The only independent candidate to win beyond the local level in New Jersey over the last 50 years was Anthony Imperiale, a self-styled vigilante from Newark’s North Ward who came to power during the 1967 Newark riots. Gov. Richard Hughes called Imperiale’s group “The Brown Shirts.”
Imperiale won a Newark City Council seat in 1970, in the same election that Kenneth Gibson became the city’s first black mayor. He was elected to the State Assembly in 1971 as an independent, the top vote-getter in a race that two incumbents – one Democrat, one Republican – were defeated. The Republican was Richard Fiore, who had been accused of being “entirely too close to organized crime” by a deputy state attorney general in 1968 and still got re-elected in 1969.
In 1973, Imperiale ran as an independent for State Senator in a new district that included the North Ward, Belleville, Kearny and Harrison. He won 49%-36% against Democrat Gregory Castano, the Harrison township attorney. The Republicans ran Fiore, who got 14% of the vote.
Just a few months into his Senate term, Imperiale ran for mayor of Newark. He forced Gibson into a runoff and lost 56%-44%. He lost his State Senate seat in 1977 to Democrat Frank Rodgers, the holder of New Jersey’s record for longest serving mayor – he spent 48 years as mayor of Harrison.
Imperiale became a Republican and ran for the Assembly in 1979, defeating three-term incumbent John Cali. When the North Ward was moved into a new district that included the West Ward and Irvington, Imperiale ran for governor instead. He finished sixth in a field of eight candidates in the GOP primary with 5% of the vote statewide.
One of the best Imperiale stories was in 1975, when a supposedly-tame lion in a Newark Columbus Day parade clawed him. Imperiale was dressed as a gladiator and rented the lion to use on his float.
New Jersey has had serious independent candidates for the Legislature, nearly all of them incumbents who had lost party support for re-election. State Sens. Joseph McGahn (D-Absecon) and Thomas Dunn (D-Elizabeth) were among those who lost re-election bids running as independents. The most recent example was Matthew Ahearn (D-Fair Lawn), who was elected as a Democrat to the State Assembly in 2001 – he ousted incumbent Nicholas Felice (R-Fair Lawn) — and then switched to the Green Party after it became clear that Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero was not going to back him for a second term. Ahearn finished fifth as the Green Party Assembly candidate with 5% of the vote.
Independent candidates for statewide office have never broken out of single digits. Former state Environmental Protection Commissioner Christopher Daggett received 139,579 votes (5.8%) as a candidate for governor in 2009. Murray Sabrin, making his fifth bid for statewide office this year, received 114,172 votes (4.7%) in his 1997 gubernatorial campaign – the first independent to qualify for state matching funds.