Former East Orange Mayor Thomas H. Cooke, Jr., one of the first African American politicians to achieve success in Essex County in the 1960s, died on May 18 of complications related to the coronavirus pandemic. He was 90.
Cooke was first elected to the East Orange City Council in 1961, winning at a time when Republicans were still politically competitive in a city where Democrats now have a 27-1 edge in voter registration. He was 32-years old and a U.S. Navy veteran who served as a mental health medic in the Korean War.
He was re-elected in 1965 and served as chairman of the Public Safety Committee and chairman of the Public Works Committee. He was council chairman in 1968.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision, New Jersey began electing Assembly members from dual-member Assembly districts for the first time in 1967.
Cooke became a candidate for the State Assembly in 1967, seeking a seat in district 11-C that included the East Orange, Orange and West Orange.
At the time, New Jersey had just four Black assemblymen and one Black senator. Cooke became one of a small number of African American legislative candidates.
Cooke ran with freshman Assemblyman Frank J. “Pat” Dodd (D-Orange). Dodd had been elected in 1965.
Dodd and Cooke easily won the Democratic primary; Cooke lead Francis T. Craig by 2,788 votes.
In the general election, they faced Republicans Kenneth Wilson, an East Orange High School social studies teacher, and Donald McArt, a three-term East Orange city councilman and former council chairman.
The 1967 election was Gov. Richard J. Hughes’ second mid-term and Republicans captured control of both houses of the New Jersey Legislature.
Wilson was the top vote-getter, with Dodd finishing 180 votes behind him. McArt came within 256 votes of ousting Dodd – a move that would likely have halted Dodd’s ascension to the senate presidency in 1974.
Cooke came in 1,285 votes behind Dodd.
In 1970, Essex County Democrats ran Cooke for freeholder on a ticket with Phil Keegan and Philip Rotondo. Former Assemblyman John F. Cryan ran for sheriff.
Two Republican freeholders, Alan Augenblick and William H. Clark, were seeking re-election. Former Nutley Commissioner Carl Orechio became the third freeholder candidate after Vincent Corrado declined to run again.
Cooke and his running mates won the 1970 race, swinging control of the Essex County Board of Freeholders to a 6-3 Democratic majority.
The election also changed the face of county politics after two Republican freeholders, Joseph Napolitano and Raymond Stabile, who had been part of a rival GOP faction led by Joseph Intile, Jr., lost their ability to form a coalition with Democratic Freeholder Joseph Cohen.
Instead, the clear Democratic majority led the way for Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner to install Wynona M. Lipman as the freeholder director over Cohen.
Cryan ousted incumbent GOP Sheriff Ralph D’Ambola in that election.
Rotondo had been elected Essex County Supervisor in 1972, ousting incumbent Walter Blasi, and Keegan won a State Assembly seat in 1973. Cooke was re-elected freeholder in 1973 on a slate with Democrats Martin Scaturo and Assemblyman Peter Stewart (D-Caldwell).
In 1975, Cooke alleged that East Orange Mayor William S. Hart tried to bribe him to help influence the appointment of a municipal court judge. Hart denied the allegations and was acquitted of the charges.
Cooke and Lerner had a falling out in 1976 and was dropped from the Democratic freeholder ticket and replaced by another East Orange resident, Rev. Russell Fox.
Cooke ran off the line on a slate with county government reform advocate Jeanne Graves and Paul J. McDonald. They lost badly to Scaturo, Stewart and Fox.
After the 1976 primary, Lerner backed Essex County Warden Albert Collier for East Orange Democratic Municipal Chairman and ousted Cooke from that post.
In 1977, Cooke challenged Hart in the East Orange mayoral primary and beat him by about 500 votes, a 43%-39% margin. A third candidate, Stephen Thomas, received 18% of the vote. That year, he bucked Lerner and openly supported the Essex County Charter Change movement.
Four years later, Cooke had forged an alliance with Essex County Democratic Chairman Raymond Durkin and County Executive Peter Shapiro that caused Freeholder Bernie Davis to lose organization support for re-election. That paved the way for Thomas P. Giblin to return to the freeholder board.
Cooke won a 1981 rematch with Hart by a narrow margin.
In 1982, Cooke again broke from the county Democratic organization and challenged Shapiro in the Democratic primary for county executive. He had the backing of Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson but lost. Shapiro won 40% of the vote in East Orange.
Cooke’s electoral career came to a close in 1985 when Councilman John Hatcher defeated him in the Democratic primary.
Gov. Thomas Kean tried to nominate Cooke to the New Jersey Drug Abuse Advisory Council in 1986, but State Sen. Richard J. Codey (D-West Orange) used senatorial courtesy to block his appointment.
Cooke’s final campaign came in 1997 when he ran for mayor again. He finished fifth with just 5% — about 500 votes — of the vote in a campaign that saw incumbent Robert Bowser defeated now-Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver by just 52 votes.
Cooke is survived by his daughter, son and grandchildren.
“His contributions and legacy in our community will not be forgotten, especially his tenacious fight to keep East Orange clean and healthy,” said Mayor Ted R. Green. “Mayor Thomas Cooke, Jr. was a man of dignity, service and pride. He served our country and our city with such great honor and he set the tone in our city as a pioneering, no-nonsense leader who pulled no punches and set high expectations for everyone around him. From fighting for the rights of tenants and homeowners to stabilizing the tax base and recruiting businesses to invest in East Orange, Mayor Cooke was first and foremost a community advocate who put the people’s needs first.”
A private funeral service will be held on Saturday.
An earlier version of this obituary mentioned Cooke’s accusation against Hart, but did not include an important point: that Hart was acquitted of the charge. That was an important detail and we apologize for the omission.