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Thelma Leonard. (Photo: Roth-Goldsteins' Memorial Chapel).

Wife of ex-N.J. Assembly Speaker dies

Leon Leonard was an Atlantic County assemblyman in 1940s

By David Wildstein, September 03 2022 2:00 pm

Thelma Leonard, a classical pianist and the widow of former Assembly Speaker Leon Leonard, died on August 18.  She was 103.

A member of Hap Farley’s political machine, Leon Leonard (R-Atlantic City) was elected to the State Assembly in 1940 at age 31, running on a ticket with incumbent Vincent S. Haneman (R-Brigantine), a future associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.

Despite fervent opposition from Essex County Republican leader Arthur T. Vanderbilt, Leonard became Assembly Majority Leader in 1946 after Gov. Walter Edge, who was also allied with Farley, personally arm-twisted legislators and forged an alliance with the Bergen GOP Assembly delegation by pledging South Jersey support for State Sen. David Van Alstyne’s expected bid for the 1946 Republican gubernatorial nomination.  That gave Leonard enough votes to force Assemblyman J. Stanley Herbert (R-Sea Girt) out of the race.

By February, circumstances had changed and Van Alstyne had dropped out of the governor’s race.  Bergen Republicans instead decided to back former Rep. Frank Osmers (R-Haworth), who had given up his congressional seat to go on active duty during World War II.   Osmers also had tacit support from Vanderbilt, who had a stormy relationship with Edge and South Jersey.  Later, Vanderbilt flipped on Osmers and went with Rev. Lester Clee, a former state senator from Newark and the unsuccessful 1937 GOP gubernatorial candidate.

The race had reset itself when former Gov. Harold Hoffman, who was not popular with party bosses, decided to run again.  Edge and other party leaders searched for a candidate who could beat Hoffman in a Republican primary and Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague’s candidate,  Judge Lewis Hansen, in the general election.

After considering State Treasurer Robert Hendrickson (who had lost the 1940 gubernatorial race to Democrat Charles Edison and then win a U.S. Senate seat in 1948), former Rep. Lane Powers (R-Trenton), former State Sen. Clifford Powell (R-Mount Holly), Republicans eventually settled on Alfred Driscoll, a former state senator from Haddonfield and a commissioner of the New Jersey Alcoholic Beverage Commission, a high-profile job in the post-Prohibition era.  Driscoll went on to defeat Hansen.

Leonard was elected Assembly Speaker in 1947 and served one year – until the 1970s, legislative leaders were rotated – and did not seek re-election in 1947 – until 1949, State Assembly members were elected to one-year terms.  He served as acting governor in 1947.

After leaving the legislature, Leonard served as special counsel to Governor Driscoll until his nomination to serve as judge of the Atlantic County Court of Common Pleas – roughly the equivalent of the Supreme Court.  He succeeded Haneman, who had been named to the Chancery Court.   He remained on the bench until his retirement in 1975 and died in 1995.

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