Women candidates have struggled to run for office within the Ocean County Republican organization for nearly 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.
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 relative 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.