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A great NJ labor union feud and the last Democrat to lose a U.S. Senate race

The political career of Livingston’s Paul J. Krebs

By David Wildstein, April 22 2018 2:51 pm

The last New Jersey Democrat to lose a U.S. Senate race in New Jersey was Paul Krebs, labor leader and one-term congressman from Livingston.   His story involves one of the great New Jersey labor union feuds.

The account starts in Essex County in the late 1950’s.  Essex had three of New Jersey’s fifteen congressional districts:  Newark Democrats Peter Rodino and Hugh Addonizio and Livingston Republican Robert Kean.  Kean gave up his seat in 1958 to run for the U.S. Senate, and was replaced by George Wallhauser, a businessman who ran what was then a small Republican machine in Maplewood. 

In 1954, New Jersey Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) president Carl Holderman became Gov. Robert Meyner’s new Commissioner of Labor.  Krebs, then 41, had been political director of the United Auto Workers of America (UAW) for four years.   

To get that job, Krebs outmaneuvered Joel Jacobson, 34, who led the Essex-West Hudson CIO Council.  The two men hated each other: Krebs was quiet and old-school; Jacobson was brainy and thought unions should be a little militant in their advocacy of social causes.  The bad blood between the two got worse when Meyner gave the seat Krebs wanted on the Rutgers Board of Governors to Jacobson.

The merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) with the CIO created considerable dissension among labor groups in New Jersey – think how a merger of the Essex and Hudson Democratic organizations today might go.  The AFL had about 300,000 members in New Jersey, and the CIO had about 200,000.  As part of the merger debate, the AFL wanted three of the four seats on the state executive council; the CIO wanted two seats.

The newly-formed New Jersey AFL-CIO would have a CIO man as the vice president.  Krebs and Jacobson both wanted the job.  The AFL president, Louis Marciante, would head the new labor group; former Newark Mayor and gubernatorial candidate Vincent Murphy who was even more powerful than Marciante, would be the secretary-treasurer – a job he’d held for nearly thirty years.

Complicating matters was that the CIO was split between the UAW and the rest of the CIO.  The fight got so heated that national AFL-CIO leader George Meany threatened to seize control of the New Jersey union and name the officers himself.  Krebs and the UAW wound up walking out of the state convention and floated forming their own independent union.  Jacobson became state CIO president after the merger was postponed. 

Addonizio gave up his House seat in 1962 to run for mayor of Newark – he famously said at the time that a guy could “make a million dollars in that job.”  He was replaced by Joe Minish, the executive director of the Essex-West Hudson Industrial Union Council, AFL-CIO.  Minish had been a CIO man allied with Jacobson.

Wallhauser was never able to replicate Kean’s popularity.  He won the seat with 53% against former Irvington Municipal Court Judge Thomas Holleran, and faced Democrat Bob Peacock, a 32-year-old Livingston resident and deputy state Commissioner of Banking in 1960.  Peacock campaigned in Newark with John F. Kennedy, raised in what was in those days big money from labor, and came within 3,826 votes of winning a seat in Congress – 40%-48%.

Peacock ran again in 1962 and Wallhauser won again, this time by a slightly bigger margin: 6,386, 53%-47%.    In 1964, the 64-year-old Wallhauser had no appetite for another tough campaign and called it quits.

Krebs leveraged his friendship with Essex County Democratic Chairman Dennis Carey and got the Democratic nomination for Congress in the old 12th district, which the Republicans held since 1938.   The Republican candidate – and the early favorite — was Essex County Surrogate David Wiener.  Wiener, a former state tax appeals commissioner and counsel to the State Assembly, had won his countywide race by 18,000 votes in 1959.

With Lyndon Johnson winning 70% of the vote in Essex – in an era when Republicans could still win Essex County, Krebs beat Wiener by 10,125 votes (52%-46%).   At age 52, he went to Washington as part of a large class of freshmen Democratic congressmen.

