John H. Dorsey, a former majority leader of the New Jersey State Senate and a powerful Republican legislator for eighteen years, passed away on Sunday. He was 80.
Dorsey served in the State Assembly from 1976 to 1978, and in the Senate from 1978 to 1994. He lost his seat in 1993 after blocking the reappointment of a Superior Court Judge in Morris County.
He launched his political career in 1971 at age 34 as a candidate for an Assembly seat, losing a Republican primary to incumbent Josephine Margetts (R-Harding) and Albert W. Merck (R-Mendham), the scion of the Merck pharmaceutical fortune. He finished third in a field of seven candidates, running 1,479 votes behind Merck.
When Margetts gave up her seat to run for the Senate in 1973, Dorsey ran again. He won the Republican primary by 544 votes against James J. Barry, Jr. (R-Harding). Dorsey and Merck were casualties of the Watergate landslide that year, losing to Democrats Gordon MacInnes (D-Morris Township) and Rosemarie Totaro (D-Denville). Dorsey ran 4,119 votes behind MacInnes, but just 903 votes behind Totaro. He out-polled Merck by 435 votes.
Dorsey ran for a third time in 1975. This time he finished first in the GOP primary, running 1,083 votes ahead of Barry. Barry took the second seat by 23 votes over Parsippany attorney Alfred Villoresi.
In the general election, Dorsey and Barry narrowly defeated Totaro and MacInnes.
Dorsey was the top vote-getter, running 11 votes in front of Barry and 591 votes ahead of Totaro. MacInnes finished fourth, 1,693 votes behind Dorsey.
After one term in the Assembly, Dorsey gave up his seat to challenge freshman State Sen. Stephen B. Wiley (D-Morris Township).
Wiley has emerged as a leading legislator as chairman of the Senate Education Committee during a debate on a state income tax to fund public schools. He also missed several months in the Senate after Gov. Brendan Byrne nominated him to the New Jersey Supreme Court. Wiley wound up withdrawing after a judge ruled that he could not accept the post because he had voted to raise salaries of judges.
In the 1977 general election, Dorsey defeated Wiley by 4,901 votes, 54%-46%.
Dorsey faced a tough re-election fight against MacInnes in 1987, wining by 2,082 votes, 53%-47%. MacInnes had hammered Dorsey for using his Senate seat to grow his law practice.
He mulled a bid for Congress in 1982, when Millicent Fenwick (R-Bernardsville) gave up her House seat to run for the U.S. Senate. Dorsey expected to face Morris County freeholder Rodney Frelinghuysen in the primary before redistricting eliminated the seat entirely. Instead, Dorsey backed Rep. Jim Courter when Frelinghuysen challenged the incumbent in the GOP primary.
In 1984, when a new map put most of Morris County in the district of Rep. Joseph Minish (D-West Orange), Dorsey briefly considered running. He dropped out hours later when Assembly Minority Leader Dean Gallo (R-Parsippany) became a candidate.
Dorsey became Senate Minority Leader in January 1989 after James Hurley (R-Millville) resigned to take a seat on the New Jersey Casino Control Commission.
When Republicans won control of the State Senate in 1991 after Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase, Dorsey expected to be the Senate President. But Donald DiFrancesco (R-Scotch Plains), a former minority leader, made strategic campaigns to Republican Senate candidates, then challenged Dorsey and beat him easily.
Instead, Dorsey became the majority leader.
Had Dorsey not dropped out when it became clear that DiFrancesco had the votes of at least 14 of the 27 Republican senators, he would not have been majority leader either. That post would have gone to John Bennett (R-Little Silver).
Dorsey got in trouble in 1993 when he used senatorial courtesy to block Florio’s renomination of Marianne Espinosa Murphy, then the wife of former Morris County Prosecutor and gubernatorial candidate Michael Murphy.
He faced a challenge in the Republican primary from 30-year-old attorney Chris Christie. But Christie flubbed his nominating petitions – 39 of the 111 signatures were disqualified because signatories didn’t live in the 25th district, and a judge threw him off the ballot.
Christie offered to run as a Democrat against Dorsey, but Morris County Democrats didn’t want him.
Instead, they went with 67-year-old Lou Carlesso, who won the primary and then dropped out for health reasons. The real reason for his withdrawal was the sudden belief by Democrats that the Espinosa Murphy issue was making Dorsey vulnerable.
Carlesso, was blind, did not want to drop out, but party leaders pushed him out.
Democrats intended to run Morristown councilwoman Kathleen O’Neill Margiotta, but couldn’t get her on the ballot when the meeting called to nominate her failed to achieve a quorum.
Margiotta spent seven weeks campaigning for the post before Democrats got a poll back showing Dorsey was in trouble. MacInnes was willing to run and brought more money to the table then O’Neill Margiotta. Party leaders pulled her and MacInnes became the candidate in September.
MacInnes beat Dorsey by an extraordinarily close 355-vote margin, 50.2%-49.7%.
Dorsey’s defeat allowed DiFrancesco to end a tradition of rotating the Senate Presidency and hold the post for ten years.
Had Dorsey still been around, it could have been him and not DiFrancesco who became governor in 2001 when Christie Todd Whitman resigned to join George W. Bush’s cabinet.
Dorsey was born December 26, 1937. He grew up in Boonton and graduated from Yale University and Yale Law School. He served six years in the U.S. Army Reserves, and was an Assistant Morris County Counsel.