The small, suburban Camden County borough that once produced a Republican governor, is now a bright blue municipality.
Collingswood voters go to the polls today to choose three borough commissioners in a battle between progressives who took control of the local Democratic county committee two years ago and a slate headed by a 32-year-incumbent backed by the Camden County Democratic organization.
The borough of about 14,000 people has changed over the last decade, resembling a town more akin to Montclair or Lambertville than to other Camden County suburbs.
One certainty is that it’s a Demcoratic stronghold that no longer resembles the small town that launched William T. Cahill’s political career 60 years ago.
The Philadelphia-born son of Irish immigrants moved to Collingswood around 1939 after spending two years as an FBI agent. He became involved in Republican politics, served as Camden municipal prosecutor, and then as the first assistant Camden County prosecutor.
He won a State Assembly seat in 1951, back when Camden elected legislators in countywide at-large elections, and served one term.
In 1958, 78-year-old Rep. Charles Wolverton (R-Merchantville) retired after 31 years in Congress. Cahill ran for the Camden-Gloucester-Salem seat and won by 1,859 votes, 40%-49%, against Alexander Feinberg, a former Assistant U.S. Attorney from Haddonfield who would more than 20 years later be convicted in the ABSCAM scandal.
Cahill was viewed as a left-of-center Republican, part of the GOP that was more closely allied with Clifford Case and Nelson Rockefeller that Robert Taft and Barry Goldwater.
After winning five solid re-election bids for his House – he was re-elected in 1968 with 66% of the vote – Cahill decided to run for governor in 1969.
In a five-candidate GOP primary field with 39% of the vote, Cahill edged out another South Jersey congressman, conservative Rep. Charles Sandman (R-Erma), by 14,103 votes, 39%-36%. Three state senators followed: Harry Sears (R-Mountain Lakes) with 11.6%, Senate President Frank X. McDermott (R-Westfield) received 8.8%; and William Ozzard (R-Somerville) won 4.5%.
Facing former Gov. Robert Meyner in the general election, Cahill scored a blowout 60%-38% win, accumulating a 500,902-vote plurality. He won 66% in Camden County and 57% in Hudson.
Collingswood gave favorite-son Cahill a massive 79% of the vote.
In 1973, after Sandman ousted Cahill in the Republican primary – the only time in New Jersey history that an incumbent governor lost renomination – Collingswood shifted to the Democratic column. Brendan Byrne received 62% against Sandman in the general election.
Byrne carried Collingswood with 61% when he sought re-election in 1977.
Since Cahill in 1969, Collingswood has largely voted Democratic. Even Walter Mondale and Barbara Buono – albeit by three votes – carried the borough. It produced big margins for Barack Obama. who won big twice: 69% in 2008 and 71% in 2012. Hillary Clinton took 75% in 2016 and Joe Biden won it with 79%. Phil Murphy won 79% in Collingswood in his 2017 campaign for governor.
While Murphy might be the most progressive governor in New Jersey history, he finished third in Collingswood in the last gubernatorial primary. Jim Johnson won it by a 29%-28% margin over John Wisniewski; Murphy finished 8 votes behind Wisniewski.
Bernie Sanders carried Collingswood by 59 votes against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, 51%-48%.
In 2018, Collingswood backed shadowy perennial candidate Lisa McCormick by a 55%-45% margin in her 2018 U.S. Senate primary against incumbent Bob Menendez.
Democrats have a big voter registration edge over Republicans in Collingswood, 57%-14%.