Click play for audio version of this story
Mary T. Previte, who served four terms as an assemblywoman from Camden County, died on November 16. She was 87.
Previte had been hit by a car earlier this month.
As a nine-year-old child, Previte spent more than three years in a Japanese concentration camp. She was separated from her parents, who had been serving as missionaries in Shandong, China when World War II broke out.
She was fourteen when she lost her left hand in an accident involving a revolving saw.
Previte won her first election in 1965 when he secured a seat on the Voorhees Board of Education.
She was the top vote-getter in that race and defeated incumbent Edward Bristow by a 65%-35% margin.
Previte moved to Haddonfield, became active in the Camden County League of Women Voters, and later won a seat on the Haddonfield school board.
In 1972, she helped run a campaign for Lewis Katz for Camden County Freeholder. Katz had been her student when she taught English and Journalism at Camden High School in the 1950s.
She won an unexpired term in 1973.
In 1973, Previte was nominated to the Camden County Park Commission but lost a vote a freeholder vote to confirm her.
Democrats had a 4-3 majority on the Camden County Board of Freeholders, and Previte had the backing of Alan Vogelson and Lewis Katz, two freeholders allied with Camden County Democratic Chairman William Simon.
But a split in the party led Democratic Freeholder Thomas Higgins to form an alliance with the three Republican freeholders that resulted in Previte’s nomination to stall in a 3-3 vote.
She moved to county government in 1974 when the freeholders named her to serve as superintendent of the Camden County Children’s Shelter. He held that post for more than 30 years.
Previte, then 65, became the candidate of the Camden County Democratic organization for State Assembly in 1997 in what was then a politically competitive race for the 6th district seat in the suburban Cherry Hill-based district.
Republicans had held the 6th district Assembly seats from 1979 until 1995, when 28-year-old Democrat Louis Greenwald unseated incumbent Lee Solomon (R-Haddon Heights) by 1,618 votes. Greenwald’s mother, Maria Barnaby Greenwald, had been a popular Camden County Freeholder.
Nine-term Assemblyman John Rocco (R-Cherry Hill) have up his seat to challenge State Sen. John Adler (R-Cherry Hill). Previte ran for the open seat on a ticket with Greenwald.
The Republicans nominated Thomas Shusted, Jr., the son of former Assemblyman and Camden County Prosecutor Tom Shusted, to run for Assembly on a ticket with Camden County Register of Deeds and Mortgages Susan Rose.
Previte defeated Shusted by 6,869 votes.
She was re-elected three times, all by wide margins.
As an assemblywoman, Previte chaired the Assembly Family, Women and Children’s Services Committee. She focused heavily on criminal justice issues during her eight years in the New Jersey Legislature.
She sponsored a law that established drug-free school zones, and pushed legislation to allow towns to keep alleged drunk drivers in custody until they sober up.
In 2005, Previte was planning to seek a fifth term in the Assembly when federal and state authorities began to investigate allegations of civil rights abuses at the juvenile detention center she ran.
She was accused of playing a role in rounding up young offenders and incarcerating them for one day in order increase funding by enhancing the facility’s population.
She dropped her re-election bid after the filing deadline and was replaced on the ticket by Cherry Hill Councilwoman Pamela Lampitt.
After World War II, Previte moved to Michigan. She attended college in Illinois and moved to New Jersey after marrying Ernest Previte. She was a teacher for ten years before the birth of her daughter.
She is survived by her daughter, Alice Ann.
“Assemblywoman Mary Previte experienced the worst of human behavior as a prisoner in a World War II concentration camp, but survived and rose to do so much good. As a lawmaker, and throughout her professional life, she focused on the needs of children and families, and especially on issues of juvenile justice,” said Gov. Phil Murphy. “She was a lifelong educator, and continued to visit and speak with young people until just recently, bringing history to life in hopes of ensuring that the world never forgets its past. Her loss isn’t just a loss for New Jersey, but for humanity. Tammy and I send our condolences to her family and friends.”
This story was updated at 11:48 AM with comment from Murphy.