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One of the most influential labor leaders in New Jersey history was Vincent J. Murphy (1893-1976), who spent nine years as the president of the New Jersey AFL-CIO after two terms as the Mayor of Newark. He was the Democratic nominee for Governor of New Jersey in 1943, the last time a sitting labor leader was nominated for statewide office.
Murphy became a plumber’s apprentice at age 15, joined the United Association of Journeymen and Apprentices of the Plumbing, Pipefitting and Sprinkler Fitting Industry, served in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and later served 18 years as the Secretary-Treasurer of the Plumbers Union Local 24.
By the 1930s, Murphy had become the Secretary-Treasurer of the New Jersey Federation of Labor (AFL).
In 1937, Murphy became a candidate for Newark City Commissioner – Newark didn’t change to a City Council form of government with a directly elected mayor until 1954 – in an especially nasty race influenced by Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, the Hudson County political boss and one of the most influential Democrats in the state.
Mayor Meyer Ellenstein was a frequent critic of Hague. Murphy and Hague had an alliance.
Initially the race attracted 70 candidates for five seats, although the field eventually scaled back to 48.
Murphy received the most votes (49,392) in the field, followed by Ellenstein (45,049), insurgent Joseph W. Byrne (38,855), and then two incumbents allied with the mayor: Michael P. Duffy (35,607) and Pearce R. Franklin (33,091). They beat incumbents A.J. Minisi (29,931) and Reginald Parnell (29,348). Dennis F. Kelly, who had the backing of State Sen. Lester Clee (R-Newark), received 29,458 votes.
Ellenstein’s vote totals were significantly reduced from 1933, when he received more than 75,000 votes.
The tradition in those days was for the top vote-getter to become mayor, but Ellenstein kept the post with votes from Duffy and Franklin.
The 1941 municipal elections created a political realignment in Newark.
Ellenstein lost his seat on the City Commission by about 8,000 votes. Murphy won re-election, but he finished fifth.
The top vote-getter was Ellenstein ally John A. Brady, the Acting Newark Police Superintendent. He was followed by Murphy all John B. Keenan, the acting Fire Commissioner. Former Municipal Court Judge Ralph J. Villani, running on the Ellenstein slate, finished third, and Byrne finished fourth in his bid for re-election. Brady and Murphy were separated by about 4,200 votes. Running on the Ellenstein ticket, Franklin lost his bid for re-election.
Murphy became the new Newark after winning support from Keenan and Byrne. The top vote-getter becomes mayor rule was now a thing of the past.
With Democratic Gov. Charles Edison term-limited – before the 1947 New Jersey Constitutional Convention, governors served one three-year term and could not run for re-election – Murphy began to seek support for the Democratic nomination for governor in 1943.
Edison was a staunch Hague foe and opposed the idea of A. Harry Moore, who had already won three terms as governor and one in the U.S. Senate, returning to the job. Moore, now 66, wanted the nomination.
Democratic county chairmen were not thrilled with the idea of the AFL putting their man in the governorship, but most find it difficult to reject a candidate who was both a leader of the state’s most powerful union and also the mayor of New Jersey’s largest city.
Once Murphy secured the backing of Hague, Middlesex County Democratic leader David Wilentz, and Democratic State Chairman/New Jersey Secretary of State Joseph A. Brophy, a former mayor of Elizabeth, the race was over.
Edison and Hague shared the stage at the Murphy for Governor campaign kickoff, along with National AFL President William Green and National CIO President Philip Murray. Murphy ran unopposed in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Anxious to win back the governor’s office after three years out of power, Republicans cleared the field for Walter Edge, 69, who had won election as governor 27 years earlier, followed by two terms in the U.S. Senate and a stint as Herbert Hoover’s U.S. Ambassador to France.
When Edge ran for governor the first time in 1916 – his campaign manager was Nucky Johnson — he had the backing of Hague, then a Jersey City Commissioner who was still one year away from becoming mayor. But in 1943, Edge hammered Murphy for his ties to the Jersey City political boss.
Edge beat Murphy by 127,764 votes, a 55%-44% margin. Murphy carried just three counties, winning Hudson (+97,382), Camden (+12,605) and Middlesex (+2,475). Edge won Essex by 45,589 votes.
After his statewide defeat, Murphy returned to Newark and to his job as Louis P. Marciante’s number two man at the AFL.
