Once Republicans ratify Vince Polistina tonight, he’ll become the 9th state senator from Atlantic County since the legendary Frank “Hap” Farley first won the seat 81 years ago at the age of 38.
Farley became the Republican political boss of Atlantic County after Nucky Johnson went to prison and remained one of the most powerful figures in New Jersey politics for more than three decades. In an era when the Senate Presidency was on a one-year rotation system, Farley got the job twice: in 1945 and again in 1962.
With the Republican U.S. Attorney investigating allegations of corruption in Atlantic County, Farley lost his seat in 1971 to Democrat Joseph McGahn, an obstetrician from Absecon.
The race wasn’t even close: McGahn won by 11,748 votes, 58%-41%.
Farley was the longest-serving senator in New Jersey history until Richard Codey (D-Roseland) and Gerald Cardinale (R-Demarest) broke his record in 2012.
McGahn and Steven Perskie, a young and brainy assemblyman from Margate, led the fight to legalize casino gambling in Atlantic City in the early 1970s. Farley had strongly opposed the idea when he was in the legislature.
When McGahn sought a third term in the Senate in 1977, Democrats went in a different direction. They dropped him from the line and endorsed Perskie for Senate. McGahn tried to hold his seat as an independent.
Some viewed the race as a surrogate battle between Gov. Brendan Byrne and the Senator’s brother, Patrick “Paddy” McGahn, a South Jersey Democratic insider and lawyer/shareholder for Resorts International, one of the city’s casino operators. Paddy had convinced his brother to block one of Byrne’s judicial appointments until the governor signed off on something he wanted. That caused Byrne to trigger a State Commission of Investigation — back when people would lose control of their bowels when the SCI showed up at your door — on allegations of influence peddling.
Perskie won the Senate seat in a landslide, defeating the Republican by 11,552 votes (48%-30%). McGahn finished a distant third with 22% of the vote, despite a healthy campaign warchest.
In 1981, Perskie and McGahn faced off in an expensive rematch – this time McGahn ran as a Republican. The two each spent about $200,000, or about $700,000 each in today’s dollars.
Six months earlier, the two fought over control of local government in Atlantic City, with McGahn backers winning three of five city commissioner seats. But Perskie succeeded in passing a change in government that would toss the McGahn supporters a year later.
In the campaign, Perskie attacked McGahn, an OB/GYN, for taking a high paying job as the house physician at Resorts International.
Perskie was narrowly re-elected, defeating McGahn by 1,953 votes, a 52%-48% race.
With Republican Assemblyman Bill Gormley (R-Margate) preparing to challenge him in 1983, Perskie decided to leave the Senate in 1982 when Gov. Tom Kean appointed him to the New Jersey Superior Court. That paved the way for Gormley to move up to the Senate in a special election.
Gormley is a member of a small club of people who wound up unseating their own running mate, rather than a candidate of the other party, in a general election.
When he ran for assemblyman in 1977, he won the second seat by 345 votes over Assemblyman Howard Kupperman (R-Longport). Each party had won an Assembly seat two years earlier, and Michael Matthews (D-Atlantic City) finished almost 2,000 votes in front of Gormley.
Gormely went on to a hugely consequential 29-year tenure in the New Jersey Legislature. He chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee from 1992 to 2002 and co-chaired it for two years after that.
Following Gormley’s resignation from the Sente in February 2007, Republicans watched an epoch fight for his seat in a special election convention.
The heir apparent was Assembly Minority Whip Frank Blee (R-Absecon), but he lost to James “Sonny McCullough,” the more conservative mayor of Egg Harbor Township, in a special election convention that wasn’t even close. McCullough beat Blee, 97-61, a 61%-39% margin.
But the Senate switched hands in November when James Whelan, a former Atlantic City mayor who had ousted Assemblyman Kirk Conover (R-Galloway) in 2005, defeated McCullough by 6,900 votes, 57%-43%, to become the first Demcoratic senator from Atlantic County since Perskie.
Despite Whelan’s big win, Republicans took the two Assembly seats with Polistina and John Amodeo (R-Margate) winning by wide margins.
Whelan beat back aggressive GOP challenges in 2011 against Polistina and in 2013 against Sheriff Frank Balles. He had announced his retirement in 2017 and died in office on August 22.
Atlantic County Democrats held a special election convention two weeks after Whelan’s death and selected Colin Bell, a former freeholder who was already the party’s nominee for the open Senate seat.
In the 2017 general election, Assemblyman Chris Brown (R-Ventnor) defeated Bell by 3,544 votes, 53%-47%, to flip the seat to the Republicans.
Brown announced his retirement earlier this year and resigned from the Senate last month to take a post in Gov Phil Murphy’s administration.