The first link between Joe Biden and New Jersey politics came a few months after he won a seat in the United States Senate.
Biden was just 29 when he unseated incumbent J. Caleb Boggs, a two-term Republican Senator who had spent eight years as governor of Delaware and six years as a congressman – he was a member of a House freshman class that included John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon.
Boggs started the 1972 race with a lead of nearly 30 points against Biden, a New Castle county councilman – in New Jersey, that would be like an Ocean County freeholder (if there was a young one) running against Cory Booker. Biden won the race by 3,162 votes. Nixon carried Delaware by 92,401 votes.
Biden’s sister managed his campaign and his consultant was John Martilla, a young Democratic strategist from Boston who had run Father Robert Drinan’s successful campaign to oust a fourteen-term incumbent in the 1970 Democratic primary. The following year, Martilla ran Boston Mayor Kevin White’s re-election campaign against a Democratic congresswoman who was a staunch opponent of school desegregation.
Also in 1972, Martilla was the consultant for a young Vietnam veteran who was running for Congress. His client, John Kerry, blew an early lead and lost by eleven points.
Martilla came to New Jersey in early 1973 as the consultant for Dick Coffee’s bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.
Coffee, a 48-year-old former state senator and the Mercer County Democratic chairman, was seeking to be the consensus candidate between the moderate old guard and the younger, progressive wing of the party that became involved in politics during George McGovern’s presidential campaign. Coffee was a county chairman who held a statewide position in the 1972 McGovern campaign – giving him a credible claim at being labeled a McGovernite.
For a time, Coffee was a top-tier candidate for the nomination, but he dropped out after Superior Court Judge Brendan Byrne entered the race just days before the April filing deadline. Coffee took an active role in the Byrne campaign and became Democratic state chairman after the primary.
Biden spent his first year in the Senate focused on his two young sons after his wife and daughter were killed in an automobile accident five weeks after his election. His only out-of-state political appearance in 1973 was in October, when he campaigned for Byrne at a $20-per-person fundraising dinner for Morris County Democrats.
Martilla died in 2018 at age 78.