was re-elected Surrogate in 1986.
He lost re-election in the 1991 anti-Florio GOP landslide to Carol Oswald. He sought a comeback in 1996, but lost the Mercer County Democratic convention to Diane Gerofsky. Gerofsky flipped the Surrogate post back to the Democrats in the general election.
A U.S. Army veteran who served in Korea, Tighue studied real estate at Rider and Rutgers and started Tighue Realty in Hamilton.
He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Marie, three children and six grandchildren.
Visitation will be held from 6-8 PM on Wednesday at the Saul Colonial Home in Hamilton. Funeral services will be held there at 11:30 AM on Thursday.
This story was updated at 2:44 PM.