It’s not uncommon for legislators to be dumped from the organization line and those who fight back hardly ever win.
One of the most memorable examples of an assemblyman winning without party support was in 1979, when the Middlesex Democratic organization tossed David Schwartz (D-Highland Park) from the organization line.
Schwartz was a Rutgers political science professor who won an open Assembly seat in 1977 when John Lynch (D-New Brunswick) retired from the Senate and was replaced by Assembly Speaker Bill Hamilton. He edged out Piscataway Mayor Ted Light for the support of the Middlesex County Democratic organization.
The former Highland Park council president could be abrasive, but few in the legislature worked as hard.
Light was anxious to go to the legislature and launched a bid to take one of the two 17th district Assembly seats. He persuaded the county chairman, Nicholas Venezia, partly by threatening to run off the line himself.
Venezia chose to drop Schwartz and not three-term incumbent Joseph Patero (D-Manville), honoring a deal he made with Somerset County Democrats to get one of the Assembly seats in a district that included Manville and Franklin Township.
That deal went badly for Middlesex after Somerset Democrats voted to back Schwartz on the line with Patero. After Venezia had a little chat with Patero, it was agreed that the incumbent would eschew the line and run with Light in Somerset.
Also in the race but running separately, was Steve DeMicco, the 27-year-old executive director of New Jersey Public Interest Group (PIRG). DeMicco now works as a political consultant.
In order to secure a better ballot position, Schwartz recruited three of his friends from Highland Park to for Middlesex County freeholder on a line her formed. One of the freeholder candidates was Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers political science professor of national prominence.
Schwartz turned out to be a vociferous campaigner. He said that his constituents ought not be deprived of effective representation just because a few political bosses wanted someone else. He secured the endorsement of the New Jersey AFL-CIO, much to Venezia’s chagrin.
The race between Schwartz and Patero got especially bitter during the final days of the campaign. Schwartz filed a libel suit against Patero after a campaign leaflet with his former running mate’s disclaimer alleged that he backed legislation to lower the legal age of sexual consent.
Both had voted for a bill that changed the consent age from 16 to 13 as part of sweeping changes to the criminal code, and many legislators claimed ignorance to that particular section of the legislation. Both Schwartz and Patero voted to raise the age back to 16.
Light said he approved the flyer and the printer made a mistake.
Primary Day was a romp for Schwartz, who won 5,494 votes. Patero finished second with 3,786 votes, just 196 votes ahead of Light. DeMicco finished third with 2,720. Schwartz beat Light in Middlesex by 1,204 and in Somerset by 700 votes, a near 2-1 margin.
Schwartz outraised Light by a 3-1 margin, $33,000 to $11,000. Patero reported raising less than $1,000 and DeMicco had a haul of $7,300.
After securing the Democratic nomination in a safe district, Schwartz began to focus on challenging nine-term Rep. Edward Patten in the Democratic congressional primary.
Patten, 75, had been around Middlesex County politics for more than 50 years. He nearly lost his seat in 1978 when Republican Charles Wiley came within 2,836 votes of unseating him, 48%-46%, after his implication in the Koreagate scandal.
Democrats were desperate for Patten to retire, but it too months for Venezia to finally announce that Patten would not automatically receive the organization line and need to appear before the screening committee. Patten said he would not seek party support and would step aside if they didn’t unanimously endorse him.
Middlesex Democrats gave their line to Senate Majority Leader Bernard Dwyer (D-Edison), a former mayor of Edison.
Schwartz ran anyway, along with two other organization rebels: George Spadoro and Richard Pucci. Spadoro, 32, had challenged Patten in the 1978 primary and held him to 59% of the vote. Pucci, the Perth Amoy city administrator, railed against party bosses and demanded an open primary.
With the anti-organization vote split, Dwyer eked out a 3,528 vote win over Schwartz, 32%-25%, with Spadoro finishing just 471 votes behind Schwartz with 24%. Pucci took 15%, with 4% going to a fourth candidate, Doris Sipos.
Democrats held his seat, electing Senate Majority Leader Bernard Dwyer with 53% of the vote in a district that Republican Ronald Reagan carried by seven points.
Schwartz held his Assembly seat until retiring in 1991. Spadoro later became an assemblyman and three-term mayor of Edison, and Pucci became an organization insider and the longtime mayor of Monroe.
In 1985, Middlesex County Democrats pulled the same move in the 17th district.
Piscataway Mayor Bob Smith wanted an Assembly seat and Democrats backed him against two-term incumbent Angela Perun (D-Plainfield). Perun had won the Assembly seat in 1981 when Patero was redistricted into the 14th and Plainfield was added to the 17th.
Instead of fighting Smith in the primary, Perun switched parties and nearly rode Republican Gov. Tom Kean’s coattails to a third term in a heavily Democratic district.
Smith beat Perun by just 452 votes. Schwartz was the top vote-getter, running 1,618 votes in front of Smith and 5,671 votes ahead of Perun’s running mate, former Assemblyman Frank Coury (R-Highland Park).