Renee Burgess will become the first state senator from Irvington if she wins the 28th district special election tomorrow night to succeed Ronald Rice (D-Newark).
Since the 1844 State Constitution created the State Senate – before that, it was called the Governor’s Privy Council – no Irvington resident has occupied an Essex County Senate seat.
It’s been 51 years since an Irvington candidate even had a path to the Senate.
In 1971, when Essex had five Senate seats elected in at-large, countywide elections, two Irvington men ran on opposing slates in the Democratic primary: Councilman Henry Smolen and former Council President Michael Blasi, a former nine-term president of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Local 430 who was serving as the Irvington Board of Education secretary-business manager.
Smolen ran on the organization line with Assemblyman Frank Dodd (D-Orange), Essex County Freeholder Wynona Lipman, and two attorneys from South Orange, Ralph DeRose and Martin Greenberg. They beat an insurgent slate that included legendary Newark East Ward councilman Louis Turco, labor leader Joel Jacobson, former Newark Fireman’s Mutual Benefit Association Local 4 president Francis X. McCarthy, and former Newark Police Captain Edward Williams.
Smolen finished fifth in the primary, but outpolled Turco by 6,431 votes.
In the general election, Democrats won three of the five Essex Senate seats – incumbents Michael Giuliano (R-Bloomfield) and James Wallwork (R-Short Hills) were re-elected. DeRose and Dodd won, and Lipman ousted State Sen. Milton Waldor (R-West Orange) by 908 votes for the fifth seat.
Smolen finished ninth in a field of sixteen candidates, 9,450 votes behind Lipman and 12,442 behind Wallwork.
Until the U.S. Supreme Court’s One Man, One Vote decision, Essex County had one senator. The first senator, Dr. Joseph S. Dodd, in 1845 was from Bloomfield; he was followed by a string of eighteen Newark men who served in the Senate from 1846 until Everett Colby (R-West Orange) took office in 1906.
Along with Majority Leader Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) and Nia Gill (D-Montclair), Burgess would give Essex three women senators — the largest county delegation of women in the upper house in state history.
The 28th district has been represented in the Senate by a Newark resident since 1979, when the city’s fire director, John Caufield, won a special election after the resignation of Greenberg, who had won the seat after legislative districts were redrawn in 1973. Rice went to the Senate in 1986 after Caufield died.
Irvington has been without a state legislator since 2005, when Assemblyman Craig Stanley lost the Democratic primary to Cleopatra Tucker (D-Newark) and Ralph Caputo (D-Nutley). In that race, Tucker and Caputo ran on a ticket with Irvington’s Bilal Beasley, an Essex County freeholder who was challenging Rice in the Democratic primary.
Irvington (pop. 61,176) is the 24th-largest municipality in New Jersey but has sent relatively few state legislators to Trenton over the last 60 years.
John Miller, Jr., who later became a well-liked Assembly Clerk, served from 1962 to 1964, Rocco Neri, the Essex undersheriff, held the post from 1974 to 1976 – he lost the 1975 Democratic primary to 23-year-old off-the-line candidate Peter Shapiro – and Jimmy Zangari, one of the most gregarious lawmakers in modern history, was an assemblyman from 1980 to 1996.