Home>Feature>Joseph Simunovich, top New Jersey political figure, dies at 78

Joseph Simunovich, top New Jersey political figure, dies at 78

Prominent political, business and civic leader was key player in New Jersey politics

By David Wildstein, June 18 2019 9:43 pm

Joseph J. Simunovich, a popular and influential fixture in North Jersey politics for the last six decades, passed away this evening.  He was 78.

Simunovich served twelve years as a Hudson County Freeholder and later as chairman of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

A former All-State football player at Memorial High School in West New York, Simunovich entered politics in 1964 as a member of the West New York Parking Authority with the help of his father-in-law, Democratic party leader Whitey Pizzuta.  He served as treasurer of the West New York Democrats, a post that included the duties of finance chairman.

Simunovich was the deputy campaign manager for Mayor John Armellino in 1967 and campaign manager for Mayor Lawrence Harvey in 1971 in his losing race against Anthony DeFino.

He was the communications director for Jersey City Mayor Paul Jordan’s 1973 re-election campaign and became active in Brendan Byrne’s campaign for the Democratic nomination for governor that year.

Simunovich, then 34, was appointed to fill the vacant seat on the Hudson County Board of Freeholders in December 1973 after Charles “Sonny” Steinel resigned to return at his better-paying job at the county roads department.

In those days, the freeholders filled their own vacancies and Simunovich won a majority of votes with the help of Jordan.

DeFino had wanted to fill the seat with one of is own backers, but Jordan helped Simunovich pull together votes from five of the remaining eight freeholders: William Boyle, Morris Longo, Alina Miszkiewicz and Anne O’Malley of Jersey City; and James Fusilli of Hoboken.

Outmatched by Jordan, DeFino said after Simunovich’s swearing in that he reserved the right to recruit a candidate to challenge him in the 1974 Democratic primary.

Hudson County Democratic Chairman Francis Fitzpatrick, the mayor of Bayonne, was also unhappy with the Simunovich appointment, telling Hoboken Mayor Steve Cappiello that he was not happy that his protégé, Fusilli, sided with Jordan and Jersey City.

By April, Simunovich had scored enough points with Hudson Democrats to secure a slot on the organization line for freeholder.  He ran with two Jersey City candidates, Rev. Fernando Colon and 30-year-old police detective Glenn Cunningham and aide to Jersey City Public Safety Director Nicholas Fargo.

They replaced two incumbents, Robert Slade and Boyle.

As a peace offering, DeFino became the Democratic candidate for Hudson County Surrogate.

Colon, a mail carrier and part time aide to Jordan, became the first Hispanic to serve on the Hudson County Board of Freeholders.

Simunovich was the top vote-getter in the 1974 primary, with his slate defeating challengers Patrick Petrozelli and Alexander Chowanec by a margin of more than 7-1.

After the primary, Jordan convinced Byrne to name Fitzpatrick as executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority,  and replaced him as county chairman with an ally, Bernard Hartnett.

In the general election, Simunovich and his running mates thumped Republicans Kenneth Famularo, Lester Giroux and Raymond Parker, and five independent candidates.

Simunovich again received the most votes on the Democratic freeholder ticket.  In West New York, he ran about 80 votes ahead of DeFino.

In the same election, Hudson County voters approved a change in the form of government.  A new County Executive would be elected in 1975, along with nine new freeholders each elected from an individual district.

Simunovich won the backing of the Hudson Democrats for the newly-created seventh district freeholder seat and easily defeated challenger Joseph Cimino in the Democratic primary.

He defeated Republican Harold Zweig in the general election with 81% of the vote, outpolling the legendary Assemblyman Christopher Jackman in West New York.

After the 1975 election and at the start of his third year in office, Simunovich became the new freeholder director.  In that post, he helped navigate a new county administrative code along with the first county executive, Edward Clark.

After Thomas F.X. Smith became mayor of Jersey City in 1977, toppling the Jordan regime, there was some question about Simunovich receiving part support for re-election in 1978.  DeFino briefly threatened a primary challenge with Michael Cordasco, the son of West New York school board member Francisco Cordasco, but eventually he backed down.

Simunovich ran unopposed in the primary and won 68% in the general election against Republican George Rossi.

