A vote by Ocean County Republicans to pick a man over a woman in the race for Congress this week is consistent with a track record of not running women for office over the last 100 years.
The chain might start with Ocean County’s one assemblyman. Woodburn S. Cranmer (R-Stafford), who was one of two legislators absent on February 9, 1920 when the New Jersey State Assembly ratified the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote.
Of the 41 Ocean County freeholders elected since the ratification of the 19th Amendment, just two were women: Hazel Gluck, who won in 1976 – 56 years after women began voting – and Virginia Haines 40 years after that.
Ocean has sent just six women to the Assembly, and none have held State Senate seats or county constitutional office posts. Just one woman, DiAnne Gove (R-Long Beach), serves in Ocean County’s nine-member legislative delegation.
No African American – male or female – have ever won an election beyond local office in Ocean County.
In defense of the Ocean GOP, they are three-for-five when it comes to giving their organization line to women running for statewide office in contested primaries.
Millicent Fenwick had the line against Jeff Bell in the 1982 U.S. Senate primary, Christine Todd Whitman defeated Cary Edwards and Jim Wallwork at the 1993 convention for organization support governor, and Kim Guadagno won the line against Jack Ciattarelli for governor in 2017.
In the 1984 U.S. Senate primary to challenge incumbent Bill Bradley, Ocean became the only county organization in the state to not give their organization line to Montclair mayor Mary Mochary. They went with Robert Morris, a 69-year-old Mantoloking resident who had lost the 1958 Senate primary to Robert W. Kean and 1964 and 1970 Senate primaries in Texas to George H.W. Bush.
In this week’s vote to pick an opponent for Cory Booker, Natalie Rivera won just 3% of the vote against two men. A second female candidate, Tricia Flanagan, was not on the ballot because she couldn’t get a second for her nomination.
The legend of Lila Thompson
When Cranmer decided not to seek re-election in 1921, Lila Thompson (R-New Egypt) became a candidate for his Assembly seat. Republican leaders backed banker Ezra Parker (R-Barnegat), who had nearly won a primary against Cranmer in 1920. The Ocean GOP felt that it was Parker’s turn, since he had run a close race once before.
Thompson turned out to be a strong campaigner and Parker just narrowly defeated her in the Republican primary.
Thompson ran again in 1923 when Parker stepped down. She felt that since she had almost won two years earlier, it was her turn – same as it was with Parker.
Ocean County Republicans didn’t see it that way and three men jumped in the race to succeed Parker.
Thompson won the primary, defeating former Toms River judge Howard Jeffrey by over 600 votes – a big margin at a time when the total population of Ocean County was still under 25,000 people.
She won the general election against Democrat James Lillie by a massive 1,600 vote margin and became the first woman to represent Ocean County in the New Jersey Assembly.
In 1925, Thompson decided to challenge State Sen. Thomas Mathis (R-Toms River) in the Republican primary.
What happened next is rather spectacular, especially since the exact circumstances could easily happen in Ocean County today.
Thompson’s husband, Joe, was a strong politician in his own right. He had served as an Ocean County freeholder and had the organization’s backing to run for an open House seat in 1920. In an Ocean-Monmouth-Middlesex district, former Asbury Park mayor Frank Appleby won the GOP primary by a wide margin.
Joe Thompson got a job working as an investigator for the New Jersey Department of Institutions and Agencies (now the Department of Human Services).
A month before the primary, he was set on a fact-finding trip to Massachusetts to visit their correctional facilities and was told to stay there until after Election Day.
He was reportedly told not to come home at all – not even on weekends.
Thompson alleged that Mathis, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee engineered her husband’s banishment. The senator denied it.
Institutions and Agencies commissioner Burdette Lewis went one better: he insisted that Joe Thompson had asked for the assignment as a way of avoiding his wife’s campaign.
Once the issue started to get out of hand, the work in Massachusetts was suddenly completed and Joe Thompson returned to Ocean County – about a week before the primary.
As it turned out, all Lila Thompson really needed her husband for was his driving skills. Ocean County was mostly rural in the 1920s and the assemblywoman didn’t like to drive at night.
She learned to deal with empty roads at night and drove herself to evening campaign events.
In the end, the primary wasn’t even close. Mathis defeated Thompson by a 60%-40% margin, with a plurality of 1,266 out.
It would be another 40 years before a woman would win a seat in the New Jersey State Senate.
The Thompsons never made peace with Mathis, although the former assemblywoman did have enough friends in the county Republican organization to get a relatively minor job heading the county old age pension relief bureau.
She suffered a tragic demise in 1933, at age 57, on her way home from her county job one evening. Thompson fell asleep at the wheel. The county coroner said her death was instantaneous.
The accident occurred two weeks after Joe Thompson announced he would run for the State Senate seat Mathis had given up after becoming New Jersey Secretary of State.
Mathis was backing Percy Camp.