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Former Assemblyman Nicholas R. Felice. (Photo: New Jersey Office of Legislative Services).

Nicholas Felice, former Assembly Speaker Pro-Tempore, dies at 94

Former Fair Lawn Mayor won 10 races for State Assembly before redistricting cost him his seat

By David Wildstein, August 26 2021 1:16 pm

Nicholas R. Felice, a likeable and diligent lawmaker who served in the New Jersey State Assembly for nearly 20 years, died on Tuesday.  He was 94.

A former Assembly Speaker Pro-Tempore, Felice was known for his sponsorship of a law that created drug free school zones and was an early advocate of funding for autism and spinal cord research.

He won some national attention in 1983 for fielding calls from children since his new phone number was just one digit off from the Santa Claus hotline number.  Felice obliged by taking calls from children until the phone number misprinted in some local newspapers was corrected.

Felice won a 1982 special election for Assembly after Cary Edwards resigned to become chief counsel to Gov. Thomas Kean.

The race for Edwards’ seat initially attracted 11 candidates but was only at six by the night of the Republican convention.  Ramsey Councilwoman Nancy Hall, William Patterson of Wyckoff and Werner Hauptli of Ridgewood were eliminated after the first ballot.

Felice led on the second ballot, 72 to 60 over Mahwah Councilwoman Susanne Knudsen, with Pompton Lakes Mayor Jon Spinnanger – well known in New Jersey politics as head of government affairs for New Jersey Bell Telephone – finished third with 37 votes.

He won a third ballot victory to become the Republican Assembly candidate in a March special election to succeed Edwards, defeating Knudsen by 16 votes, 89 to 73.

In a March 1982 special election – that was before New Jersey adopted a new system of allowing political parties to fill vacant legislative seats – Felice defeated Democrat Emil Porfido, the mayor of Ramsey, by 1,932 votes, 57%-43%.  Porfido had defeated Mimi Sarthou, the Bergen County Superintendent of Elections.

That win kept the GOP streak intact: no legislative district in the state has gone longer without electing a Democrat that District 40.

“He was the consummate professional,” said former State Sen. Kevin J. O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove), who served in the legislature with Felice for six years. “He taught me a lot and helped me navigate the Assembly.  He was a real credit to the institution.

Felice’s legislative career came to an abrupt end in 2001 after legislative redistricting – and a map that favored Democrats who had been out of power for ten years – shifted Fair Lawn from  the safe Republican 40th to the politically competitive 38th that now included the Democratic stronghold of Fort Lee.

The new map moved O’Toole, whose previous district had included parts of Union County and extended as far south as Roselle Park, to a Bergen County-based district that extended to Mahwah and the New York state line.  O’Toole replaced Felice on the 40th district ticket.

Assemblywoman Rose Heck (R-Hasbrouck Heights) held the seat with 27,055, but Democrat Matthew Ahearn, a former Fair Lawn deputy mayor, won the second seat with 26,919 votes.  He edged out his running mate, legendary Fort Lee Democratic Municipal Chair Key Nest, by just 332 votes, with Felice coming within 667 votes of holding his seat despite his fourth place finish.

A U. S, Army veteran who served at the tail end of World War II, Felice began his public service career as a member of the Fair Lawn Planning board in 1965.

He was elected to the Fair Lawn Borough Council in a 1967 non-partisan election that were run along party lines.

He was initially teamed up to run with Zoning Board member John Gottlieb after Mayor Richard Vander Plaat said he would not seek re-election and instead focus on flipping a Democratic-held seat in the State Assembly.   But Vander Plaat eventually changed his mind and ran for both posts, picking Felice as his running mate.

Vander Plaat was the top vote-getter in his bid for a fifth term, running about 1,100 votes ahead of Felice, who defeated a Democrat William Bromley by around 1,200 votes.  Two independents, James Broderick and former Fire Chief John Cosgrove, ran far behind.  Broderick had been elected with support of Democrats in 1964, but lost party support for his re-election bid.

In 1970, Felice ran for re-election to a second term. This time, Vander Plaat actually retired, and Felice ran with Gottlieb.  They defeated Democratic Club President Marvin Klein and John Alaimo, the vice president of the local chamber of commerce.  Felice ran about 200 votes ahead of Gottlieb, whose margin over Alaimo was about 50.

