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Two New Jerseyans have served as U.S. Secretary of Labor, both construction company executives named by Republican presidents for their close ties to organized labor.
James P. Mitchell (1900-1964) grew up in Elizabeth and worked in the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt. He was the Union County director of the New Jersey Relief Administration – part of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (ERA) from 1933 to 1939.
Following his success in Union County, Mitchell joined the New York City office of the Works Progress Administration (WPA).
At the start of World War II in 1942, Mitchell was called to Washington to serve as labor relations director of the U.S. Army Construction Program. He negotiated a no-strike agreement with nineteen labor unions in order to facilitate the stresses of the war effort.
After the war, Mitchell became the personnel director for R.H. Macy’s and then Bloomingdale Brothers. After couple of years in the private sector, the Army hired Mitchell to help them organize labor forces in Germany and Korea.
President Eisenhower appointed him to serve as Assistant U.S. Secretary of the Army for Manpower in 1953.
In October 1954, Eisenhower nominated Mitchell to serve in his cabinet as Secretary of Labor. He remained there for the duration of the Eisenhower administration, where he advocated for labor unions within a Republican White House.
Richard Nixon put Mitchell on his short list for the vice presidency in 1960, but the spot on the national ticket went to Henry Cabot Lodge.
Mitchell became a candidate for Governor of New Jersey in 1961.
He won the Republican nomination with 44% of the vote against State Senators Walter Jones R-Norwood) and Wayne Dumont (R-Phillipsburg). Jones received 35% and Dumont 21%.
Mitchell was the heavy favorite to win the general election against Richard Hughes, a former Superior Court Judge and Mercer County Democratic Chairman.
Hughes was virtually unknown to Democrats, a compromise candidate among Democratic party leaders after the early front runner, former Attorney General Grover Richman dropped out in February after suffering a heart attack.
With Mitchell facing Hughes, New Jersey was assured of electing its first Irish Catholic governor.
The Mitchell campaign suffered a serious setback in September when the candidate broke his leg and took him off the campaign trial for several weeks to recuperate following surgery. In the days before television commercials and social media, retail campaigning had an outsized importance.
He completed the campaign on crutches.
Mitchell’s injury helped Hughes, a strong campaigner, take the lead.
Hughes defeated Mitchell by 34,920 votes statewide, 50.3%-48.7%.
After the election, Mitchell moved to California to head labor relations for Crown Zellerbach, a major paper manufacturer.
On a business trip to New York in 1964, Hughes died of a heart attack.
Raymond Donovan (born 1930) grew up in Bayonne and worked summers as a union laborer.
He joined the Schiavone Construction Company in 1959, heading their labor relations department, and became Executive Vice President in 1971.
In 1979, Donovan became the New Jersey Chairman of Ronald Reagan’s campaign for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination. He also served as a major fundraiser for the Reagan campaign.
After Reagan won the presidency, he nominated Donovan to serve as his Secretary of Labor.
Donovan resigned from the cabinet in 1985 following his indictment on charges that he a Schiavone contract to extend the New York City Subway included a subcontract for a minority owned construction and trucking firm that had ties to the Genovese crime family.
In 1987, Donovan was acquitted on all charges.
As he was leaving the courthouse, Donovan asked, “What office do I go to to get my reputation back?”