State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a conservative stalwart who has served in the New Jersey Legislature longer than any other Republican in state history, died today. He was 86.
Cardinale had been seeking re-election to an unprecedented 13th term at the time of his death and had been battling a series of health issues over the last year. He died after a brief illness, his family said.
He had enjoyed a distinguished 54-year political career that began with his election to the Demarest Board of Education in 1967.
He was popular enough in his hometown to overcome the massive Democratic Watergate wave to unseat Democratic Mayor Rosemary Sheehan with 50.6% of the vote in an election where a 22-year incumbent congressman lost his seat. Cardinale swept a Republican majority on the borough council along with him.
As mayor, Cardinale established a senior citizen center in the historic Demarest railroad station, where he played a key role in its preservation.
Democrats had swept the 39th in the 1973 Watergate landslide, but won back one Assembly seat in 1975. The winner of that race, John Markert (R-Westwood), gave up his seat after two years to run for an open State Senate seat in 1977.
Cardinale ran for the Assembly in 1977 on a ticket with John F. Inganamort, a future Bergen County GOP Chairman.
He won the Republican primary by 846 votes against Haworth Mayor John Johl and three others but lost the general election to incumbent Assemblyman Harold Martin (D-Cresskill) and his Democratic running mate, Greta Kiernan (D-Harrington Park) by more than 3,000 votes.
In 1979, Cardinale sought a rematch with Kiernan and Martin on a ticket with Markert, who had lost his 1977 Senate bid.
Cardinale was the top vote-getter, blowing out the incumbents by more than 6,000 votes and beginning a winning streak of 40-year winning streak for Republicans in the 39th.
Two years later, Cardinale gave up his Assembly seat to challenge freshman Democratic State Sen. Frank X. Herbert (D-Waldwick). He beat Herbert by 10,981 votes – 58%-42%.
As an Assemblyman Cardinale pushed for casino reform legislation. He sponsored a dozen bills — all voted into law — that prevented political manipulation and the interference of organized crime in Atlantic City casinos.
Also in 1981, then-Assemblyman Richard J. Codey (D-Roseland) won an open State Senate seat in Essex County. In January 2015, Cardinale and Codey broke the record of Frank “Hap” Farley (R-Ventnor) as the longest-serving state senator in New Jersey history. Because Codey had spent eight years in the Assembly, Cardinale is the second longest-serving state legislator in state history.
Cardinale faced a rematch with Herbert in 1983 in a race largely fought over his opposition to the renomination of Superior Court Judge Sylvia Pressler. He won by 1,257 votes, 51%-49%.
He has been re-elected ten more times, usually by margins of over 60%. In his last campaign, he defeated Oakland Mayor Linda Schwager by 4,121 votes, 53%-47%.
From his perch on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Cardinale has been a forceful watchdog over judicial appointments in New Jersey.
In the Senate, Cardinale co-sponsored Joan’s Law and was the prime sponsor of Megan’s Law. He wrote a 2001 law that required parental consent before children took part in public school surveys. In 2002, the Senate passed his bill requiring parental rights for sex education, including a law that stressed abstinence in sex education.
Cardinale was the sponsor of legislation that allowed the involuntary commitment to outpatient treatment that helped families struggling with mental health issues.
As a senator, Cardinale pushed for a law helping small businesses and affinity groups obtain health insurance at favorable rates. He was a strong advocate of tort reform, and he wrote a tax fairness law that attracted stock brokers and money managers to relocate to New Jersey without oppressive tax regulations.
Cardinale has twice sought higher office.
He sought the Republican nomination for governor in 1989, finishing fifth in a field of seven candidates with 8.3% of the vote. He lost Bergen County, 42%-20%, against another favorite son, former Attorney General Cary Edwards.
Following the retirement of Rep. Marge Roukema (R-Ridgewood) in 2002, Cardinale sought the Republican nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 5th district.
With Bergen County split between two Republicans, Cardinale and Assemblyman David Russo (R-Ridgewood), Assemblyman Scott Garrett (R-Wantage) won the Republican primary by a 45%-26% margin, with Cardinale finishing third in a five-candidate race with 25%.
He is survived by his wife of 62 years, former Demarest Councilwoman Carole Cardinale, his five children — Marisa and her partner, Linda, Christine, Kara, Gary and his wife, Kristy, and Nicole — and his four grandchildren, Sebastian, Allegra, Tamara, and Chloe.