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Robert Klein, a former top aide to Gov. RIchard Hughes and President Lyndon Johnson. Photo courtesy of Rutgers University.

Robert Klein, LBJ White House speechwriter, top aide to Gov. Hughes, dies at 89

Ran twice for Mercer County Executive, sought State Senate, congressional seats

By David Wildstein, March 07 2020 5:46 pm

Robert R. Klein, a former White House aide during the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, and a top aide to the Governor of New Jersey, died on March 3.  He was 89.

Klein served as an assistant and speechwriter to Gov. Richard J. Hughes, rising to the post of executive secretary to the governor – a precursor to the current chief of staff job – from 1965 to 1967.  Prior to taking a job in the governor’s office, Klein was the supervisor of the New Jersey Civil Service Commission.

He joined the Johnson Administration in 1967 as a White House speechwriter and aide to the president.

Klein left the White House the following year to work on Hubert Humphrey’s presidential campaign.

After Johnson left office after the 1968 election, Klein was named Mercer County administrator, a top post before a Mercer switched to a county executive form of government in 1975.

In 1971, Klein became the Democratic candidate for State Senate when the incumbent, Richard J. Coffee (D-Lawrence) declined to seek re-election.   He gave up his county job to run for the Senate.

The newly-drawn legislative district included parts of Mercer and Hunterdon County.  Klein lost to Republican Assemblyman William Schluter (R-Pennington) by 5,981 votes, a 55%-45% margin.

Klein joined the staff of Rutgers University in 1972 as the assistant dean of the extension division.  He later became the assistant dean at the Rutgers Institute for Management and Labor Relations.

Klein was elected to the Mercer County Charter Study Commission that advanced a change in the form of government in 1973.

In 1974, Klein sought support to challenge freshman Rep. Joseph Maraziti (R-Boonton) in a district that started in Mercer County and included Hunterdon, Sussex and Warren counties and part of Morris County.  He dropped his bid for the Democratic nomination when former First Lady Helen Stevenson Meyner entered the race.

Also mulling congressional bids that year were Mercer County freeholder Paul Sollami and New Jersey Young Democrats president Ted Yim.

Klein sought the Democratic nomination to become the first Mercer County Executive in 1975.  The contest was won by freeholder director Arthur Sypek, who prevailed against Trenton mayor Arthur Holland.

He was the leading candidate to become the Passaic County administrator in 1978 until Democratic county chair Betty McNamara Kordja intervened to get the job for Joseph Lazzara, a former state senator and freeholder.  Lazzara got the post in a 4-3 vote.

In 1980, aided by Rep. Bob Roe (D-Wayne), whom he became friendly with when Roe served in Hughes’ cabinet, Klein became the Passaic County administrator.

Had Roe succeeded in his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1981, Klein had been expected to be a powerful force in a Roe administration.

He resigned as county administrator in 1981, nine months before the expiration of his term, after battling with Republican freeholders that had taken control after the 1980 election.

In 1984, Klein sough the Democratic nomination for Congress in the 4th district, where Republican Rep. Christopher Smith (R-Hamilton) was seeking re-election to a third term.  He dropped out of the race at the Mercer County Democratic convention and endorsed James Hedden, a two-term freeholder and AFSCME lobbyist.

The late endorsement helped Hedden defeat Jeffrey Laurenti, the executive director of the New Jersey Senate Majority Office.  More significantly, his votes held Hedden keep Laurenti under 40% so that his name would not appear in the Democratic organization column.

Hedden beat Laurenti, 53%-41%, in the Democratic primary.  Smith went on to wallop Hedden, 61%-39%.

He returned to Haiti in 1990 on an assignment with the Organization of American States to observe the presidential election when a 37-year-old priest, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, won a landslide election.  Aristide was deposed in a coup the following year.

Klein became the Democratic nominee for Mercer County Executive in 1995 and was set to take on incumbent Robert Prunetti before dropping out to settle a tax-related issue.

In 2003, Klein mounted an independent campaign for county executive, but won just 3,072 votes (4.3%) in a race where Democrat Brian Hughes, the son of the former governor, defeated Republican Cathy DiCostanzo by 1,63 votes, (49-47).

Klein later spent 25 years as a political science professor at Rutgers University.

Prior to joining the Hughes administration, Klein served in the U.S. Foreign Service and completed assignments in India, Mexico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

He is survived by his wife, Olive, and four daughters.

Funeral services are scheduled for noon Sunday at Orland’s Ewing Memorial Chapel.

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