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The long road to a vote on Essex charter change

How Essex County got a County Executive

By David Wildstein, July 22 2019 3:40 am

The debate over changing Essex County’s form of government runs began in 1972, when Assembly Speaker Thomas Kean (R-Livingston) called for the election of a charter study commission.

During Kean’s first year as Speaker, the Legislature passed the Optional County Charter Law which allowed counties to consider switching from a strong Board of Freeholders to electing a County Executive or creating a County Manager position.

Essex County Democratic boss Harry Lerner opposed any changes and Kean’s idea was quickly panned by the Democratic candidates for freeholder who felt that Republicans didn’t like the way Essex County was trending Democratic.

Not all Republicans backed a change in the form of government, among them

In the 1940s and 1950s, Essex was a swing county that was controlled by Republicans more often than Democrats.  The tide began to change in 1960, when John F. Kennedy carried Essex by 50,030 votes, and after the 1962 election Democrats had a 9-0 majority on the Board of Freeholders.

From the mid-to-late 1960s, Republican factions headed by William Yeomans and Joseph Intile regularly fought fierce primary battles for control of the party that typically extended into legislative and freeholder races.

The GOP won the freeholder board back after sweeping the 1966 and 1967 elections, and then lost it for good in 1968.  Essex Republicans haven’t won an At-Large freeholder seat since Gerardo Del Tufo (R-Newark) gave up his State Senate in 1971 seat to run for freeholder, defeating interim incumbent Herbert Gladstone in a race where Democrats Joseph Iannuzzi and Harry Callaghan won the other two seats.

Republicans also picked up the Essex County Supervisor post in 1966 when South Orange Village Trustee Walter Blasi ousted four-term incumbent Weldon Sheets.  Supervisor was a relatively toothless post, sometimes known as the “Mayor of Essex,” although it did come with veto power over actions over the Board of Freeholders and the limited ability to make direct appointments.

Blasi was not a supporter of charter change, a position that created a rift with the Essex GOP.  He was defeated for re-election to a third term in 1972 – that year, Republicans dumped Freeholders Raymond Stabile and Joseph Napolitano from the ticket and a third incumbent, Stewart Hausmann, did not seek re-election – in a race against Freeholder Philip Rotondo.

The freeholders – then with a 5-4 Democratic majority — passed a resolution to elect a Charter Study Commission in September 1972, but that was for show.  There was little intention to move it forward.

County Counsel Francis McQuade, presumably at Lerner’s direction, stalled the measure by adding language that would give the board 60 days to file it with the County Clerk.  That pushed referendum out until 1973.

The Optional County Charter Law provided an alternative route allowing voters to put the question of establishing a Charter Study Commission on the ballot, if supporters could get the signatures of 15% of a county’s registered voters.

In the spring of 1973, a coalition of reformers led by Essex GOP Vice Chair Jane Burgio, the suburban-controlled but bi-partisan Essex County Conference of Mayor, and the League of Women Voters launched a petition drive.  (Burgio would exit the movement that summer when she became Kean’s running mate after Assemblyman Philip Kaltenbacher dropped out.  She narrowly defeated Thomas Giblin in the general election.)

In July, Superior Court Judge Harry Margolis ruled in favor of a lawsuit filed by the League of Women Voters, the Greater Newark Chamber of Commerce and the Conference of Mayors to force the study commission election onto the ballot.  The plaintiffs argued that McQuade’s role of transmitting the freeholder resolution to the county clerk was merely ministerial.

The Charter Commission Election

In 1973, 29 candidates filed to run in a November non-partisan election for nine seats on the Essex County Charter Study Commission.

The commissioners would either recommend maintaining the current strong freeholder/weak supervisor form of government –or switch to an elected County Executive or appointed County Manager.

The law required all candidates to run on a single line, with no party designation.

County Clerk Nicholas Caputo, the “Man with the Golden Arm,” was a candidate for the charter commission.  He defied the 1-in-29 odds and picked his own name first.  He called it his “good luck.”

There were essentially three slates: one formally backed by the Essex County Democrats; a second supported by the Republicans and the mayor’s conference; and a third of often unrelated independent candidates.

Essex County Democrats and the New Jersey AFL-CIO endorsed Caputo and seven of his running mates – backing nobody for the ninth seat.  Running with Caputo: newly-elected Freeholder Donald Payne, Sr.; New Jersey AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer John Brown; former Essex County Freeholder Charles Matthews; Fern Gold, whose husband was a Lerner ally and a member of the Essex County Vocational and Technical Board of Education; Belleville car dealer Jerome Seiden, who would later serve on the state Lottery Commission; Gerard Kelly; and Essex County Young Democratic Chairman Timothy McDonough.

Caputo also experienced good luck with the rest of the draw: eight of the first nine ballot positions went to the Democratic organization-backed slate.