In early 1981, DeFino announced that he might drop his bid for re-election as surrogate and instead challenge Simunovich in the Democratic primary for freeholder.

New freeholder districts were drawn after the 1980 census and Simunovich maneuvered a more favorable map.  He had previously represented all three wards in West New York, but the new district dropped the second ward into the North Bergen district, diluting DeFino’s electoral strength.

DeFino instead ran for re-election as surrogate, and Simunovich easily dispatched his primary opponent, John Kraljevich.  He won a rematch against Zweig with 70% of the vote.

Joseph Simunovich, left, with Assembly Speaker Christopher Jackman and North Bergen Mayor Peter Mocco in the 1970s.

Run for State Senate

Hudson County Democrats went to war in 1983 with battles in all three legislative districts.

Simunovich ran for State Senate against Jackman, a former Assembly Speaker and labor leader who seeking an open seat after the venerable William Vincent Musto resigned following his criminal conviction.

Simunovich and Jackman were neighbors, living two houses apart on Monitor Place in West New York.

The organization was split in two.

Simunovich ran on a ticket with Stephanie Stefani and George Guzman in a district that included West New York, Union City and Hoboken.  Jackman ran on s slate with Robert Rainieri and Nicholas LaRocca, a Musto ally from Union City who had replaced him in the State Senate.

Simunovich dealt with some tragedies during his Senate bid.

One week before the primary, 52-year-old Simunovich campaign consultant  Dan Horgan suffered a heart attack while working at the campaign headquarters and died late that day.  A Jersey City native and former South Brunswick mayor, Horgan had become a political operative and ran Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign in Ohio.  He later worked in the Carter White House and as executive director of the Democratic National Committee.

A few days later, Simunovich’s mother, Grace, passed away.

Jackman clobbered Simunovich, winning by 7,602 votes – a 64%-36% margin.

West New York went 60%-40% for Jackman.

Jackman won 66% in Union City, 65% in Hoboken, and 61% in the Jersey City portion of the district.  Simunovich carried the two smallest towns in the 33rd: 52% in Weehawken and 59% in Guttenberg.

In a bid to make peace in Hudson County, the organization was prepared to withdraw party support for Simunovich in his 1984 freeholder re-election campaign and allow DeFino to pick his replacement.  That peace treaty fell apart.

Simunovich battled for his survival, but wound up announcing just before the filing deadline that he would not seek re-election, instead backing Guttenberg Mayor Raymond Schnyder for the post.

But when DeFino decided to resign as surrogate to run for freeholder himself, Simunovich dropped his retirement plan and filed for re-election.  He named a Memorial High School teacher, Albio Sires, as one of his campaign coordinators.

After nearly fifteen years of fighting each other, this was the first time Simunovich and DeFino would face off against each other.  While DeFino was the mayor, Simunovich was the West New York Democratic municipal chairman.

DeFino won by a 60%-39% margin, a margin of 1,831 votes – 5,376 to 3,545.

Simunovich was the only incumbent to lose the primary, although Frank Gargiulo nearly ousted North Bergen Mayor Anthony DeVincent in his bid for freeholder.

Out of Office

After his own political career ended, Simunovich moved to Bergen County.  He had moved up the ranks with the Bell Telephone company – later Verizon – and served on the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.

Simunovich was named to the EDA board by Gov. Tom Kean and renominated by Governors Jim Florio and Christine Todd Whitman.  He served six terms on the EDA, the longest tenure in the agency’s history.

He later served as vice president of United Water, President of SUEZ Water Resources and as co-chairman of Hackensack Meridien Health.  He spent five years as chairman of the Bergen County Economic Development Corporation.

In 2002, Gov. James E. McGreevey appointed Simunovich to serve as chairman of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.  Under his leadership, the Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway were merged.

Simunovich was a prodigious fundraiser and served as finance chairman for U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s campaign in 2006.

He is a graduate of Colgate University and received a master’s degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Statements on Simunovich’s passing

Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-Bayonne):  “ A man who dedicated his life to helping others. Joe was a good friend-a tough guy with a big heart and really good political instincts. His leadership in business and nonprofit world was nothing short of transformative. Although he would deflect credit with a wave of his hand and chuckle- Hackensack Meridian Health grew to what it is today because of his influence. He will he missed..”

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