Former Assembly Speaker William J. Hamilton, Jr., a skilled legislator with a reputation for integrity and independence, died on Thursday. He was 86.
A product of John A. Lynch, Sr.’s New Brunswick political organization, Hamilton served six years in the State Assembly and four years in the State Senate before seeking the Democratic nomination for governor in 1981.
His ties to Lynch would eventually become strained in 1977 when Lynch tried to pass his State Senate seat on to his son.
Hamilton spent five years as an Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Florida before returning to New Jersey and joining a law firm headed by New Brunswick Democratic Municipal Chairman George Shamy.
In 1970, New Brunswick Mayor Patricia Q. Sheehan named him as Director of Civil Defense and Disaster Control.
Hamilton was offered a seat on the New Brunswick City Council later that year when William J. Cahill resigned to become City Clerk, but he declined.
Instead, Hamilton set his sights on the state legislature.
The two Middlesex County District 7-A Assembly seats were held by Republicans Peter Garibaldi (R-Monroe) and Robert Haelig (R-Middlesex Borough). Garibaldi and Haelig had were elected in 1967 and re-elected in 1969.
Four Democrats appeared before the Middlesex Democratic screening committee to seek part support to challenge Garibaldi and Haelig: Milltown Councilman Joseph Valenti; Dunellen Municipal Court Judge William Gazi; William Jackson, an insurance company executive from Piscataway; and Hamilton.
Party support went to Hamilton and Valenti, who ran unopposed in the June Democratic primary.
During the general election campaign, Hamilton was forced to deal with a scandal involving the managing partner at the law firm where he was an associate.
Shamy was suspended from practicing law after being accused of illegal gambling activities, diverting monies in his firm’s trust account for personal use, and misrepresenting his personal and law firm financial status on an application for a bank loan.
Hamilton criticized the Republican incumbents for delaying the expansion of local roads, including Route 18.
Middlesex Democrats won six of seven Assembly seats in Republican Governor William T. Cahill’s mid-term elections, with Garibaldi becoming the sole Republican survivor.
The race in District 7-A was extraordinarily close.
Hamilton was the top vote-getter with 25,081 votes, with Garibaldi (24,972) finishing 109 votes behind him. Valenti (24,857) to Garibaldi by just 113 votes. Haelig (24,549) finished fourth in his unsuccessful bid for a third term, coming in 532 votes behind Hamilton.
As a freshman assemblyman, Hamilton opposed forced busing of students across municipal boundaries to create racial equality in local schools. He also opposed Garibaldi’s plan to force the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority to build a sports arena in New Brunswick.
Hamilton also emerged as a sharp critic of Assemblyman David Friedland (D-Jersey City), a Hudson County Democrat who joined forces with Republicans to give the Assembly Speaker post to Thomas Kean (R-Livingston), even though Democrats had won a majority of Assembly seats in the 1971 election
After new legislative districts were drawn for the 1973 election, Hamilton was placed in the 17th, which included part of Somerset County. He teamed up with Manville Mayor Joseph Patero and won the Democratic primary by a 4-1 margin against former Franklin Councilman Harry Van Houten.
Democrats won a landslide victory in the 1973 general election that was heavily influenced by the emerging Watergate scandal in Washington.
Patero led the Assembly voting in the 1973 general with 29,186 – with Hamilton coming in 36 votes behind him. They defeated Republicans Elizabeth Lyons (14,303) and Bruce Williams (13,340), a Franklin councilman. The State Senator from the 17th was John A. Lynch, Sr.
Hamilton became the Assistant Majority Leader in 1974, becoming the number three Democrat in the Assembly. The new Speaker was S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton), and the Majority Leader was Joseph LeFante (D-Bayonne).
In 1975, Hamilton won a third term in the Assembly with 21,776 votes – 330 ahead of Patero. They defeated Republicans Charles Williams (16,844) and Kenneth Brennan (16,260).
Democrats lost 16 seats in the Assembly during Gov. Brendan Byrne’s mid-term election, although many of those seats were in strong Republican districts that flipped during the Watergate landslide.
Byrne played heavily in contested races for Assembly leadership posts in what became a bitter skirmish with a former political ally, State Sen. James P. Dugan (D-Bayonne) over economic issues that included consideration of a state income tax.
With the governor’s support, LeFante became the Speaker and Hamilton was elected Majority Leader. Two other Byrne allies, Albert Burstein (D-Tenafly) and George Barbour (D-Maple Shade) defeated Dugan allies Richard Van Wagner (D-Middletown) and Eldridge Hawkins (D-Orange) for two Assistant Majority leader posts.
Hamilton helped Byrne win passage of the controversial income tax in the Assembly.
LeFante ran for Congress in 1976 and voter backlash against the income tax nearly cost him the safe Hudson County-based House seat. He defeated Republican Anthony Lewis Campenni by a narrow 49.9%-45.2% margin in a race where the GOP spent no money and Democratic presidential nominee Jimmy Carter won 57% of the vote.
With LeFante headed to Washington, Hamilton became a candidate for Assembly Speaker.
He faced two opponents: labor leader Christopher Jackman (D-West New York); Ronald Owens (D-Newark); and another Middlesex County Democrat, Thomas Deverin (D-Carteret).
Jackman argued that the deal cut by Democrats after the 1975 election was to give Hudson County the Speaker post for two years, and LeFante’s election to Congress ought not change that.
