One of the first Italian-born politicians to hold a major public office in New Jersey was Anthony Siracusa.
Siracusa was born in Mesa, Italy in 1894, the son of naturalized Americans who were visiting Italy. His uncle was Anthony Ruffu, who had served as mayor of Atlantic City during the Nucky Johnson era.
As a young lawyer, Siracusa began his career as an Assistant Atlantic County Solicitor under Joseph Perskie. He became Solicitor in 1933 when Perskie was named to the New Jersey Supreme Court.
Atlantic County voters elected Siracusa, a Republican, to serve in the New Jersey State Assembly in 1923. He became New Jersey’s first Italian American Assembly Speaker; at age 33, he was one of the youngest to hold that post.
During his eleven years in the Assembly, Siracusa was the leader of the “wets,” a bi-partisan coalition of the New Jersey Legislature that fought the “drys” in a bid to repeal Prohibition dry laws. He was also the sponsor of legislation that legalized race track betting in New Jersey.
Ruffu was indicted in 1930 on charges that he awarded South Jersey insurance contracts to companies he had an interest in but was acquitted. A couple of months later, he was killed when a train struck an automobile he was in. Most newspapers initially identified Siracusa as among the dead passengers in the car, but that turned out to be inaccurate.
In 1934, State Sen. Emerson Richards gave him his seat to run for governor – he lost – and Siracusa decided to run for the State Senate. His opponent was William Howell Smathers, a Democrat, who as an Atlantic County judge had presided over Ruffu’s corruption trial. Smathers won by just 710 votes.
Siracusa was planning a political comeback when he was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1937. He died in early 1938 at the age of 43.
For extreme political junkies: Smathers was elected to the United State Senate in 1936, ousting incumbent William Warren Barbour by a 55%-45% margin on the coattails of Franklin Roosevelt’s re-election. He lost his seat six years later when Republican Albert Hawkes ousted him, 53%-46%. Smathers is the last incumbent U.S. Senator from New Jersey to lose a general election.
In 1946, his nephew, George Smathers, was elected as congressman from Florida. He beat incumbent Claude Pepper in the 1950 Democratic U.S. Senate primary and went on to serve eighteen years as a U.S. Senator.
Time Magazine reported on a George Smathers stump speech to rural voters that has become legendary in American politics, although it is entirely possible that the quote was made up: Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”
Smathers, who died in 2007 at age 93, denied making that speech.
This story was first published on the New Jersey Globe on October 8, 2018.