Paul R. Porreca, a respected former Superior Court Judge who was New Jersey’ longest-living candidate for Congress, died on Friday night. He was 85.
Porreca was a 27-year-old Millville city commissioner when he became the Democratic congressional candidate in 1962 against three-term Rep. Milton Glenn (R-Margate) in New Jersey’s 2nd district. He is the state’s last surviving candidate for Congress who ran when John F. Kennedy was president.
“He was something special,” Porreca said about Kennedy in an interview with the New Jersey Globe in April.
Glenn, 59, was seeking his third full term in Congress. He had been the Margate magistrate become enlisting in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He was elected Atlantic County freeholder in 1946 and won a State Assembly seat in 1950.
After Rep. T. Millet Hand (R-Lower Township) died of a heart attack at attack on December 26, 1954, seven weeks after winning re-election to a 7th term, Glenn won a special election to fill the seat.
Porreca ran for Millville commissioner in the May 1961 non-partisan municipal election, three year after graduating Georgetown Law School, and finished second for three seats in a 15-candidate field.
In 1962, Gov. Richard J. Hughes, in his first year as governor, personally recruited Porreca to run against Glenn in a district made up of three South Jersey counties.
“Everybody else turned him down,” Porreca recalled four months ago. “Being young and dumb, I said yes.”
Porreca won the organization lines in Cape May and Cumberland, and the endorsement of the liberal faction of the Atlantic County Democrats who had their own line since the county Democratic organization was controlled by the Atlantic Republican boss, State Sen. Frank S. Farley (R-Ventnor).
In the April Democratic primary, Porreca bested Joseph Boyle, Jr., a realtor from Longport and the candidate of the Farley Democrats, with 69% of the vote. Off the line, he won Atlantic with 57%.
Kennedy was making an appearance in Atlantic City three weeks after the primary to address the United Auto Workers of America convention.
Since the president was coming to the 2nd district, Porreca wanted to meet him but was told it was too late to get him onto Kennedy’s schedule.
“I called Dick Hughes and he said, ‘I’m meeting the president at Bader Field. You meet me there and I’ll get you in. Just stick to me like lint to a suit,’” Porreca told the New Jersey Globe.
Porreca said he got to meet Kennedy when he got off his helicopter and was in the president’s motorcade to the convention center.
He said he got a few minutes one-on-one with JFK before the auto workers speech.
“He asked me a lot of questions about my campaign, like ‘how’s it going in your district,’” Porreca said.
The young candidate said he campaigned all over the South Jersey district – “If there was an affair in the district, I was there” – and met the legendary Farley at an event in Atlantic County.
“Young man, you are running a great campaign, but I’m going to beat you,” Porreca remembered Farley as telling him.
Democrats had expected to lose seats in Kennedy’s mid-term election, but the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis nine days before the election boosted Kennedy’s approval ratings in the final week of the 1962 campaign.
According to Porreca, he received a call from the Democratic National Committee shortly before the election,
“We had written you off, but we think you have a chance,” Porreca says the DNC told him. They asked how they might help him. He said, “send money,” but they never did.
Glenn was held to a relatively narrow 6,968-vote win, 53%-47%, against Porreca.
Porreca won Cumberland by 5,350 votes, 58%-42%; the Farley machine delivered an 8,319-vote plurality for Glenn in Atlantic (56%-43%), and Glenn won Cape May by 3,999 votes (60%-40%).
“Cape May killed me,” Porreca recollected. “I lost Ocean City 3-1.”
It was still the best showing for a 2nd district Democrat since Elmer Wene last won the seat in 1942.
The following January, Porreca did succeed in ousting Glenn from something when Estell Manor dropped Glenn as the municipal solicitor and gave the post to Porreca.
Many Democrats expected Porreca to seek a rematch with Glenn in 1964, but he turned down the chance to run again.
“(Democratic State Chairman) Thorn Lord called me and said, ‘are you ready?’ and I said no,” Porreca explained. “I thought Nelson Rockefeller was going to the nominee and I figured it’s ridiculous with Rockefeller running. I’d have a snowballs chance in hell.”
After he declined another congressional run, Porreca got a call from the governor’s office asking him to come to Trenton on a Saturday morning to meet with Hughes.
Hughes, he said, tried to convince him to run again, but he “had to tell him no.”
