Essex County politics had an evolutionary transformation in the late 1970s, when voters approved a referendum that switched control of country government from the Board of Freeholders to a single County Executive.
A process that took six years culminated in a 1978 election where factions of a split Democratic Party fought a primary where hard-feelings and resentment continue to exist more than 40 years later.
Competition for the powerful County Executive position was fierce, and put Essex County Democrats into turmoil
Nearly a dozen Democrats surfaced as potential candidates, including Peter Shapiro (D-South Orange), a 26-year-old two-term Assemblyman with considerable support from grassroots reformers and anti-organization Democrats.
Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner played things close to the vest, declining to make an early endorsement of a machine candidate.
Among the Democrats seeking the organization line were: Sheriff John Cryan; County Clerk Nicholas Caputo (aka “The Man with the Golden Arm”); County Supervisor Philip Rotondo, whose job was to be eliminated with the new form of government; and Freeholders Thomas Giblin and Donald Payne, Sr.
Shapiro had two rivals for support of the reformers: Jeanne Graves, co-chair of the Citizens for Charter Change movement and a former president of the Essex County League of Women Voters; and William Brach, the founder of the Brach Eichler law firm and an East Orange councilman in the 1950s who helped spearhead the charter change movement. Shapiro supported the charter change referendum, earning him greater enmity from Lerner.
Early in the year, State Sen. Frank Dodd (R-West Orange), who had served as Senate President in 1974 and 1975, launched a trial balloon by saying he was interested in running for County Executive. That never went anywhere.
In late March, there was speculation former Essex County Prosecutor Joseph Lordi would resign as chairman of the New Jersey Casino Control Commission to seek the Democratic nomination for County Executive. Lordi said in a public television interview that he had not closed the door to running. Within a few days, Lordi walked back his comments and said he would stay where he was.
A few days later, Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson said publicly that he wanted a black to become Essex’s first County Executive. There had been some discussion of Gibson running himself, but he was encumbered by a May 1978 campaign for re-election to a third term as mayor.
A coalition called Democrats United in Essex was formed with the prospect of forming one slate of opposition candidates to take on the Essex County Democratic organization. At an early April mini-convention attended by more than 1,300 Democrats, Shapiro won a first ballot victory with more than 60% of the vote against Graves and Brach, who both exited the race.
Lerner and Gov. Brendan Byrne had at some point agreed to jointly back either Giblin or former Assemblyman Philip Keegan (D-Newark) for the post, but the deal fell through after Lerner was unable to hold the machine coalition together.
That led to Lerner’s resignation in the second week of April. He was succeeded by his longtime vice chair, May Maher.
Maher backed Giblin, a 31-year-old labor leader with a political pedigree – his father, John J. Giblin, had been a Freeholder, State Senator, and chairman of the International Union of Operating Engineers in Washington — and for a short while, Giblin had the organization line to run for County Executive.
After Giblin won the screening committee vote, and Cryan, Payne and Rotondo announced that they would run anyway. They accused Maher of fixing the vote.
Payne secured the endorsement of Gibson and was in the race to stay.
Samuel Angelo, who had resigned from the Board of Freeholders just weeks earlier to take the post of County Treasurer, also said he would remain in the race. He was viewed as a spoiler for Cryan.
Machine Democrats went into overdrive to avoid dividing their votes by six, something that would have virtually assured Shapiro a primary victory.
Giblin, who for a time appeared like he had a path to the nomination, dropped out of the race in mid-April after a meeting with Cryan. Caputo and Rotondo found little support among Democratic leaders and withdrew as well.
Cryan received the organization line for a primary against Shapiro, Payne and Angelo.
Republicans go with Notte
Essex Republicans were buoyed by massive turmoil on the Democratic side and were optimistic about the chances to win a countywide race for the first time in seven years.
The first choice of GOP leaders was former Assembly Speaker Thomas Kean (R-Livingston), who had just left the Assembly after an unsuccessful bid for the 1977 Republican gubernatorial nomination. Eyeing another run for governor in 1981, he turned it down.
State Sen. James Wallwork (R-Short Hills) also declined to run. Wallwork had mulled a bid for governor in 1977 and was also mulling a 1981 campaign.
There was some talk of running Prudential Insurance vice president Al DeRogatis, a two-time NFL All-Pro with the New York Giants who was well-known for nine years as an NBC color commentator for AFL and college football.
Essex County GOP Chairman John Renna thought he hit a candidate recruitment home run when he got Robert Notte, the 48-year-old executive director of the Newark Redevelopment and Housing Authority, to become the Republican nominee.
Drawing the freeholder district map
A month after the 1977 election that approved the charter change referendum, Essex County approved a gerrymandered map drawn by Keegan that looked like it would give the Democrats four of the five district freeholder seats.
Keegan’s plan was picked out of about eighteen maps submitted by political and community leaders for consideration. County redistricting commissions are comprised of the four Board of Elections members – two from each party – with the county clerk breaking the tie. Caputo, “The Man with the Golden Arm,” sided with the organization and approved the map in a 3-1 vote along party lines.
The map was drawn by Keegan included a horseshoe district that packed together most of the GOP parts of the county. District 5 started in Livingston, took in Roseland, Caldwell, West Caldwell, Fairfield, North Caldwell, Cedar Grove, Montclair, Glen Ridge and Bloomfield. Livingston was Republican-leaning and Democrats consistently hit the high 50% mark in Montclair, but the rest of the district was solidly Republican.
The map also appeared to limit the number of districts that might produce a black freeholder by splitting Newark into three districts and including East Orange in a district with Essex Fells.
Republicans challenge the map in court, along with Gibson, the League of Women Voters, and the Essex County Citizens for Charter Change. Superior Court Judge Arthur Blake ordered the districts be redrawn, and both sides agreed to draw two districts in Newark and divide the other three among the remainder of the county.
The new map, also drawn by Keegan, put the Newark’s North and East Wards in District 1 with part of the West Ward, Newark’s South and Central Wards, and part of the West Ward in District 3, and East Orange, Irvington, South Orange, Maplewood and part of Newark’s West Ward in District 3. District 4 was to be Milburn, Livingston, West Orange, Orange, Glen Ridge, Roseland, Essex Fells, Verona, Caldwell, West Caldwell and Fairfield. District 5 would be Belleville, Nutley, Bloomfield, Montclair, Cedar Grove and North Caldwell.
The Essex County Black Elected Officials group threatened to a suit to overturn the districts, but a legal challenge never materialized.Essex Freeholder District Map 1978