Former Saddle Brook Councilman William J. Meisner, an prominent educator and Democratic leader who once found himself in the crosshairs of the state’s premier party boss, died on February 7. He was 83.
Meisner became involved in politics in the early 1960s as a member of the Bergen County Young Democrats during an era when the group included future party stalwarts like Stephen Moses, Martin Durkin and Leon Sokol. He ran for Young Democrats state committeeman in 1965 but lost to Marvin Mandelbaum; a year later, he was elected chairman after outpolling Walter Coleman by just 11 votes, 83-72.
At age 27 in 1965, Meisner was elected president of the Saddle Brook Education Association. The following year, Meisner lost a race for a county committee seat in Garfield, received 31% in an off-the-line race against Eric Schwind.
In a campaign for New Jersey Young Democrats president in 1968, Meisner found himself in a race against Rene De Marco, the 26-year-old husband of Hudson County Democratic boss John V. Kenny’s granddaughter.
The contest became a statewide controversy after Kenny, the former Jersey City mayor and one of the most powerful party bosses of his generation, began personally calling Young Democratic organization delegates to secure votes for De Marco. Kenny also enlisted the help of New Jersey Democratic State Chairman Robert Burkhardt, a hugely influential powerbroker in the 1950s and 1960s, to lean on delegates.
Meisner claimed that several delegates had their jobs threatened if the didn’t vote for De Marco. De Marco acknowledged that his wife’s grandfather was running his campaign but denied threatening anybody.
De Marco defeated Meisner by 20 votes, 79-59.
In 1969, Meisner became a candidate for Saddle Brook Borough Council on a slate of seven candidates headed by mayoral candidate Stephen Cuccio in the May non-partisan municipal election. That slate had the backing of former State Sen. Jeremiah O’Connor, a former mayor.
Meisner finished third in a field of 27 council candidates, with 14 of them making it to a June runoff. He finished about 60 votes behind the top two candidates and nearly 500 votes against the last candidate to qualify for a runoff berth.
Cuccio was the only member of his slate not to make it to the runoff.
In the June runoff, Meisner finished fifth in the race for seven council seats. He finished about 500 votes behind the top vote-getter, former Township Committeeman Charles Kern, and around 350 votes ahead of the eighth place finisher, Doris Jewart.
Meisner was the only member of the “Yes, Change for a Better Government” slate to win.
Saddle Brook voters elected Edward F. Kugler as their mayor that year. He served as mayor from 1969 to 1977 and as a councilman from 1985 to 2011; his son, Robert, became the police chief and was the Republican candidate for Bergen County Sheriff in 2021.
Meisner and Kugler became bitter local rivals.
Saddle Brook had approved a new form of government for that year and Meisner, Kern, Thomas Zangara and Richard Onorevole drew two-year terms out of the box. Kern won outright, but Meisner missed avoiding a runoff that year by about 20 votes.
That put him and the other two incumbents into a June runoff against three other candidates, with eight contenders eliminated outright.
In the runoff, Meisner was the top vote-getter, with all incumbents getting re-elected after a particularly nasty fight. Meisner received about 1,850 votes – around about 700 votes ahead of the fourth place candidate — with former Mayor Edward Siepiola finishing last with around 990 votes.
Meisner ran for Bergen County Freeholder on a slate with Waldwick Mayor Frank Herbert, and Cliffside Park Mayor Gerald A. Calabrese in 1972; Andrew Maguire was also on the ticket as a candidate for a one-year unexpired term.
With President Richard M. Nixon winning Bergen County by 138,303 voted, 65%-34% against Democrat George McGovern, the Republican incumbents – Harry Randall, Jr., Henry Hoebel and Victor Williams won easily. Meisner finished fifth, about 27,000 votes behind Randall.
(In the special election, Maguire, a former Johnson Administration official, came within 12,000 votes of GOP Freeholder Kenneth Sherwood. Herbert would later win races for freeholder and the New Jersey State Senate – he was defeated by Gerald Cardinale in 1981 – Maguire ousted 11-term Rep. William Widnall in the 1974 Watergate landslide and spent six years in Congress – and Calabrese served as a freeholder, Bergen County Democratic chairman, and was mayor of Cliffside Park for 50 years before his death in 2015 at age 90.)
Meisner was the top vote-getter in Saddle Brook, running about 1,800 votes ahead of McGovern.
In 1973, Meisner ran for mayor against Kugler, but lost by around 1,150 votes, 62%-38%.
Kugler tried to knock Meisner out when he ran for re-election to his council seat in 1975, but couldn’t do it. Meisner finished third in a race for four seats, finishing about 120 votes ahead of the fifth place candidate, Gloria Sinski.
Four days after he was re-elected, Meisner married Barbara Kornacki. She survives him.
At the end of 1976, Meisner resigned from the council after a new job required out of state travel that would affect his attendance. He remained involved in politics, working on the campaign of Rep. Bob Roe (D-Wayne) in the 1977 Democratic gubernatorial primary.
In 1978, the Meisner was appointed to the Bergen County Vocational-Technical Board of Education. He served there on-and-off until 2019.
After teaching at Saddle Brook High School, Meisner later became the director of admissions and a professor of Education at Jersey City State College. He briefly served as Holmdel Superintendent of Schools.
Meisner taught inmates at Rahway State Prison, was chairman of the Board of Trustees at Assumption College for Sisters in Mendham and was the president of the North Jersey Philharmonic Society and Orchestra.
His son, Phil, has served as Englewood Democratic Municipal Chairman and as chief of staff to several state legislators.
Meisner is also survived by his son, Jeffrey, and two grandchildren.
Visitation will be held from 4-8 PM on Thursday at the Browning-Forshay Funeral Home in Hawthorne. Services will be held there at 10:30 AM on Friday.