Joseph D. Patero, who served eight terms in the State Assembly and was the sponsor of landmark legislation to establish paid family leave in New Jersey, died on June 20 at his home in Manville. He was 88.
He served as chairman of the Assembly Labor Committee for thirteen years.
Patero was a well-liked advocate of workplace safety that stemmed from his 35-year career as a human resources executive at Johns Manville, Inc. He pushed for the state to turn a worker’s compensation fund from a deficit to a surplus, and increased compensation for worker’s suffering injuries on the job.
His 1989 bill required employers to permit unpaid leave so that workers could tend to family emergencies.
Because of the way legislative districts were drawn, he was the lone Somerset County Democrat in the New Jersey Legislature for the nearly 16 years he served.
He began his political career in 1966, at age 34,n as a candidate for the Manville Borough Council against two Republican incumbents, Nicholas Lebedz and Andrew Shuleski.
Patero was the top vote-getter in that race, running about 200 votes ahead of his running mate, Stanley Mleczko. Mleczko beat Shuleski by about 40 votes, with Lebedz running about 150 votes behind his GOP running mate.
The 1966 election gave Democrats a 6-0 majority, leaving Mayor George Papawick as the only Republican left in local government.
Manville was a swing town in those days. Manville gave U.S. Senator Clifford Case an 18-vote margin in 1966 over Democrat Warren Wilentz, and Rep. Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen carried the borough by 148 votes over Democrat Carter Jefferson.
In September, 1968, Patero became the Democratic candidate for mayor after two significant events impacted local politics.
Papawick died in March and the council replaced him with a Democrat, 34-year-old Thaddeus Szymanski.
Szymanski was running in a special election for Papawick’s unexpired term when he became sick and dropped out of the race in September.
Democrats picked Patero as their mayoral candidate.
In the general election, Patero defeated Republican Eugene Mason by 554 votes, a 49%-37% margin, with independent Alex Kalinowski receiving 14% of the vote.
Patero won a full term in 1969, defeating Shuleski by 720 votes. He outperformed the Democratic candidate for governor, Robert B. Meyner, by sixteen percentage points in Manville.
In 1971, Patero was re-elected with 61% of the vote against Michael Mazur, a Republican councilman.
After new legislative districts were drawn for the 1973 election – the first year New Jersey went to a 40-district map – Manville and Franklin Township in Somerset County became part of the Middlesex County-based 17th legislative district. Democrats picked Patero to run for a State Assembly seat on a ticket with State Sen. John A. Lynch (D-New Brunswick) and Assemblyman William Hamilton (D-New Brunswick).
Hamilton and Patero won the Democratic primary by a 4-1 margin against Harry Van Houten, a former Franklin councilman.
Democrats won a landslide victory in the 1973 general election that was heavily influenced by the emerging Watergate scandal in Washington.
Patero led the Assembly voting in the 1973 general with 29,186 – with Hamilton coming in 36 votes behind him. They defeated Republicans Elizabeth Lyons (14,303) and Bruce Williams (13,340), a Franklin councilman.
In 1975, Patero won a third term in the Assembly with 21,446 votes – 330 behind of Hamilton. They defeated Republicans Charles Williams (16,844) and Kenneth Brennan (16,260).
Following Lynch’s retirement in 1977, Hamilton ran for the State Senate and was replaced on the Assembly ticket by Highland Park Council President David Schwartz, a Rutgers political science professor.
Schwartz edged out Piscataway Mayor Ted Light for the support of the Middlesex County Democratic organization.
In that race, Patero finished first with 25,962 votes, followed by Schwartz with 24,608. The Republican nominees were Jeff Brindle (16,850), now the executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, and former Franklin Mayor Charles B.W. Durand (16,828).
Light was anxious to go to the legislature in 1979 and launched a bid to take one of the two 17th district Assembly seats. He persuaded the county chairman, Nicholas Venezia, partly by threatening to run off the line himself.
Venezia chose to drop Schwartz and not Patero, honoring a deal he made with Somerset County Democrats to get one of the Assembly seats in a district that included Manville and Franklin Township.
That deal went badly for Middlesex after Somerset Democrats voted to back Schwartz on the line with Patero. After Venezia had a little chat with Patero, it was agreed that the incumbent would eschew the line and run with Light in Somerset.
Also in the race but running separately, was Steve DeMicco, the 27-year-old executive director of New Jersey Public Interest Group (PIRG). DeMicco now works as a political consultant.
In order to secure a better ballot position, Schwartz recruited three of his friends from Highland Park to for Middlesex County freeholder on a line her formed. One of the freeholder candidates was Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers political science professor of national prominence.