Krebs entered Congress with an immediate political problem: redistricting.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote ruling required new districts to be draw up for the 1966 congressional elections.  In those days, the Legislature drew the maps with the approval of the governor, and in 1965 Democrats controlled everything.

South Jersey wanted the extra House seat it was owed after the 1960 census and that seat had to come from either Essex or Hudson, which had two seats.  Despite a strong protest from labor unions, the Democratic map eliminated Krebs’ seat and sent it to Camden County.  Democrats wound up losing in anyway: Republican State Sen. John Hunt defeated Camden County Freeholder Michael Piarulli by 6,779 votes. That’s the seat Jim Florio and Rob Andrews held and is now represented by Donald Norcross. 

Krebs found himself now living at the northern end of a Union County-based congressional district that went from Elizabeth to Livingston.  Republican congresswoman Florence Dwyer was seeking her fifth term and Krebs never considered running against her – a smart move considering Dwyer was re-elected with 60% of the vote in a district that gave LBJ a 66% win.

Gov. Richard Hughes gave Krebs a consolation prize as the new state Director of Consumer Affairs.  He held that post until 1970, when the new Republican governor gave the job to Republican Assemblywoman Millicent Fenwick.

In early 1972, Democrats began shopping for a potential challenger popular three-term Republican U.S. Senator Clifford Case. Democratic Policy Council Chairman Dan Gaby, a 38-year-old advertising executive, was the first to enter the race.  He was a supporter of George McGovern for president at a time most of New Jersey’s Democratic establishment was for Hubert Humphrey.

Some of the county Democratic leaders, like Harry Lerner of Essex and Bill Kelly of Hudson, wanted a more centrist candidate, establishment candidate, though that was a tough lift for a statewide race that was considered a sure loser.

Atlantic County Democratic leader Patrick McGahn, the brother of State Sen. Joseph McGahn (D-Absecon) — — and uncle of Trump White House counsel Donald McGahn – briefly got in the race; then he got out to take a job running Wilbur Mills’ presidential campaign.  Democrats tried to coax Senate Minority Leader Edward Crabiel (D-Milltown) into the race, but without success; “Steady Eddie” – later “Concrete Eddie” – had his eyes on challenging Gov. Bill Cahill in 1973.

Former Assemblyman Joseph Karcher, the father of future Assembly Speaker Alan Karcher, got in the race.  The 69-year-old Sayreville Borough Attorney had served in the Assembly from 1930 to 1932.  So did Henry Kielbasa, a railroad worker who had worked on Elizabeth Mayor Tom Dunn’s campaigns.

Finally, about a month before the filing deadline, Krebs agreed to run.   He had most of the county Democratic organizations behind him, although some were backing him more strongly than others.

Secretary of State Robert Burkhardt, one of the smartest political strategists of his era, refused to let Gaby use his slogan, “Regular Democratic Organization,” saying he was not the organization candidate.  But Burkhardt, in an Al Barlas-like move, had registered the slogan with Burkhardt’s office and won his court challenge.

Krebs won an unimpressive 43% of the vote in the primary, followed by Gaby (28%), Karcher (16%), and Kielbasa (13%).  Krebs came out of Essex and Hudson with a margin of nearly 58,000 votes, but Gaby won Bergen by more than 13,000 and carried Mercer and Somerset counties by decent margins.  He also won Hunterdon (by 13 votes), Morris (by 37 votes), Ocean (by 115 votes), and Sussex (by 10 votes). 

Karcher took Middlesex by a wide margin, as did Kielbasa in Union.  Krebs’ statewide win was by 48,787 votes.

Krebs really had no chance against Case.  An October Rutgers-Eagleton poll had Case ahead 44%-22%, and Richard Nixon leading George McGovern by a 54%-31% margin. 

But the race really ended for Krebs at the end of September, when the executive board of the New Jersey AFL-CIO voted 35-1 to endorse Case. Krebs, complaining that AFL-CIO president Charles Marciante had rigged the vote, took his case directly to about 1,500 delegates at the state convention. 