Deverin secured endorsements from three members of the Middlesex Democratic Assembly delegation: Alan Karcher (D-Sayreville), George Otlowski (D-Perth Amboy), and William Flynn (D-Old Bridge). James Bornheimer (D-East Brunswick) and John Froude (D-South River) were supporting Hamilton.
Owens had the backing of Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner.
In a meeting of the 48-member Democratic Caucus, Hamilton received 20 votes on the first ballot, with Jackman, Deverin and Owens each receiving eight votes.
Jackman and Deverin dropped out and Hamilton defeated Owens in the second ballot, 28-15.
After that, Jackman ran for Majority Leader and defeated the front-runner for the post, Burstein.
Hamilton spent five days as Acting Governor in March when Byrne took a five-day vacation to Florida. He was sworn in by Chief Justice Richard Hughes and signed a law appropriating funds to a summer arts festival.
In late March 1977, Lynch – nearing the end of a four-year battle with cancer — he would not seek re-election to the Senate seat he had held since 1956.
He immediately endorsed his son, New Brunswick Democratic Municipal Chairman John A. Lynch, Jr., for his seat.
Hamilton, just ten weeks into his speakership, quickly announced that he would seek the Senate seat – even if it meant a primary fight against Lynch.
Somerset County Democratic Chairman Orlando Abbruzzese endorsed Hamilton, giving the Speaker the organization line.
Hamilton’s Senate bid created a fight for the open Assembly seat between Highland Park Councilman David Schwartz and Piscataway Mayor Ted Light.
Lynch, Jr. announced that he would oppose the state income tax that Hamilton helped pass. The initial legislation created a self-destruct date on June 1978 and Lynch pledged to oppose keeping the tax intact.
At a screening committee meeting a few weeks later, Middlesex County Democrats voted to give the line to Hamilton, causing Lynch to withdraw. He was elected Mayor of New Brunswick in 1978.
Hamilton’s Senate candidacy effectively made him a lame-duck Assembly Speaker for more than three-quarters of his tenure.
While running on the Middlesex and Somerset lines with former state Commissioner of Labor Joseph Hoffman – one of 10 Democrats to challenge Byrne in the 1977 Democratic gubernatorial primary – Hamilton endorsed the governor for renomination.
Hoffman carried Middlesex by a 36%-26% margin over Byrne, but finished fifth statewide with 10% of the vote. Byrne won Somerset, 38%-27%.
In the general election, Hamilton defeated Republican Peter Selesky, a New Brunswick lawyer, by 10,160 votes, a 67%-37% margin.
When legendary nine-term Democratic Rep. Edward J. Patten (D-Perth Amboy) announced his retirement in 1980, Hamilton mulled a run for the open 15th district congressional seat. He wound up passing on the race and endorsing the eventual winner, Senate Majority Leader Bernard Dwyer (D-Edison).
After just one term in the Senate, Hamilton gave up his seat to seek the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in 1981 when Byrne was term-limited.
His retirement set up Lynch’s ascent to the New Jersey Senate.
Despite their history, Hamilton eventually broke his ties to Byrne after publicly opposing the governor’s plan to cut state aid to wealthier public school districts. Through the primary season, Hamilton stepped up his criticism of Byrne.
Byrne was also backing his Attorney General, John Degnan, to succeed him as governor.
Seventeen Middlesex County Democratic municipal chairs endorsed Hamilton for governor, including Woodbridge Mayor Joseph DeMarino. He also had the support of Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Nicholas Venezia.
But Hamilton’s home-county support was not unanimous. Edison Mayor and Democratic Municipal Chairman Anthony Yelencsics endorsed Rep. Robert Roe (D-Wayne).
Roe also had the backing of Sheriff Joseph Spicuzzo, Freeholders David Crabiel and Vincent Marino, and Sayreville Democratic Municipal Chairman Leo Nowicki.
Hamilton failed to catch on as a statewide candidate, finishing 8th out of 13 candidates in the Democratic primary.
With 2.75% of the vote, Hamilton trailed Rep. Jim Florio (26%), Roe (16%), Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson (15%), Senate President Joseph Merlino (11%), Degnan (10%), Jersey City Mayor Thomas F.X. Smith (9%), former Senate President Frank Dodd (4%). He outpolled only former Assemblywoman Barbara McConnell (2.6%), former Commissioner of Human Services Ann Klein (2.3%), former State Sen. Herbert Buehler (0.67%), and two others.
Hamilton won just 21% of the vote in Middlesex County, out-polling Florio (15%), Roe (14%) and Merlino (14%).
Yelencsics delivered Edison to Roe, who beat Florio by more than 750 votes. Hamilton finished third, about 1,000 votes behind Roe.
With the Somerset County line, Hamilton outpolled Florio by 171 votes, 16%-15%.
In Essex and Hudson, Hamilton received less than one-half percent vote of the vote.
For a while in 1981, it looked like Hamilton might extend his political career. There was intense speculation that he would have become Chief Counsel in a Florio administration, but Republican Tom Kean won the race by 1,797 votes statewide.
After leaving the Senate, Hamilton returned to the full time practice of law and spent many years as the New Brunswick City Attorney. As recently as 2015, he was serving as Special Counsel to the New Brunswick Ethics Board.
He came from a New Brunswick political family: his uncle, Richard V. Mulligan, served as Mayor of New Brunswick from 1939 to 1942, and later as the Middlesex County Democratic Chairman.
Hamilton was a 1954 graduate of Rutgers University. He served as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy and received his law degree from Georgetown University in 1960.
He served as a law clerk to Judge John Simpson, who had been named to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida by President Harry Truman.
Funeral arrangements are pending.