The bi-partisan slate backed by the Conference of Mayors, Essex Republicans and the so-called grassroots reformers included: former Livingston Mayor Peter Cooper; Millburn Mayor C. Thomas Thomas; former South Orange Village President John Francis, Jr., whose father, John Francis, had just retired after sixteen years as a New Jersey Supreme Court Justice; Irvington Mayor Harry Stevenson; North Caldwell Mayor Francis X. Jones; Orange Commissioner Benjamin F. Jones; Glen Ride Councilwoman Helene Kaplan; Newark Tax Assessor Joseph Frisina; and East Orange Assistant City Attorney Kenneth Williams.

Five of the twelve other candidates who filed for the Charter Study Commission forged a ticket after winning the endorsement of the Essex County Voters League: Ralph Caputo, who had served as a Republican assemblyman from Newark’s North Ward from 1968 to 1972 and returned to public office 30 yeas later as  Democratic Essex County Freeholder and now an assemblyman; Ronald Martino; Vincent Blasco; Robert Campanelli; and Alfonso Adinolfi.

The remaining candidates: Essex County League of Women Voters leader Bernice Bertrand; Newark Zoning Board member Clyde Kuremmarle; former Democratic Assembly candidate David Conrad; George Scaturro; Frederick Hackney; Alfred Bonadies; and Michael DeCicco, who would later go on to upset the Maplewood Republican machine by winning races for a Township Committee seat.

Lerner opposed any changes and had the freeholders go to court in an unsuccessful bid to stop the referendum.  In the meantime, the election could continue.  In September, the New Jersey Supreme Court refused to stay an Appellate Court ruling to allow the referendum to proceed and in October the Appellate Court ruled to let the vote move forward.  An appeal, scheduled by the court for after the election, was unsuccessful.

Essex County voters overwhelmingly supported the creation of a Charter Study Commission, with 77,878 voting Yes and 48,825 voting No – a 61%-39% margin.  Just 52% of voters who cast ballots in the 1973 general election voted on the referendum question.

Nicholas Caputo, in the first ballot position, was the top vote-getter for a seat on the commission, polling 38,528 votes.  He was followed by Kaplan (28,146), Cooper (27,635), Payne (26,503), Matthews (25,809), Kelly (34,809), Ralph Caputo (24,415), Martino (24,638) and Francis Jones (22,995).    Francis (22,857) and Stevenson (22,995) received the most votes of the unsuccessful candidates.

The results gave the Lerner Democrats the most votes, four, but not a majority.  The Conference of Mayors slate won three seats, with Ralph Caputo and Martino, the independents, winning the other two.  Ballot position might have helped Martino, who had the #5 ballot position, sandwiched between Matthews and Kelly.

Payne was named chairman of the commission – he won a 6-3 vote against Cooper — and Martino got the vice chairmanship.

Maintaining the status quo

In a victory for Lerner, the commissioners voted in August 1974 against changing the form of government.  Democrats were able to find two more votes for their position by befriending the two independents, Caputo and Martino, although both denied reports of a deal at the time.

That’s the point where the grassroots reformers stepped in, forming Citizens for Charter Change. Among the leaders of the movement were Jeanne Graves, Joan Field, Renee Lane and Ruthi Zinn – now known as Ruthi Zinn Byrne, the widow of the former governor — who came out of the League of Women Voters movement.  William Brach, the founder of the Brach Eichler law firm and a Democratic County Committeeman in Montclair, played a key role in organizing the group.

McQuade, now retired as the county counsel, led the opposition campaign through a group called Citizens for Responsible Government.

Organizers, including the League of Women Voters, began a drive to obtain more the 56,721 signatures to place a referendum on the ballot.

In September 1976, Caputo rejected about 16,000 signatures on the petitions. That left the movement about 4,000 signatures short.  Among the rejected signature was Kean, then the Assembly Minority Leader.

A state Appellate Court ordered the county to allow the charter change activists to check the petitions themselves.  It looked as though the activists were about 680 signatures over.

Superior Court Judge Arthur Blake later raised the number of signatures needed by 784 to 57,505.

After a protracted battle, the courts ruled that voters would get to decide if they wanted to elect a County Executive in a November 1977 referendum.

The proposed plan called for electing all nine Freeholders every three years – with four elected At-Large and five elected in districts.

Harry Lerner’s Democratic machine went into overdrive to defeat the referendum, although some prominent Democrats like Assemblyman Peter Shapiro (D-South Orange) and Freeholder Thomas Cooke (D-East Orange) supported it.

Voters approved the Charter Change by about 7,000 votes, a 53%-47% margin.  Margins were strong in most of the Essex suburbs – Livingston had the highest percentage in support of the referendum (61%) — and close in Bloomfield, Belleville and Irvington.  Lerner was unable to get his margin in Newark above 7,000 or above 2,000 in East Orange, both machine strongholds.

Caputo had initially refused to release the charter change vote results.  New Jersey Network public television predicted that the referendum had been defeated, based on numbers they were seeing.

Still, Democratic candidates for Freeholder walloped their Republican opponents. Incumbent Reita Greenstone, running with Thomas Giblin, Thomas McCormack and James Zangari, won by mover 30,000 votes.

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