New Jersey’s oldest living former congressman, Cornelius Gallagher, is celebrating his 97th birthday today. Known as Neil, the charismatic, affable Bayonne Democrat represented Hudson County in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1959 to 1973. As a congressman, Gallagher became a protégé of House Speaker John McCormack, a close friend of John and Robert Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson. In 1964, Johnson briefly considered Gallagher as his vice-presidential candidate.
Until the combination of a scandal and congressional redistricting ended his political career at age 51, Gallagher was extraordinarily popular in North Jersey politics and as a Capitol Hill insider.
Born on March 2, 1921, Gallagher grew up in Bayonne. Two months before Pearl Harbor, he left college to enlist in the U.S. Army. A World War II hero, he served under General George Patton, commanding an infantry company until his discharge in 1946. Gallagher finished college, went to law school, and returned to active military duty for one year during the Korean War.
He started out in politics as a Hudson County Democratic Committeeman, representing one of the Republican wards in Bayonne. He became an ally of Jersey City Mayor John V. Kenny, the Hudson County Democratic leader. In 1953, Gallagher was elected to the Hudson County Board of Freeholders. He resigned in 1956 when Gov. Robert Meyner appointed him to serve as a New Jersey Turnpike Authority Commissioner.
The story of Gallagher’s ascent to congress began in 1956, when President Eisenhower’s coattails cost Democrats one – and almost both – of Hudson County’s congressional seats. In the 14th district, Republican Vincent Dellay ousted a Democratic congressman by six percentage points. In the 13th, Rep. Alfred Sieminski (D-Jersey City) was re-elected by 57 votes against his GOP challenger – one of the closest House races in New Jersey history. The Republican was declared the victor on election night, but the Hudson County Democratic Organization somehow found enough votes to push Sieminski over the top.
Hudson County Democrats worried that Sieminski was a weak incumbent in 1958, so they withdrew party support and gave the organization line to Gallagher. Gallagher’s main primary opponent was a formidable insurgent, James Murray, who had beaten the machine to win a State Senate seat in 1953 and a Jersey City Commissioner seat in 1957. (Murray was a second-generation insurgent: his father spent decades beating up on Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague, and almost beat him in a 1929 mayoral race.)
With a formidable block of votes out of Bayonne and the Kenny machine in Jersey City, Gallagher won the Democratic primary by 5,351 votes against Murray, 44%-35%. Sieminski finished third with 14%. A spoiler candidate recruited by the anti-Kenny forces in Bayonne received the other 7%.
In Congress, Speaker McCormack took an immediate liking to Gallagher and began to groom him for a future in the House Democratic leadership. He received seats on the House Government Operations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. As the chairman of the Asian and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee, Gallagher later emerged as the leading House advocate of President Johnson’s foreign policy agenda.
He grew close to the Kennedy brothers, and was an early supporter of the 1960 Kennedy for President campaign, even as Meyner was still mulling the race. He was with Kennedy in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and with McCormack in the Speaker’s office when Kennedy was assassinated. McCormack asked Gallagher to write his statement.
There was speculation in 1961 that Gallagher would seek the Democratic nomination for governor, but part leaders decided to go with Superior Court Judge Richard Hughes instead.
President Johnson short-listed Gallagher as a possible running mate in 1964. As the story goes, J. Edgar Hoover heard that and immediately requested a private meeting with the president. After that, Gallagher was removed from the list.
There are many versions of what happened to Gallagher, including allegations in a 1968 Life magazine article that he was under the control of mobster Joe (Bayonne) Zicarelli, a capo in the Genovese crime family and the boss of the New York Harbor waterfront. There is some belief that Gallagher ran afoul of Hoover while taking on the FBI as chairman of a special House committee that investigating privacy issues. One theory is that Gallagher manufactured the magazine story in retaliation for his opposition to FBI eavesdropping and wiretapping. Gallagher’s connection to Zicarelli were never proven.
The allegations against Gallagher caused his winning percentage to drop to a 56%-35% win in 1968. By 1970, he won a seventh term with 71% of the vote.
Hudson County lost a congressional seat in 1972, when a new district was created in Morris, Warren, Sussex and Hunterdon counties. Gallagher had been expected to keep the Hudson seat – part leaders were going to tell Rep. Dominick Daniels (D-Jersey City), who was 20 years older than Gallagher, to retire. Gallagher was indicted on tax evasion charges and the accusations against him came at a considerable cost.
The Hudson County Democratic Organization, in deep trouble after reformer Paul Jordan was elected Mayor of Jersey City in 1971, decided to keep Daniels and drop Gallagher. Daniels won the primary by a 51%-32% margin against Jordan’s candidate, West New York Mayor Anthony DeFino. Gallagher came in third with just 15% of the vote, with 2% going to former Congressman Vincent Dellay, who had won the other Hudson House seat in 1956 as a Republican and later switched parties.
Gallagher pled guilty and served a seventeen-month prison sentence. Upon his release in 1974, more than 2,000 Bayonne residents turned out to welcome him home. Gallagher went to work in the private sector; he lived in Warren County – his late daughter once served as Warren County Democratic vice chair – and returned home to Bayonne frequently.