Robert L. Bowser, who served as the mayor of East Orange for sixteen years and fought to reduce crime in his city, died on Saturday. He was 85.
Bowser won his first term in 1997 after defeating Freeholder Sheila Oliver by just 52 votes in the Democratic primary.
He defeated Oliver, who went on to serve as Assembly Speaker and is now the Lt. Governor of New Jersey, by a 36.5%-36.0% margin. City Councilwoman Yvonne Blake finished third with 15%, followed by businessman John Washington (7%) and former Mayor Thomas H. Cooke, Jr. (5%).
Bower’s victory came four years after he lost a Democratic primary for a Third Ward council seat against Jimmy Small, the East Orange school board president.
The incumbent, Cardell Cooper, did not seek re-election and later joined the Clinton administration as an Assistant U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.
In 2001, Bowser faced a fierce challenge in the Democratic primary from Assemblyman LeRoy Jones, Jr. and four others. He defeated Jones, by a 39.6%-28.3% margin, followed by Councilwoman Carol Clark (15%), developer and former college football star Kevin Taylor (11%), Councilman Dwight Saunders (5%) and Edward “Lonely” Lonon (1%).
He had an easier time in the 2005 primary, winning 67% against teacher Narda Morant, police officer Freddie Towns and Taylor. Taylor ran again in 2009 and Bowser defeated him by a nearly 2-1 margin.
But by 2013, when Bowser sought a fifth term, he lost party support for re-election and finished fourth in a field of five candidates.
The race was won by Lester E. Taylor III, a partner at a top New Jersey law firm – his partners included former Gov. Jim Florio and ex-GOP State Chairman Doug Steinhardt — who received 33.5%. Kevin Taylor finished second in his fourth bid for mayor with 23.4% and Clark, now an Essex County Freeholder, came in third with 21.8%. Bowser received 2,140 votes with 21.1%, 1,257 votes behind Lester Taylor. Tonya Parker-Lemon received just 63 votes.
Bowser had served as director of public works for East Orange, as an engineer and planner for the Newark Public School System, and as a traffic engineer for Montclair. He was a licensed land surveyor and the president of Bowser Engineers & Associates.