He served as mayor from 1972 to 1974.

Felice won his third term in 1973 with about 4,000 votes.  This time his running mate was Cosgrove, who won the second seat by around 60 votes over Bernard Hersh and Mark Miletti.

In 1974, Fair Lawn had changed their form of government and moved to November partisan elections.

Running in a Democratic wave election following the Watergate scandal, Felice lost his re-election bid by about votes in an election where Democrats swept all five council seats and ended a 17-year GOP majority.

Felice was the top Republican vote-getter, losing to Irving Bienstock by about 325 votes.  Bienstock later became the father-in-law of Lisa Swain, a former Fair Lawn mayor who is now an assemblywoman in the 38th district.

As part of the change in the form of government, three council seats were up in 1976.  Felice ran again and lost by over 2,300 votes as Democrats swept all three seats.

In 1977, Felice one of thirteen candidates seeking the Republican nomination for Bergen County Freeholder.

Bergen County was sharply divided that year between two complete lines of legislative candidates aligned with the two major candidates for governor: Raymond Bateman, a former Senate President, and Assembly Minority Leader Thomas Kean, a former Speaker.

But Republicans had agreed to an open primary for freeholder.  Felice had run as a Bateman supporter.

The winners of the GOP primary were Woodcliff Lake Council President Joan Wright, former Oakland Mayor LeRoy Wright, and Thomas Bruinooge, who had taken a leading role in Ronald Reagan’s bid for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination against President Gerald Ford.

Felice ran fourth in that primary, about 1,200 votes behind Bruinooge in the countywide primary. Democrats Jeramiah O’Connor, Doris Mahalick and Bennett Mazur won the general election for freeholder.

He ran again for freeholder in 1978.  This time he nagged the Republican nomination but lost the general election to Democrats Gerald Calabrese and John Curran.  One Republican, incumbent Charles Reid, a former Paramus mayor and assemblyman, won that year.  He defeated Democrat Joan Lesseman.

Felice finished fourth with about 122,000 votes, around 10,000 votes behind Reid.

In 1980, Felice mounted his third bid for Freeholder but finished fourth at the Bergen GOP convention for three slots.  He was defeated by Palisades Park Mayor Bob Pallotta, the uncle of 2020 congressional candidate Frank Pallotta, Northvale Mayor John Rooney and Archie Jay, the former Bergen County Superintendent of Schools.

Once Felice got to the legislature, it was smooth sailing.

He coasted to big electoral victories in 1983, 1985, 1987, 1989, 1991, 1993, 1995, 1997 and 1999.

The only real contest in his Assembly career came in 1989, when his longtime running mate, Assembly Judiciary Committee Chairman Walter Kern (R-Ridgewood), was charged with misappropriating client funds after a random audit of his attorney trust account.  Kern denied the allegations and accused Chief Justice Robert Wilentz, whom he had heavily criticized, of political retaliation.

Bergen County Republicans would not support Kern for re-election and Felice teamed up with Ridgewood attorney David Russo.  Felice was the top vote-getter with 8,956 votes, followed by Russo at 7,937.  Passaic County Freeholder Richard DuHaime finished third with 3,611, followed by Franklin Lakes Mayor William Vichiconti (3,386) and Kern (3,099).

Felice also served as Assistant Assembly Majority Leader, Deputy Speaker, and Assistant Minority Leader during his tenure in the Assembly.  He chaired the Assembly Health Committee and the New Jersey Legislative Services Commission.

After leaving the legislature, Gov. James E. McGreevey, a Democrat, gave Felice a job at the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities.  McGreevey and Felice had served together in the Assembly from 1990 to 1992.

Felice received a degree in electrical engineering and spent 35 years as an engineer and executive at Smith-Meeker Engineering, a radio and electronic firm based at Teterboro Airport.

Predeceased by his wife of 64 years, Vivian, he is survived by his three sons and seven grandchildren.  One is sons is former Bergen County Freeholder John Felice.

A Funeral Mass is planned for Friday, August 27 at 10:30 AM at St. Anne R.C. Church, in Fair Lawn, NJ.  A private family interment will follow.

As a former member legislative leadership, Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to issue an executive order flying state flags at half-staff in Felice’s honor.

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