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U.S. Senator Harrison Williams at the 1976 Democratic National Convention. Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange.

Labor: How a Texas primary helped focus unions on Pete Williams

Some Democrats mulled dumping three-two term U.S. Senator in 1970

By David Wildstein, September 02 2019 3:42 pm

New Jersey Republicans, as they frequently do, convinced themselves that they could win a U.S. Senate seat in 1970.

The two-term Democratic incumbent, Harrison Williams, was facing a challenge from Republican State Chairman Nelson Gross, a former State Senator from Bergen County who had the strong support of President Richard Nixon and first-year Gov. WIlliam Cahill.

Nixon was popular in New Jersey and Cahill had just defeated former Gov. Robert Meyner by 500,902 votes (60%).   Gross claimed Williams was a tool of the ultra-left.

Williams had some personal problems.  In 1968, the New Jersey NAACP voted to censure Williams after he showed up to address their group drunk.

Some Democratic powerbrokers, including Middlesex County Democratic boss David Wilentz, mulled withdrawing party support from Williams. 

Instead, Williams quit drinking and convinced Democrats to let him stay.  He won a Demcoratic primary with 66% against State Sen. Frank Guarini (D-Jersey CIty), losing only Hudson County.

The real turning point in the race came in May, one month before the New Jersey Senate primary.  And it happened 1,600 miles away in Texas.

JFK/LBJ buffs will recall that President John F, Kennedy visited Dallas in November to help mediate a feud between two Democrats, U.S. Senator Ralph Yarborough and Gov. John Connolly.

Yarborough, a liberal, New Dealer was riding in Lyndon Johnon’s car in the Dallas just behind the one carrying Kennedy and Connolly.

In an upset, Lloyd Bentsen, a centrist former congressman who has been out of office for sixteen years,defeated Yarborough in the Democratic primary.

That meant if he was re-elected and Democrats held the Senate, Williams would become the new chairman of the Senate Committee on Labor and Public Welfare.

Williams’ unexpected ascension to a powerful Senate chairmanship served as a gut check for national and state labor unions who wanted to make sure the New Jersey Democrat, a friend of labor Democrats, would not lose his seat to Gross.

Suddenly, tons of labor dollars and union bodies made its way to the Williams campaign.

Williams beat Gross by 254,048 votes, 54%-42%.

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