Former New Jersey Senate Minority Leader S. Thomas Gagliano, a popular and respected legislator who served as executive director of New Jersey Transit, died on Saturday night. He was 87.
A fixture in Monmouth County politics for seven decades, Gagliano began his long career in New Jersey politics in the 1950s as an aide to Rep. James Auchincloss (R-Rumson) while attending law school at Georgetown University.
Within months of his graduation from law school, he has become the attorney for the new Shore Regional school to help get site approval of a controversial new high school in West Long Branch. He later represented a group of taxpayers opposing a sewer rate hike in Long Branch and secured a planning board seat in his hometown of Oceanport.
In 1961, at age 29, Gagliano became a candidate for State Assembly. Monmouth had picked up a third Assembly seat after the 1960 census and Gagliano wanted to run with incumbents Alfred Beadleston (R-Rumson) and Clifton Barkalow (R-Freehold). He withdrew when the county GOP decided to go with attorney Irving Keith (R-Bradley Beach) as their candidate.
He continued to become a powerhouse in Oceanport, winning the Republican Club presidency and trading his planning board seat for the planning board attorney slot.
Gagliano mounted his second campaign for assemblyman in 1964, following the resignation of Assemblyman Clarkson Fisher (R-Sea Bright). Fisher, who had won Barkalow’s open seat the previous year, resigned to become a Monmouth County judge.
The race for Clarkson’s seat drew a strong field of candidates, including Middletown Republican municipal chairman Joseph Azzolina, Red Bank GOP chairman John Arnone, Long Branch city attorney Louis Aikens, and Asbury Park councilman James Coleman. Monmouth County Republican chairman J. Russell Wooley went with Aikens and the rest of the candidates dropped out.
In 1967, he was elected to the Oceanport Borough Council. He defeated Democrat Siguard Andreson by about 170 votes.
Gagliano’s law practice continued to grow and he became the counsel to the Monmouth County Welfare Board and the Holmdel township attorney. He later added the Shrewsbury Zoning Board to his client list.
Bid for Monmouth County Surrogate
Aikens gave up his Assembly seat in 1969 to run for Monmouth County Surrogate but resigned after thirteen months in office. President Nixon had nominated Fisher to serve as a federal judge and Gov. William Cahill picked Aikens to take the vacant county court judgeship.
Cahill nominated Gagliano, now 39, to be the new surrogate, a part-time, $18,000-a-year post in those days.
Gagliano became the Republican candidate in a 1971 special election for a five-year term as surrogate. Democrats nominated Donald Cunningham, who had been elected surrogate in the 1964 Democratic landslide and then ousted by Aikens when he sought re-election in 1969.
On election night, Gagliano led Cunningham by just 451 votes in a year that watched Monmouth voters re-elected a Democratic sheriff and Republican freeholders.
A recount added just five votes to Cunningham’s total, giving Gagliano a narrow win in the race for surrogate.
When Assemblyman Chester Apy (R-Little Silver) decided to seek re-election in 1973, Gagliano mounted a third campaign for the legislature. His running mate in the newly drawn 12th district was Robert Ferrell, the county superintendent of elections. Democrats ran Marlboro mayor Morton Salkind and Freehold councilman Walter Kozlowski.
That turned out to be a terrible year for Gagliano to run for Assembly.
Cahill lost the Republican gubernatorial primary to Rep. Charles Sandman (R-Cape May Court House) and the general election came seventeen days after Nixon fired Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox in the Saturday Night Massacre. Democrat Brendan Byrne won 66%, carrying 20 of 21 counties.
Democrats won lopsided victories in the Senate (30-10) and Assembly (66-14).
In the newly drawn 12th district, Beadleston was able to hold his Senate seat, but Gagliano lost his bid for Assembly by a wide margin. Salkind was the top vote-getter (27,450), followed by Kozlowski (26,873). Gagliano (23,795) lost by 3,078 votes, with Ferrell (22,950) finishing last.
Gagliano did not seek re-election as surrogate in 1976 and Republicans easily held the seat.
Beadleston retirement led to Senate bid
In late 1976, Beadleston announced that he would not seek re-election to a fourth term in the State Senate after a long career that included serving as Assembly Speaker and Senate President.
Four candidates sought party support for the open Senate seat: Assemblywoman Marie Muhler (R-Marlboro), who had ousted Salkind in 1975; former assemblymen John Dawes (R-Freehold) and Apy; and Gagliano. Gagliano told GOP leaders that it was the Senate or nothing, eschewing the possibility of a fourth Assembly bid.
Gagliano spent two months seeking endorsements of local Republican clubs and became the Monmouth GOP organization candidate for Beadleston’s Senate seat. Muhler ran for re-election to the Assembly and Dawes challenged Kozlowski for the other assembly seat.
