Home>Campaigns>It’s been 56 years since Salem County had a state senator. Here’s a primer on John Waddington

Gov. Richard Hughes, left, with Senate Majority Leader John Waddington in 1967. (Photo: David Wildstein Collection).

It’s been 56 years since Salem County had a state senator. Here’s a primer on John Waddington

Fomer Senate Majority Leader John Waddington was a casualty of the U.S. Supreme Court’s One Man, One vote decision. Before that, Salem County had one of 21 State Senate seats for 123 years

By David Wildstein, February 06 2023 6:52 am

Salem County is about the size of Old Bridge, but from 1845 to 1968, the county had a state senate seat.

Before the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision, New Jersey had 21 state senators, with each county getting one seat.  So Bergen and Salem had equal influence in the New Jersey Senate.

The Assembly was apportioned by population, but each county has at least one seat in the lower house.

The potential candidacy of County Commissioner Mickey Ostrum in the 3rd district in a GOP primary with incumbent Ed Durr (R-Logan) means Salem County could have a Senate seat for the first time in 56 years.
The last senator from Salem County was John Waddington, a Democrat with statewide ambitions who found himself drawing the redistricting short straw.

After the Supreme Court’s decision, Waddington told his constituents that Salem County was about to become “a small tail on two dogs” in the State Senate.

A Quaker who claimed a religious exemption from World Warr II, Waddington became a relief worker after the war.  He first ran for public office in 1953 when he sought Salem County’s lone Assembly seat.

The Republican incumbent, Peter Hoff (R-Penns Grove), a former sheriff and six-term assemblyman, was not seeking re-election, and Waddington ran for the open seat.  He defeated Republican Burton Zehner, the county solicitor,  by roughly 1,100 votes, which in Salem County translated into a 53%-47% margin.    Despite Democrat Robert Meyner capturing the governorship after ten years of GOP control  — Meyner won Salem with 56% — Waddington was the only Democrat in the state to flip a Republican Assembly seat that year.

Two years later, Waddington took Republican State Sen. John Summerhill (R-Penns Grove), an eighteen-year incumbent and a former Senate President.   He beat him by 1,138 votes, 53%-47%.

Waddington easily held the seat in 1969 and 1963, winning more than 60% in both races.  He served as Senate Minority Leader in 1958, during an era when legislative leadership posts were rotated every year and became Senate Majority Leader in 1968.

One-Man, One-Vote required legislative apportionment to be set according to population, and the first new map in 1965 created one Senate district consisting of Salem and Cumberland counties.   Because Waddington was viewed as a rising star among South Jersey Democrats, party leaders convinced the Democratic senator from Cumberland County, Robert Weber (D-Greenwich), to retire.

In that race, Waddington faced a hugely formidable Republican, former Bridgeton Mayor John Spoltore, the Cumberland County GOP chairman.

With Democratic Gov. Richard J. Hughes winning a landslide re-election – he carried Cumberland by eleven points and Salem by seven – Waddington defeated Spoltore by 7,902 votes, 47%-43%.  He edged out Spoltore in Cumberland by 577 votes and won Salem by a 2-1 margin and a plurality of 7,325.

Senate Majority Leader John Waddington, a Salem County Democrat. (Photo: New Jersey Legislature).

Legislative districts were redrawn in 1967 to reflect the New Jersey Constitutional Convention o f1966 that met to bring the state into compliance with One-Man, One-Vote.   The Senate increased in size from 29 members to 40.

Waddington was placed into Senate District 3-A, which included part of Gloucester and all of Salem.  He faced 36-year-old two-term Assemblyman John L. White (R-Woodbury.   White had entered the Senate race before the lines were drawn following the election of State Sen. John Hunt (R-Pitman) to Congress in 1966

Redistricting, Hughes’ midterm election and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s struggle with the Vietnam War led to the New Jersey Senate going from a 19-10 Democratic majority to Republicans holding a 31-9 majority.    (The current plan of one senator and two assembly members in a single district with 40 total did not take effect until 1973.)

Waddington, who would likely have become Senate President in a Democratic-controlled Senate, found himself out of office.  White unseated him by 4,821 votes, 55%-45%.  White won the Gloucester portion of the district by 20 percentage points and an 8,249-vote margin, while Waddington took Salem by 3,328 votes, 58%-42%0.

Out of the legislature after fourteen years, Waddington staged a swift political comeback in 1968 and won a seat on the Salem County Board of Freeholders.  He defeated the top Republican vote-getter, Upper Penns Neck Township Committeeman David Crocket, by 81 votes to maintain the 4-3 Democratic majority in county government.

He was easily re-elected to the freeholder board in 1971, running roughly 2,600 votes ahead of the nearest Republican.

In early 1973, a panel of Democratic statewide leaders led by Camden County Democratic Chairman Joyce formed a review committee to interview potential candidates to take on Republican Gov. William Cahill.  Waddington was one of the candidates, which included four congressmen.

Gov. Brendan Byrne nominated Waddington to serve as director of the New Jersey Division of Motor Vehicles in 1974.  The Senate confirmed him unanimously.

Waddington died in 1981 at age 70.

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