Murphy sought re-election to the City Commission in 1945, facing a rematch with his old rival, Ellenstein.
Murphy finished first in a field of 23 candidates for the five seats, running nearly 8,000 votes ahead of Brady, who finished second. Villani and Keenan were also re-elected.
Ellenstein won the fifth Commissioner spot, edging out former Assistant U.S. Attorney Anthony Giuliano by almost 4,000 votes.
Another shift of city politics came in 1949 when Newark voters ousted Murphy from his seat on the City Commission.
This time, Ellenstein was the top vote-getter. Murphy finished sixth, nearly 17,000 votes behind his bitter rival. Villani and Keenan were re-elected, but Brady lost.
The 1949 Newark elections also saw two other labor leaders win seats on the City Commission.
Stephen J. Moran, the Executive Secretary of the New Jersey Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) – the rival union of the AFL — and former Assemblyman Leo P. Carlin, the president of the Brotherhood of Teamsters and Chauffeurs Local 478, were elected Newark City Commissioners.
Villani succeeded Murphy as Mayor, followed by Carlin four years later.
That marked the end of Murphy’s career in public office.
He returned to the AFL on a full-time basis, taking a $10,000 annual salary; he had rejected his union official stipend while serving as mayor.
In March 1961, the 62-year-old Marciante died of a heart attack. He has served 27 years as New Jersey AFL President.
Two weeks later, the New Jersey AFL unanimously voted to make Murphy the new union president.
Murphy presided over the merger of the AFL and the CIO on September 25, 1961.
The 1961 gubernatorial election put Murphy into a tough spot, with both candidates actively courting labor support.
The Republican nominee was James P. Mitchell, who as hugely popular with organized labor during his tenure as direction of industrial personnel for the U.S. Department of War during World War II and during his seven years as Dwight Eisenhower’s U.S. Secretary of Labor.
The Democratic candidate, former Superior Court Judge Richard J. Hughes, argued that if Mitchell won, he would work to defeat Democratic congressmen in 1962 and President John F. Kennedy in 1964.
Murphy decided to remain neutral and the AFL-CIO declined to support either candidate. That was viewed as a win for Mitchell. Hughes won the election, 50%-49%.
When Hughes ran for re-election in 1965, he had the backing of Murphy despite a public disagreement over Rutgers University’s refusal to fire pro-Marxist Professor Eugene Genovese. Hughes’ tacit defense of Rutgers became an issue in his campaign against Republican State Sen. Wayne Dumont (R-Phillipsburg).
Hughes and Murphy had a few run-ins during his second term, mostly over the AFL-CIO’s opposition to the Port Authority’s proposal to build a jetport in Somerset County. Still, Hughes reappointed Murphy to a seat on the state Economic Development Council – an early version of what is now the Economic Development Authority (EDA).
During the 1969 gubernatorial election, Murphy criticized New Jersey Democrats for a closed process that paved the way for former Gov. Robert Meyner to run again. He chastised Democrats for not considering a labor leader to run for governor.
That led to a controversy within the AFL-CIO.
Murphy led the union to a neutral position in the race between Meyner and the Republican nominee, Rep. William T. Cahill (R-Collingswood).
Some labor leaders disputed the neutrality move, saying there was never a vote. Murphy maintained it was done on a voice vote and declined bids by other union leaders to meet to discuss the situation.
That led to Murphy being physically removed from the labor convention hall, followed by a resolution endorsing Meyner.
One of the leaders of the insurgency was Stephen Adubato, Sr., then an official with the New Jersey Federation of Teachers and later one of the state’s most powerful insiders as the political leader of Newark’s North Ward.
“Murphy may be a great man, but nobody is greater than labor and he went against us,” Adubato told the Associated Press at the time.
In mid-1969, Murphy announced his plan to retire, saying it was time to give ‘the younger lads” a chance to run the union.
He was succeeded in 1970 by Charles H. Marciante, the son of his old friend who had been serving as Secretary-Treasurer.
At this point, Murphy, now 76, had emigrated to Spring Lake and planned to spend time with his fourteen grandchildren.
He remained active in the union as a top advisor to Charlie Marciante. Murphy was given the title of President Emeritus. When Cahill needed the AFL-CIO to lean on some legislators to vote for a $2 billion tax reform package in 1972, his lunch was with Marciante and Murphy.