When longtime Essex County Democratic boss Dennis Carey retired for health reasons in 1968, County Treasurer Harry Lerner faced Hugh Addonizio, the two-term Mayor of Newark and a former seven-term congressman, for the post.
Lerner, who had lost a race for freeholder in the 1940s and county clerk in the 1950s, was a quintessential Essex politician: a semi-professional boxer, he started out as a taxicab driver before rising to head the company. After getting involved in Newark politics, he eventually started his own insurance agency. The business was quite lucrative.
As one of Carey’s lieutenants, Lerner showed a penchant for the day-to-day operations of political campaigns.
Carey stepped down in January 1968, necessitating a special election.
In a straw vote of 26 Democratic municipal chairs, Lerner led Addonizio 11-6. Livingston Democratic Chairman Robert Peacock and Newark Central Ward Chairman Eulis “Honey” Ward each received three votes. County Clerk Nicholas Caputo, the “Man with the Golden Arm,” and former Rep. Paul Krebs (D-Livingston) each came out with one vote.
No municipal chairs voted for former State Sen. Maclyn Goldman (D-West Orange) or John Egan, whose father, William J. Egan, preceded Carey as county chairman.
One year after the Newark Riots, Lerner was able to win the support of black and suburban Democrats and beat Addonizio by a wide margin, 644-375 (63%-37%) after an especially raucous meeting that reportedly spawned a couple of fistfights.
In the fall of 1968, Lerner delivered a 45,392 vote margin (52%-39%) for Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey against Richard Nixon. Democrats held all three freeholder seats that year.
Under Lerner, Democrats experienced little discord. The organization easily staved off a primary challenge from followers of Eugene McCarthy’s presidential campaign. Essex Democrats ousted Republican Sheriff Ralph D’Ambola in 1970 with former Assemblyman John Cryan (D-Newark), and picked up three of Essex’s five Senate seats in 1971 despite independent candidacies of some prominent party leaders on an Essex Bi-Partisan ticket.
In the 1971 Senate race, Wynona Lipman became the first black woman to serve in the New Jersey Senate. She ousted incumbent Milton Waldor (R-South Orange).
Despite his success at the county level – between 1968 and 1977, Democrats won 29 of 30 freeholder races – Lerner faced some challenges in his mid to become a statewide kingmaker.
Lerner experienced a series of political setbacks, starting in 1973 when he backed freshman State Sen. Ralph DeRose (D-South Orange) for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
DeRose was relatively new. He had been in the Senate for just two years and had narrowly lost a bid for Essex County Supervisor in 1969.
DeRose carried Essex, but only by 5,310 votes (42%-35%) against another Essex County candidate, former Superior Court Judge Brendan Byrne. Byrne beat Assemblywoman Ann Klein (D-Morris Township) by a 45%-27% margin, with DeRose finishing third with 22%.
Lerner took a another hit in June 1975 when 23-year-old Peter Shapiro ran off the line in the 28th district – then South Orange, Irvington and Newark’s West Ward – and beat Assemblyman Rocco Neri (D-Irvington), the Essex County Undersheriff, by 183 votes in the Democratic primary.
Shapiro had campaign door-to-door with his Harvard friend, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
In 1976, Lerner endorsed Henry “Scoop” Jackson for president soon after Byrne announced that he would support Jimmy Carter.
Lerner feuded with Byrne through his first term, and again gave the Essex organization line to DeRose when Byrne sought renomination in 1977 against ten other Democrats, including Reps. Bob Roe (D-Wayne) and Jim Florio (D-Runnemede).
Byrne won Essex 1,239 votes against DeRose (38%-37%). Byrne won the Democratic primary with 30% of the vote against Roe (23%). DeRose finished third statewide with 17%, followed by Florio (15%).
Lerner and Byrne went at it against in 1978 over the appointment of a new Essex County Prosecutor, after Joseph Lordi left to become chairman of the Casino Control Commission.
Byrne, who had served as Essex County Prosecutor from 1959 to 1968, wanted to name former Livingston Mayor Donald Coburn. Lerner wanted Leonard Ronco, the First Assistant Prosecutor under Lordi.
Following Lerner’s orders, Essex Democratic Senators blocked Byrne’s nomination of Ronco to the Superior Court with the hope that the conflict could be settled to the satisfaction of the county chairman. Byrne named Coburn acting prosecutor as he awaited a deal with the Senate.
Lerner’s biggest blow came in 1977 when he vociferously opposed a referendum that would change Essex to a County Executive form of government. At that point, Lerner was facing substantial opposition from grass roots Democrats who demanded reform – a movement like the NJ 11th for Change group that forced a twelve-term Republican congressman to retire four decades later.
Byrne continued to taunt Lerner into retirement. The 73-year-old Lerner was apparently ready to retire and move to Florida until Byrne’s comments caused him to double down.
The governor wanted Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson to become county chairman.
At some point around March 1978, Lerner and Byrne struck a deal.
Lerner would resign as county chairman drop plans to install his son as his successor. Byrne was to chair a farewell dinner honoring Lerner and praise him.
The two also agreed on two consensus candidates for County Executive in order to unite the party behind a single organization candidate: either Freeholder Thomas Giblin or former Assemblyman Philip Keegan (D-Newark).
The deal fell apart when Sheriff John Cryan and Shapiro refused to drop out and Arthur Lerner openly protested his father’s bid to end his own run for county chairman.
He resigned just before the filing deadline that sparked one of the hottest Democratic primaries in Essex County history. Byrne was a no-show at his dinner.
Lerner was indicted for receiving kickbacks in 1979, but U.S. District Court Judge Herbert Stern declared a mistrial in his racketeering trial the following year.
He passed away in 1989.
Upon his death, the venerable Frank Orechio, the Nutley political leader who made one brother a Democratic State Senator and another a Republican Assemblyman, called Lerner “a rare political person – you could trust his word.”
“With Harry Lerner, you didn’t need a handshake, an oral commitment was adequate,” Orechio said. “Lerner never made a promise he couldn’t keep.”