Instead, Democrats nominated Thomas McGrath, Jr., a 37-year-old U.S. Naval Academy graduate who was serving as a deputy attorney general in the Hughes administration.
Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, not Rockefeller, and Democrats found themselves with an opportunity.
In 1960, Richard Nixon had beaten Kennedy in the 2nd district by 7,052 votes, 52%-48%. Four years later, Lyndon Johnson beat Goldwater by 49,854 votes, a 2-1 margin.
Boosted by LBJ’s coattails, McGrath defeated Glenn by 2,267 votes, 50.7%-49.2%. McGrath beat Glenn with 51.6% in Atlantic and 54.8% in Cumberland; Glenn carried Cape May with 59%.
Democrats picked up 38 seats in the 1964 LBJ landslide as 71 freshmen Democrats entered the U.S. House of Representatives.
In 1966, Republicans picked up 47 seats and one-and-done McGrath was among the 26 freshmen Democrats to lose re-election.
Republicans nominated State Sen. Charles W. Sandman, Jr. (R-Erma), the former senate president who had sought the GOP gubernatorial nomination in 1965. Glenn tried to get his seat back, but Sandman beat him with 75% of the primary vote.
Sandman won the general by 6,520 votes, 51.5%-46.7%.
Porreca knows he might have been a congressman had he run, but he has no regrets.
He was re-elected as a Millville commissioner in 1965 and stepped down four years later after eight years in local government.
In 1971, Porreca became the Democratic candidate for State Senate in the 1st district and nearly won.
The incumbent was freshman Robert E. Kay (R-Wildwood), but Cumberland County Republicans said he hadn’t done anything for them and refused to support his re-election. The GOP mayor of Vineland, Bub Garton, went as far as to say he would vote for Porreca over Kay.
Assemblyman James Hurley (R-Millville) was preparing to challenge Kay in a primary when Cape May made a deal to dump Kay and put Assemblyman James Cafiero (R-North Wildwood) into the Senate seat, with Cumberland getting the other Assembly seat.
Cafiero won the general by a slim 916-vote margin, 50%-48%, against Porreca. Porreca, who outpolled his Democratic running mates by more than 3,000 votes, won Cumberland by 4,358 votes, but Cafiero won with a 5,274-vote plurality in Cape May.
That was the year Atlantic County Democrats toppled Farley’s political machine, tossing the 31-year senator by nearly 18 points.
In 1972, Republican Gov. William Cahill nominated Porreca to a Superior Court judgeship. Cafiero was only too happy to sign off and take Porreca out of partisan politics.
“I called him from a pay phone from the courthouse and asked if he would support me,” Porreca recalled. Cafiero’s response, he said: “God bless you.”
With that, Cafiero and Sandman were both spared having to face challenges from Porreca in the Democratic Watergate landslides of 1973 and 1974.
Porreca went on to serve 21 years as a judge, and became the presiding judge of the criminal court.
“If I hadn’t lost, I wouldn’t have become a judge,” he said. “That was the highlight of my career.”
Porreca had been the longest-living ex-congressional candidate since April, when Martin S. Fox died at age 95.
Fox had run for Congress against Rep. Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston) in 1952 and 1954 in the old Essex County-based 12th district.. Kean was the father of former Gov. Thomas H. Kean.
Porreca moved just behind Fox as the second longest-living New Jersey congressional candidate in 2018, when A. Jerome Moore died at age 94. Moore won 37% against Rep. Frank Thompson (R-Trenton) in 1958 and 40% in 1960.
Hughes, who served as Mercer County Democratic chairman and as a Superior Court Judge before he was elected governor, nominated Moore, a former Mercer GOP county chairman, to a judgeship in 1966. He served there until his retirement in 1967.
Now 58 years removed from his run for Congress as a JFK Democrat, Porreca told the Globe in April that he had become a “rock-ribbed Republican.”
“My experiences on the bench converted me,” Porreca said.
In 1995, Porreca ran for Cumberland County Freeholder as a Republican. While one of his running mate ousted a six-term Democratic incumbent, Porreca fell 955 votes short of winning.
At the time of his death, he was no longer involved in politics.
“I became a farmer while I was serving as a judge,” he explained. “Now all I do is stay on the farm.”
Porreca is survived by his four children, including former Millville Councilwoman Lynne Porreca-Compari, and seven grandchildren. His wife, Maria, died last year.