Diane Allen will spend her last full day in the Senate today, capping a successful 22-year career as one of the most popular legislators in Burlington County history.
She’s also one of New Jersey’s most eclectic politicians. A former Miss Burlington County, she was also a daredevil hang-glider, judo expert, national swimming champion, and sharpshooter. That was before she launched a career in television news. She was the New Jersey Network statehouse reporter during Brendan Byrne’s first term as governor. Eventually, she became the news anchors for ABC and CBS affiliates in Philadelphia.
Allen filed three complaints against CBS with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), alleging sexism and age discrimination. In 1994, sued CBS for discriminatory practices and won.
County GOP Chairman Glenn Paulsen recruited Allen to enter politics. The plan was to have her run for the State Assembly in 1995 to set up a State Senate campaign in 1997. The Allen campaign was run by Senate President Donald DiFrancesco’s political team of Jeff Michaels and Kevin Davis.
As a TV celebrity, Allen entered the race with enormous name identification in a mostly Democratic Burlington-Camden district. The 7th had elected three Republicans in 1991 when voters revolted against Gov. Jim Florio’s tax increases. Democrats took back the Senate seat and both Assembly seats in 1993 by a margin of over 6,000 votes.
Allen beat Democratic Assemblyman Steven Petrillo by more than 5,000 votes, helping running mate Carmine DeSopo, the superintendent of a special education school district in Burlington, win by 3,000 votes. DiFrancesco and Paulsen raised about $1.1 million for that race – the first time a New Jersey legislative campaign moved into the seven-figure zone.
When she ran for the Senate two years later, the incumbent Democrat, Jack Casey, didn’t even bother running. He announced his retirement about a month before the filing deadline, citing medical treatment he was receiving from a 1995 car accident.
Allen defeated Robert Broderick by 5,374 votes. She became Senate Majority Whip in 2000, and was re-elected in the very Democratic year of 2001 by a 4,463-vote margin.
In 2002, Allen entered the race for the Republican nomination for United States Senate. The incumbent, Bob Torricelli, was facing ethical issues and the GOP was itching for their first U.S. Senate win in thirty years.
Most of the GOP county organizations had lined up behind Jim Treffinger, the two-term Essex County Executive. Also in the race were John Matheussen, s four-term Senator from Gloucester County, and millionaire businessman Douglas Forrester.
Four days after the filing deadline, the FBI raided Treffinger’s Newark offices. By the time the political community learned of the raid, the cellos were no longer playing. The shark was already submerging into the water with Treffinger already ripped apart. Confirmation that Treffinger was the target of a federal corruption probe, and that U.S. Attorney Chris Christie had audio tapes of Treffinger’s conversations caused widespread panic among some party leaders concerned that their conversations and negotiations with Treffinger may have been captured on tape. A couple of days later, Treffinger was out.
The party leaders coalesced behind Forrester, who pledged to self-fund his campaign. This was two years after Jon Corzine spent $75 million on a Senate seat, and the GOP learned which side they’d rather be on in a money war.
At the time, two Republican County Chairmen unfairly voiced concern about Allen’s religious beliefs. They questioned whether Allen, a Quaker, would be tough on defense issues in the first national election after the 9/11 attacks.
Forrester put over $3 million in the primary and won every county north of Burlington. Allen ran strong in South Jersey. The former Philadelphia TV anchorwoman carried her home county, Burlington, with 72%, and carried Atlantic, Camden, Cape May, Cumberland and Salem counties. Matheussen won only his home county, Gloucester, despite being on the organization line in Camden and Cumberland.
The story is an old one by now. Torricelli dropped out of the race at the end of September, and Frank Lautenberg came in and beat Forrester. Some people in New Jersey – myself included – strongly believe that Allen would have won that Senate seat.
Allen easily won re-election in 2003 and 2007, ran unopposed in 2011, and took 60% in 2013.
Republicans had hoped that Allen would run for Congress when Jim Saxton retired in 2008, but she declined. By then she was feuding with Paulsen over the way the Burlington GOP was run. She was criticized for not working harder to elect Medford Mayor Chris Myers, who lost the general to Democrat Jon Adler.
Allen was on the short list of Lt. Governor candidates Christie considered in 2009, but he wound up picking Kim Guadagno instead. Later that year, she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of oral cancer.
Early last year, Allen announced that she would not seek re-election to a seventh term in the Senate. She said some personal health issues made it difficult to devote the time to her Senate duties that she had in the past.
Allen remains the last Republican to win the 7th district, which has become increasingly more Democratic during her 22 years in office. Democratic Assemblyman Troy Singleton won the seat by 19,456 votes (66%).