In the general election, Gagliano faced Democrat Arthur Goldzweig, the mayor of Marlboro. Gagliano won by 6,054 votes, 54.5%-43.7%. Muhler easily won re-election, while Kozlowski edged out Dawes by just 213 votes,
He was easily re-elected in 1981, defeating Freehold mayor Roger Kane by 10,352 votes (50%-41%).
In 1983, Gagliano found himself in a tough re-election campaign just as the GOP was looking to break the Democrats 21-19 control of the New Jersey Senate.
His opponent was 39-year-old Alexander Lehrer, well-known in Monmouth County after serving five years as the county prosecutor. He initially declined to run, preferring to serve the remaining months of his term when Republican Gov. Thomas Kean would name his own choice.
By August, with just weeks left in his term, Lehrer reconsidered and agreed to run for Senate. Dr. Robert Morgan, who became an assemblyman twenty years later, dropped out of the race to make room for Lehrer.
Gagliano won re-election by just 880 votes, 51%-49%, against Lehrer after an expensive but cordial campaign. Two other Monmouth Republican senators lost that year: State Sen. Brian Kennedy (R-Sea Girt) was ousted by Long Branch councilman Frank Pallone, Jr., and State Sen. John Gallagher (R-Middletown) was unseated by Assemblyman Richard Van Wagner (D-Middletown).
When Gagliano headed back to Trenton after the ’83 election, he had his sites on a new job: Senate Minority Leader.
The incumbent, Donald DiFrancesco (R-Scotch Plains), had hoped to become Senate President, but Democrats expanded their majority to 23-17 in Kean’s mid-term election and DiFrancesco announced that he would not seek a second term as Republican leader.
Gagliano and DiFrancesco were political allies. After just two years in the Senate, DiFrancesco decided to challenge the traditional leadership rotation system and challenged Senate Assistant Minority Whip James Vreeland (R-Montville) for minority leader. He had the backing of a large group of freshmen senators whom he had served with in the Assembly.
Good at counting votes, Gagliano joined forces with DiFrancesco in a deal that would make him assistant minority leader.
Also in the mix for minority leader was State Sen. James Hurley (R-Millville), who had been the Assembly Minority Leader from 1977 to 1981.
With commitments from more than enough senators, Hurley dropped out and backed Gagliano. In exchange, he became one of two assistant minority leaders, along with John Dorsey (R-Boonton). State Sen. Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest), narrowly re-elected to a second term in 1983, became Senate Minority Whip.
It was unfortunate for Gagliano that the Senate was not up in 1985, when Kean won 70% of the vote and Republicans picked up fourteen Assembly seats to take the majority for the first time in twelve years.
Hurley became minority leader in 1986.
In 1987, Gagliano won a landslide re-election to fourth term in the Senate. He defeated Bernard Finan, a Red Bank attorney, by 16,223 votes, 68%-32%.
His hope of becoming Senate President was dashed that year when Assemblyman Paul DiGaetano (R-Passaic) was swamped in his bid for an open Senate seat in a March special election. Democrats picked up one more Senate seat in the November general election, giving them as 24-16 majority.
When Rep. James Howard (D-Spring Lake) passed away just before the 1988 filing deadline, Gagliano had already endorsed Azzolina for the nomination. Gagliano kept his word to Azzolina, even though many thought he could defeat Howard’s replacement, Frank Pallone, in the general election.
Headed New Jersey Transit
In March 1989, Gagliano announced that he was seeking the position of executive director of New Jersey Transit after Jerome Premo announced he was leaving amidst a probe of financial improprieties. At the time of his announcement, Gagliano said he had not discussed his bid with Kean but was campaigning among NJ transit board member.
Within six weeks, Gagliano had the votes and resigned from the Senate. Assemblyman John Bennett (R-Little Silver), now the Woodbridge township administrator, succeeded him in the Senate.
Gagliano retired from state government in the fall of 1991 after working out a buy-out agreement with the new Democratic governor, Jim Florio.
Since leaving government, Gagliano resumed the practice of law, worked for an engineering firm, and solidified his role as an elder statesman in Monmouth County politics.
Former State Sen. Joseph Kyrillos (R-Middletown) called Gagliano “ a great guy, close friend, and mentor to me.”
“He had a wonderful life, raised a terrific family and became a giant in Monmouth County,” Kyrillos told the New Jersey Globe.
Monmouth County GOP chairman Shaun Golden praised Gagliano’s service to the state.
“Senator Gagliano was a distinguished public servant who generously and honorably served the people of Monmouth County. He was a mentor and friend to many. His contributions to the quality of live in Monmouth County will last for generations,” Golden said.
A wake will be held on Tuesday from 4:00-8:00 PM at the Woolley-Boglioi Funeral Home, 10 Morrell Street in Long Branch. A funeral mass will be offered on Wednesday at Our Lady Star of the Sea Church in Long Branch, followed an internment at the Glenwood Cemetery in West Long Branch,