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Former Assemblyman Louis J. Gill.

Louis Gill, former assemblyman, dies at 80

Democrat served on Passaic City Council for 18 years

By David Wildstein, April 03 2020 7:18 pm

Louis J. Gill, a popular former assemblyman who represented parts of Passaic and Bergen counties, died today.  He was 80.

Gill  was elected to the State Assembly in 1987 and served two terms before losing his seat in 1991 Republican landslide.

A special education teacher in the Paterson public schools, Gill became active in politics in the City of Passaic and became a member of the local Alcoholic Beverage Commission in 1968.

Gill, then 37, ran for office for the first time in May 1977, when he sought a seat on the Passaic City Council.  He finished fourth in a six-candidate field for three at-large council seats.

In that race, James Shoop led with 4,267 votes, followed by Joseph Lipari (4,239) and Herbert Sorkin (4,127).  Gill received 2,525 votes, followed by Michael Syll (2,312) and Edward Sadlowski (1,1849).

Shoop, Lipari and Sorkin won the June runoff, with Gill finishing 1,354 votes behind Lipari.

Gill ran his third council race of the year in November, a non-partisan special election for city council.  He won the unexpired term of Robert Hare, who had been elected mayor earlier that year.

The special election was forced because the city council deadlocked 3-3 on picking a replacement for Hare.

Gill defeated Herman Bader by about 550 votes, 58%-42%.  Bader had managed Hare’s mayoral campaign and was his handpicked candidate to take his old council seat.

He sought a full council term in 1979 and as the top vote-getter he outpolled Lipari by about 400 votes.  But in a 13 candidate field, Gill was forced into a runoff.

Lipari finished first in the runoff with 3,098 votes, followed by Gill (3,023), council president Fred Kuren (2,983) and former council president Peter Bruce (2,691).

When he ran again in 1983, Gill avoided a runoff and finished third in a field of nine candidates.  He won by more than 900 votes.

Gill’s political future became tied to the misfortunes of another city councilman, freshman Assemblyman Paul DiGaetano (R-Passaic)

On New Year’s Day 1987, State Sen. Joseph Hirkala (D-Passaic), then 63 and the hugely popular city clerk, died of a heart attack.  New Jersey still held special elections to fill vacancies back then, and one was set for March 24.

DiGaetano and another freshman legislator, Kathleen Donovan (R-Rutherford), both wanted to run. DiGaetano was especially vicious in his behind-closed-doors attacks on Donovan.  The GOP state chairman at the time, Frank Holman, believed that DiGaetano had a better shot at turning out special election voters in Passaic.

DiGaetano also had the powerful and well-liked Passaic Republican Chairman, Red Murphy (father of Peter) in his side; Bergen Republicans had just won the first County Executive election and a 7-0 majority on the Board of Freeholders, and they didn’t really care to get involved in another campaign so quickly – it wasn’t their Senate seat to begin with.

In the special, DiGaetano severely underestimated his Democratic opponent, Lyndhurst Democratic Municipal Chairman Gabe Ambrosio.  He also misjudged the political skills of three-term Rep. Bob Torricelli, who wanted his friend Ambrosio in the Senate as he looked toward a 1989 gubernatorial campaign.

DiGaetano was overconfident, cocky, and certain of his ascension to the State Senate. On election day, Ambrosio clobbered him, 11,462 to 7,763 (60%-40%).   Ambrosio beat DiGaetano in his hometown, Passaic, by 417 votes and annihilated him in South Bergen.

After that, DiGaetano checked out.  He returned to Trenton as an angry and bitter man, looking at everyone as if they were the one who screwed him.  Some of them had.

With Donovan running against Ambrosio in the general election, there were two open Assembly seats in the 36th district.

Passaic County Democratic Chairman Bill Pascrell and Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Parisi made a deal that each county would pick one of the Assembly candidates to run with Ambrosio.

For the Passaic seat, four candidates sought party support: Gill, Shoop, Kiren and Joseph Russo, a Passaic police captain.  Democrats picked Gill, who ran with Garfield mayor Thomas Duch.

In the general election, Gill and Duch crushed the Republican candidates, Garfield deputy mayor Frank B. Calandriello and Rutherford councilman Andrew Bertone.

Gill was the top vote-getter; he received 23,104 votes and Duch won 22,667.  They were followed by Calandriello (19,659) and Bertone (18,085).

The wins in the 36th flipped two Assembly seats the Democrats had held for twelve years until losing them in the 1985 Tom Kean landslide.

In January 1988, DiGaetano went home to Passaic, where thought there was a consolation prize awaiting him: with Gill now an Assemblyman, DiGaetano wanted to become the City Council President — his vig of sorts for sitting on his hands in the legislative election – but Gill wouldn’t go for it. That May, DiGaetano won a third term on the City Council.

DiGaetano decided he wanted to return to the Assembly.  1989 turned out to be a disaster for DiGaetano: in June, GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Courter picked Donovan for GOP State Chairman, and in November, Gill and Duch chastened him with a massive defeat.  DiGaetano finished 4,748 votes behind Duch and 6,768 votes behind Gill.  DiGaetano lost Passaic by 1,537 votes– an even greater humiliation than the Senate race.

In 1991, Gill sought re-election to both the Assembly and his city council seat.

Gill was re-elected to the council, but finished fourth when three rivals  of Lipari, then the mayor of Passaic, also won council seats.

Legislative redistricting in 1991 replaced some of South Bergen with Nutley and Belleville in Essex County.  Republicans wanted DiGaetano to take on Ambrosio for the Senate seat, but he remained scarred by the special election of 1987 and thought Ambrosio couldn’t be beaten.

Duch and Garfield were redistricted into the then-Republican 38th and Gill ran with Alfred Restaino, a Nutley Democrats who was the athletic director of Bloomfield College.

Gill and Restaino faced a challenge in the Democratic primary from Joseph T. Fornaratto, a former Belleville town commissioner.  Restaino wound up receiving 1,065 more votes than Gill, who beat off-the-line Fornaratto by just 853 votes in the Democratic primary.

A new district and his vote in support of Gov. Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase put Gill in an untenable political situation as he ought re-election to a third ter.

Now in a district with the hugely popular John V. Kelly (R-Nutley), DiGaetano beat Gill by 7,509 votes.  The Senate seat was won by John Scott, a conservative activist who had won 22% against Donovan in the 1987 primary, rode the anti-Jim Florio GOP landslide to a 52%-48% win over Ambrosio.

Even with his landslide 1991 win, DiGaetano ran 407 votes behind Gill, and just 190 votes ahead of Restaino.

Gill’s political career came to an end in 1995 when he lost his bid for re-election after 18 years in office to a slate backed by Mayor Margie Semler that included now-Assemblyman Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) and Chaim Munk.

Gill finished sixth in a field of eight candidates for four seats, trailing Schaer by 720 votes.

In a statement issued on Friday, Pascrell said he was “mourning for my friend Louis Gill today.”

“Louis’s record of service is unmatched,” Pascrell said. “Louis was a teacher, a city councilor, a state legislator, an activist, a grocer, and a son of Poland and a Pulaski Day Grand Marshall. His entire life was dedicated to his community, to Passaic.”

Pascrell said he got to know Gill when they served together in the State Assembly.

“When they talk about salt-of-the-earth, they’re talking about Louis. He was the real deal, old school, and irreplaceable,” Pascrell said. “Today I join Mary, their children, grandchildren, and the Polish community and a stricken Passaic in mourning Louis, but also in celebrating a life of helping others and helping his communities. I’m going to miss my friend.”

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