Home>Highlight>Tom Pankok, former assemblyman, Salem political leader, dies at 90

Former Assemblyman Thomas A. Pankok. (Photo: Delaware River and Bay Authority).

Tom Pankok, former assemblyman, Salem political leader, dies at 90

South Jersey Democrat spent 15 years as a freeholder, six as a county chairman

By David Wildstein, January 31 2022 10:38 pm

Thomas A. Pankok, a humble, community-minded Korean War veteran who served two terms in New Jersey State Assembly before he was swept out of office in Gov. Thomas Kean’s 1985 landslide re-election, died on January 31.  He was 90.

Pankok launched his political career in 1958 as a 27-year-old candidate for Salem City Council.  He was re-elected in 1960, wining his West Ward seat with 64% of the vote against Republican David Ayers.

Pankok was elected to the Salem County Board of Freeholders in 1965 with 62% against Republican Joseph Pew.  That was at a time when most municipalities had their own freeholder.  He won again in 1966, winning a two-year term for a reconstituted, smaller freeholder board.

Pankok ran for re-election in 1968 on a ticket with former Senate Majority Leader John Waddington (D-Salem), who spent 12 years representing Salem County in the State Senate before losing re-election in 1967.

Waddington won, but the decision of Salem County voters to split their tickets led to Pankok finishing fourth in a four-candidate race, about 900 votes behind Waddington.  Republican John Pancoast won, and his running mate, David Crockett, lost.

Following the resignation of Salem City Mayor Norris Williams to become undersheriff in 1969, the city council elected Pankok to serve as the new mayor.   He did not run in a special election that year.

In 1970, Pankok was again elected to serve as a Salem County freeholder.  He and George Ayes, the former mayor of Alloway, ousted Republican incumbent Lester Harris and William Martin by about 1,500 votes.

Despite the Watergate Democratic wave in 1973, Pankok just narrowly won re-election against Republicans Martyna McLean and Martin, who was seeking a comeback.  Pankok won by about 300 votes.

Pankok won again in 1976.  He ran about 3,000 votes in front of Republicans Stephen Rogers and George Pappas, a former freeholder.  He won again in 1979.

When Assemblyman H. Donald Stewart (D-Oldmans) decided not to seek re-election to a fifth term in the 3rd legislative district, Democrats picked Pankok as his replacement on a ticket with four-term Assemblyman Martin Herman (D-Woodbury).

Herman and Pankok defeated Republicans Erwin Sheppard, a Lawrence Township Committeeman, and Harrison Township Deputy Mayor David Liddle.  Herman finished 2,825 votes ahead of Pankok, who outpolled Sheppard by 4,025 votes.

The two Democrats were re-elected in 1983 against Republicans Russ Paul and Edmund “Duke” Downer.  Pankok won by 3,655 votes.

With Kean, the popular Republican governor, heading the ticket in 1985, the GOP flipped fourteen Assembly seats to take control of the lower house for the first time in twelve years.

Pankok and Herman were among the casualties.

Republicans recruited two top-tier challengers: Jack Collins, an Elmer school board member, basketball coach and pig farmer; and 30-year-old Gloucester County Freeholder Gary Stuhltrager.

Collins was the top vote-getter with 27,514, followed by Stuhltrager (27,032), Herman (25,699) and Pankok (24,706).

In 1987, Pankok sought a return to the Salem County Board of Freeholders on a ticket with former Carneys Point Mayor Ralph DiVito and Pittsgrove Tax Collector Leah Hopkins.  They faced two Republican incumbents, Joseph DeVito and Albert Graham, and Carneys Point Councilman David Sparks.

Salem County voters split their ticket that year.  Pankok was the top vote-getter, followed by Dyer, but Sparks won the third seat by about 200 votes over Graham.

With South Jersey congressman Jim Florio running for governor in 1989, Pankok ran for his old Assembly seat.  He lost by 4,361 votes.

Pankok had one final act in New Jersey politics, serving as the Salem County Democratic Chairman from 1998 until his retirement in 2004.

Born in Salem in 1931, Pankok served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War and later spent 35 years working for the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company.

After leaving the legislature, Pankok became the secretary of the Delaware River and Bay Authority.  He served a decade in that post before his retirement.

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