Schwartz turned out to be a vociferous campaigner. He said that his constituents ought not be deprived of effective representation just because a few political bosses wanted someone else. He secured the endorsement of the New Jersey AFL-CIO, much to Venezia’s chagrin.
The race between Schwartz and Patero got especially bitter during the final days of the campaign. Schwartz filed a libel suit against Patero after a campaign leaflet with his former running mate’s disclaimer alleged that he backed legislation to lower the legal age of sexual consent.
Both had voted for a bill that changed the consent age from 16 to 13 as part of sweeping changes to the criminal code, and many legislators claimed ignorance to that particular section of the legislation. Both Schwartz and Patero voted to raise the age back to 16.
Light said he approved the flyer and the printer made a mistake.
Primary Day was a romp for Schwartz, who won 5,494 votes. Patero finished second with 3,786 votes, just 196 votes ahead of Light. DeMicco finished third with 2,720. Schwartz beat Light in Middlesex by 1,204 and in Somerset by 700 votes, a near 2-1 margin.
Schwartz outraised Light by a 3-1 margin, $33,000 to $11,000. Patero reported raising less than $1,000 and DeMicco had a haul of $7,300.
Legislative redistricting in 1981 separated Trenton and Hamilton and created the new 14th district. Anchored by Hamilton, the district included parts of Mercer and Middlesex counties and Manville in Somerset.
Assemblyman Francis J. McManimon (D-Hamilton) ran for the open Senate seat, and Patero ran with Joseph Bocchini, Jr., a 37-year-old attorney from Hamilton. Patero ran 336 votes ahead of Bocchini, who defeated Republican Paul Kramer, the Hamilton Township Improvement Authority chairman, by just 660 votes.
With two popular GOP incumbents up for re-election – Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty and Mercer County Executive Bill Mathesius — Republicans believed they could make a play for the 14th in 1983.
They recruited Durand to take on McManimon, with Hamilton councilman Donald Tamutus and 1981 Senate candidate Thomas Colitsas running for Assembly.
Patero finished 455 votes behind Patero, and 5,381 votes ahead of Tamutus.
In 1985, with popular Republican Gov. Thomas Kean winning a landslide re-election, Rafferty sought the 14th district Assembly seat.
Rafferty beat Patero by 1,253 votes. Bocchini ran 516 votes ahead of Rafferty, and 4,287 ahead of Colitsas, who was making his third consecutive bid for the legislature.
Rafferty’s unimpressive win meant that he couldn’t frighten McManimon out of the 1987 Senate race. Indeed, internal Republican polling that year showed that if Rafferty attempted to run for re-election as mayor and jeep his Assembly seat, he could lose both.
Instead, Rafferty left the legislature after one term and refocused on his local post.
Patero was able to launch a political comeback in 1987.
With Bocchini giving up his post to run for county executive, Democrats nominated Patero and Mercer County Freeholder Anthony “Skip” Cimino in a primary against Janice Mironov, the East Windsor Democratic municipal chair. Patero and Cimino easily won the general election against Hamilton’s Dave Kenny and WCTC radio personality Walt Sodie.
He was re-elected with little difficulty in 1989, defeating his Republican opponents by a 16,000-vote margin.
After Democrats regained control of the Assembly in that election, Patero again became the Assembly Labor Committee Chairman.
Patero’s political career came to an abrupt end in 1991, a GOP wave election that followed Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase.
Manville was redistricted into the heavily-Republican 16th district, where incumbents Walter Kavanaugh (R-Somerville) and John Penn (R-Watchung) were seeking re-election. He had no realistic path to winning re-election.
Just before the April filing deadline, Patero announced he would not run again.
In August, Patero resigned from the Assembly to take a job at the New Jersey Department of Labor supervising a review of New Jersey’s Public Employees Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA).
His resignation enabled Democrats to send Plainsboro Mayor Peter Cantu, who was running with Cimino in the 14th, to the Assembly.
Patero served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War and was a volunteer firefighter and member of the Manville Board of Health before winning local office.
“I’m very sad to hear of Joe’s passing,” said Brindle. “Having lost to him in our race for Assembly in 1977 I can attest to his decency and graciousness as an opponent and as a human being. God Bless you Joe.”
His wife of 51 years, Lillian, died in 2011. Patero is survived by his daughter and many nieces and nephews.
A viewing in accordance with social distancing guidelines will be held from 2-4 PM and 6-8 PM on Thursday and on Friday from 8:30-9:00 AM at the Fucillo & Warren Funeral Home in Manville. Funeral services will be held at 9:30 AM at the Christ the Redeemer Parish in Manville.