In the late 1990s, a freshman Camden County freeholder took on a commission led by the late Assemblyman Joe Azzolina and backed by the state’s northern political force to bring a ship, and a rare win, to South Jersey.
When Patricia Egan Jones first heard former U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli say he thought the USS New Jersey belonged in Camden, she immediately latched onto the idea, not knowing that it would eventually earn her the moniker “Madame Battleship.”
U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg had pushed through a bill in 1998 that guaranteed the ship would end up in its namesake state, but where in New Jersey it would find its final resting place was left up to the navy.
The state-backed commission led by Azzolina wanted to see it moored in Bayonne, and without a concerted effort, they would get their wish.
“South Jersey, particularly at the time, was unaccustomed to getting what they wanted if North Jersey was in the way,” Egan Jones said. “There were more people there, more revenues, more everything.”
Indeed, the southern half of the state lacked much of the influence provided to it today, although the Republican Assembly Speaker, Jack Collins, was from Salem County.
But, Egan Jones and her compatriots thought they had a shot, even with the odds stacked against them.
Her role as a Camden freeholder had helped secure some funding – $3 million – to construct a pier for the battleship on Camden’s water front, and the ship’s history better aligned with a mooring there, as it was first commissioned in Philadelphia.
“So we went to this meeting. We pretty much thought we stood a chance. Not for a minute,” Egan Jones said, referring to a meeting with the commission when she and her South Jersey allies pitched putting the ship in Camden. “They dissed the Camden location so thoroughly that they had to hold me in my seat.”
But, that wasn’t the end of it. The Navy would have to give the ship to a government-backed agency like the commission or to a non-profit, and with the state already backing the North Jersey forces, Camden’s operatives had little choice but to open a non-profit.
The continued opposition did little to earn Egan Jones, then also serving as an aide to future Assembly Speaker Joe Roberts, and her allies any points with Azzolina and his camp
“He called me about every name in the book,” Egan Jones said. “It was funny because I was friendly with the one gal that was his aide, and she would always apologize, and I said ‘Don’t apologize. He had a passion for the ship. He certainly was responsible for making sure that Lautenberg passed the legislation that got it donated to us, so I had no animosity towards him.”
When it came time to present applications to the Navy, Camden’s camp brought three volumes that stood roughly a foot and a half thick when stacked atop one another, while the commission’s forces had simply amended their application for temporary mooring in Bayonne.
No answer came then, but word soon came down that the battleship would make its way down to Philadelphia’s naval yard.
“So, I’m thinking this maybe sounds good,” Egan Jones said. “They’re going to take her back out 17 miles down to the ocean and up? But, we didn’t know.”
Then, in January of 2000, calls from press flooded into the non-profit’s board members, and Egan Jones eventually heard that two South Jersey congressmen, Reps. Rob Andrews and Jim Saxton, were holding a press conference at the naval yard. The two hadn’t invited Egan Jones and her fellows, among whom was future Rep. Donald Norcross.
But, it wasn’t long before a call saying Camden got the ship came down from Lautenberg.
Egan Jones at times tried to play down her role in the battle over the ship’s final resting place, but when pushed, she admitted that the effort might have failed without her.
“If I hadn’t put the people in the room and kept pressing, it might have fallen apart,” she said. “People were doing letters about, ‘Oh, it should be in Camden,’ but they weren’t making it happen, and my role as a freeholder really helped because, that way, we were able to put together the revenue that made us viable.”
But the Navy’s decision didn’t end the fight. Despite losing out to the Camden non-profit, the commission stayed open for several years, only dissolving after Sen. Fred Madden (D-Washington) pushed through a bill sunsetting the commission and giving its funds to the Home Port Alliance for the USS New Jersey, the Camden non-profit.
The bill set off a heated encounter between Egan Jones and former State Sen. Jennifer Beck, a mentee of Azzolina.
“She went at me hook line and sinker. Another woman with claws, I guess,” Egan Jones said. “She said, ‘Why don’t you wait till he’s dead to do this?’”
At that point, Azzolina was a member of the Camden non-profit’s board.
The encounter left Egan Jones with a sour impression of Beck, who recently left the Senate after losing a reelection fight against Sen. Vin Gopal.
The ship’s mooring also faced some challenges from Gov. Chris Christie’s administration. Christie, a North-Jersey native, had members of his administration challenge the non-profit on legal grounds. At the time, the Home Port Alliance had issues meeting deadlines for its 501c3 filings.
“The head of tourism at the time was telling people ‘oh no, the ship’s leaving. It’s not staying in Camden,’” Egan Jones said.
A member of the administration even reached out to the Secretary of the Navy, but that ended poorly for the fellow, who was told to take his issues up with Egan Jones’ camp because they owned the ship.
Christie never set foot on the ship during his tenure, not even when he was running for president. Gov. Phil Murphy also has yet to visit, despite lobbying from Egan Jones to do so that began before he was even elected.
As for Egan Jones’s nickname, it’s origin is clear, but the assemblywoman couldn’t remember who first called her that, though she said Donald Norcross uses it with particular frequency.
Still, she could do without some of the parodies the name has spawned.
“They’ve called me madame battle axe too,” Egan Jones said.