Home>Campaigns>Raymond Donovan, New Jerseyan who served as Reagan Labor Secretary, dies at 90

Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan, left, with President Ronald Reagan on Air Force One. (Photo: Reagan Presidential Library.)

Raymond Donovan, New Jerseyan who served as Reagan Labor Secretary, dies at 90

Construction company executive served Reagan cabinet from 1981 to 1985

By David Wildstein, June 04 2021 5:47 pm

Raymond J. Donovan, a New Jersey construction company executive who served as U.S. Secretary of Labor under President Ronald Reagan, died on Wednesday of congestive heart failure at his home in New Vernon.  He was 90.

Donovan was the co-chairman of the New Jersey Reagan campaign in 1980.  He and Reagan met in 1977 — he was asked to raise $10,000 and he delivered $175,000 — and he became a major financial supporter of his bid for the Republican presidential nomination and for the campaign to unseat incumbent Jimmy Carter.

Born in Bayonne, Donovan initially sought to be ordained as a priest before leaving the seminary. He spent summers worker as a laborer and worked for the American Insurance Company.

He became a partner in the  Secaucus-based Schiavone Construction Company in 1957, running labor relations, finance and real estate.  The firm became one of the largest heavy construction companies in the nation.

Reagan nominated him for a cabinet post in 1981 and he served until his resignation in 1985 following Reagan’s re-election.

The New York Attorney General accused Donovan and five other Schiavone executives of fraud and grand larceny, alleging that they defrauded the New York City Transit Authority during a subway line extension project.

An eight-month trial ended after jurors found Donovan not guilty after just one ballot, and after the verdict was read, most of the dozen jurors cheered and gave the former Labor Secretary a standing ovation.

”It’s a cruel thing they did to me,” Donovan said of Bronx District Attorney Mario Merola and his staff, adding a line that has become renowned in political circles: “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”

Reagan quickly issued a statement in support of his friend.

”I have always known Ray Donovan as a man of integrity, and I am happy to see this verdict,” the president said.  “I have never lost confidence in him.”

Still, Donovan’s career in politics was over.

Schiavone Construction was sold to a Spanish company in 2007.

After Reagan fired his original campaign manager, John Sears, after losing the Iowa Caucus to George Bush, Donovan played an increasingly large role in the campaign for the GOP nomination.  He became New Jersey campaign chairman after a Sears ally, Hamilton Mayor Jack Rafferty, got pushed aside.

It was Donovan’s idea that Reagan kick off his general election campaign in Jersey City, using the Statue of Liberty as a backdrop while standing in Liberty State Park.  Donovan also arranged for Reagan to make a campaign stop in Bayonne.

Donovan had not been hugely involved in politics, but raised money for U.S. Senator James Buckley’s 1976 re-election campaign in New York — he lost to Daniel Patrick Moynihan — and for Raymond Bateman’s campaign for governor of New Jersey in 1977.

Two members of Reagan’s original cabinet survive him: James Watt, who served as Secretary of the Interior; and John Block, the Secretary of Agriculture.

As Labor Secretary, Donovan worked to reduce regulations on businesses through changing OSHA enforcement operations.

Donovan was one of the founders of Fiddler’s Elbow Country Club in Bedminster.

Donovan lived in Short Hills while serving in he cabinet.

He is survived by his wife of 63 years, Catherine, his three children, nine grandchildren and great-grandson.  His nine siblings predeceased him.

A funeral service will be held on Tuesday morning at The Shrine of St. Joseph in Stirling.

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