Krebs pointed out his own record as a labor leader and noted that the AFL-CIO was at least neutral six years earlier, when Case ran against Warren Wilentz.

Marciante refused to allow a roll call vote on the endorsement, though he acknowledged that Krebs had significant support in the room as evidenced by the voice vote.  Marciante said that the roll call would have taken hours and that he was sure Case would have won it because an unofficial poll he had taken of the delegates pointed in that direction.

The move created mass confusion in the convention hall, with some delegates walking out in protest.  It took Marciante a while to restore order.

Krebs never really got over the loss of the union endorsement.  Even worse, his old union, the United Auto Workers, hedged their bets and gave each candidate $2,500.

Case outspent Krebs by a 5-1 margin. Krebs cobbled together a few contributions from old friends, like Essex County Sheriff John Cryan, even as most Democrats stayed out of the race.

On Election Day, Case beat Krebs by 780,281 votes – 62%-35%.  Case carried all 21 counties; he won Essex by 25,762, Hudson by 24,690 and Middlesex by 56,697.  Since then, New Jersey Democrats are 15-0 in United States Senate races.    

When Peter Frelinghuysen retired in 1974, Krebs decided to make one last bid for public office.  The 5th was now mostly Morris and Somerset counties in an elongated district that went from Princeton to Livingston.

Six candidates got in the race for the Democratic nomination – the Republican fight was between Fenwick and Assembly Minority Leader Tom Kean – with Frederick Bohen emerging as the front-runner.

Bohen was a former LBJ White House staffer who had run for Congress in 1972.  He had won the Democratic primary against 27-year-old former Toledo Blade reporter Bob Grant of the New Democratic Coalition and Christian Lund, a former aide to U.S. Senator Harrison Williams.  Grant won Morris and Lund took Somerset, but Bohen won big pluralities in Essex and Mercer. Bohen took 38% against Frelinghuysen in the general — four points ahead of McGovern. 

For the open seat in 1974, Krebs again ran on the Essex County Democratic line, as Bohen won the endorsements of Mercer County Democratic Chairman Richard Coffee, Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Nicholas Venezia, and Lerner in Essex.  Four other candidates were also in the race:  Morris Township school board member John Lynch, a 34-year-old attorney who father was a Superior Court Judge; former New Jersey League of Women Voters president Nina McCall; Montgomery attorney Herbert Koransky, who had lost a State Senate race to Raymond Bateman the previous year; and Gertrude Dubrovsky, a teacher from Princeton.

Krebs attacked Bohen for not being as liberal as he portrayed himself,  citing his ties to LBJ and his order to cancel a WNET broadcast that was critical of the Johnson administration.   Bohen denied the charges, saying he fired the producer of the segment because of factual inaccuracies.

Bohen beat Krebs 49%-18%, a margin of 5,111 votes, followed by Lynch (14%), McCall (11%), Koransky (5%) and Dubrovsky (3%).   In the Republican primary, Fenwick defeated Kean by 83 votes in a race that forever altered New Jersey’s New Jersey’s political landscape.

Krebs ended his political career unhappy with the Democratic party in his hometown.  He won Livingston, but just narrowly – 522 to 405 for Bohen, who had the support of a group of local Democrats who were wrestling control of the party away from the people allied with Harry Lerner’s machine.  It bothered him when the local newspaper recommended Bohen in the Democratic primary.  He endorsed his friend John Cryan for Essex County Executive in 1978.

I had just turned 13 and was out for one of those late night black ops with signs in Livingston when Krebs and I met for the first time during the 1974 general election.  He was 62, an old-school labor guy who knew just exactly how to frighten a kid without ever raising his voice.  We kept in touch over the years, and when I ran for councilman ten years later, he was one of the people I spoke to frequently for advice. 

Krebs died in 1996 at the age of 84.

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