Mary Ellen Rustum, who served as executive assistant to industrialist Charles W. Engelhard, Jr. in the 1950s and 1960s, died on September 29. She was 89, and forever proud of her chance to meet Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Engelhard, who was apparently the inspiration for the James Bond villain Auric Goldfinger, ran Engelhard Industries, a Fortune 500 mining and minerals company that deal in precious metals.
Rustum worked for Engelhard in 1955 when he sought to represent Somerset County in the New Jersey State Senate in a seminal “Battle of the Billionaires” campaign against the Republican incumbent, magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes.
Although there were no fundraising and spending disclosures in those days, politicos who witnessed the campaign said it was a hugely expensive race.
According to Joe Donohue, a former reporter who is now the deputy executive director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, “Engelhard bought an entire weekly newspaper, the Somerville Star, and turned it into a daily during the campaign to compete with Forbes’s own newspaper, the Messenger Gazette.”
The margin was razor-thin: Forbes beat Engelhard by just 370 votes, 19,981 to 19,611.
Forbes first went to the Senate in 1951, at age 31, when he ran off the line and defeated State Sen. Freas Hess (R-Bernardsville) by a massive 62%-38% margin in the April Republican primary. He carried 16 of the 21 municipalities in Somerset against Hess, a former Assembly Speaker who went to the Senate in 1947 after nine years in the lower house.
When Gov. Alfred Driscoll was term-limited in 1953, Forbes quickly jumped into the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Initially, there were ten other GOP candidates seeking party support to run:
Senate President Samuel Bodine (R-Flemington); former Rep. Clifford Case (R-Rahway), State Sen. Alfred Clapp (R-Montclair), Commissioner of Conservation and Economic Development Commissioner Charles Erdman; State Sen. Kenneth Hand (R-Roselle); State Treasurer Walter Margetts; former New Brunswick Mayor Frederick Richardson; Assemblyman Fred Shepard (R-Elizabeth; Republican State Committee Finance Chairman Webster Todd, the father of future Governor Christine Todd Whitman); New Jersey Turnpike Authority Chairman Paul Troast.
Charles Klein, a Rahway State Prison guard, and Alvin Van Schoick, a 74-year-old caddy from Long Branch, were also in the race.
Eighteen Republican county chairmen settled on Troast as their candidate, and the race became essentially a two-man contest between Troast and Forbes, who was self-funding his campaign. Troast won by 52,462 vote, 52%-39%, with Hand (4%), Van Schoick (2%) Richardson (1.5%), Shepard (1.5%) and Klein (1%) trailing.
Forbes launched a second bid for governor in 1957 and won a head-to-head primary against State Sen. Wayne Dumont (R-Phillipsburg) by a 64%-36% margin and a plurality of 93,327 votes.
In the general election, Democratic Gov. Robert Meyner was re-elected by 203,809 votes against Forbes, 55%-44%. Forbes did not seek re-election to the Senate in 1959.
After leaving Engelhard Industries to raise her family, Rustum moved to Maplewood, where she volunteered at her church and her children’s schools. She remained a “news junkie” until her death.
Rustum’s husband of 43 years died in 2006. She is survived by her three children and six grandchildren.