Joseph W. Katz, who was one of the New Jersey’s most powerful and widely respected political insiders for decades, passed away on Friday. He was 91.
Katz became the founder of the contract lobbying business in New Jersey, single-handedly developing an industry to contract lobbyists in Trenton. Before that, he was an influential political reporter, campaign operative, and top aide to the governor.
Through the 1950’s, Katz was a reporter for the Newark Evening News, where he covered statewide campaigns of Gov. Robert Meyner and Senators H. Alexander Smith, Clifford Case and Harrison Williams, and both of President Eisenhower’s campaigns. He spent time as a statehouse reporter – he arrived in Trenton during the final weeks of Gov. Alfred Driscoll’s term — back when the Newark Evening News was the state’s most influential newspaper.
During the 1953 gubernatorial race between Meyner and Republican Paul Troast, Katz broke a story that Troast had written to New York Gov. Thomas Dewey seeking a pardon for Joe Fay, the head of the Operating Engineers Union. Fay was in prison after his conviction on extortion charges, and the report that Troast, who ran one of New Jersey’s largest construction companies.
Katz spent several years writing a regular column for the Sunday paper called “All About Essex,” which included lots of insider news and small tidbits about politics in the state’s largest county.
In 1961, saying he was tired of being a “spectator in the process,” Katz left the newspaper to play a major role in the campaign for Superior Court Judge Richard Hughes for governor.
Hughes was virtually unknown to Democrats, a compromise candidate among Democratic party leaders after the early front runner, former Attorney General Grover Richman dropped out in February after suffering a heart attack.
The expected winner of that race was former U.S. Secretary of Labor James Mitchell, but Hughes – partly on the strategy and media plan that Katz laid out, won an upset 50%-49% victory. Part of Katz’s plan was to have the Democratic State Committee purchase a bunch of mimeograph machines that allowed the Hughes campaign to quickly produce flyers that Katz would write.
Hughes named Katz his special assistant, a job that would in today’s world be a combined role of deputy chief of staff, chief of policy, and communications director. He helped engineer Hughes’ landslide 57%-41% re-election in 1965 against State Sen. Wayne Dumont (R-Phillipsburg).
Katz left the governor’s office in 1966 to open what was originally intended to be a public relations and political consulting firm. But at the request of several business and trade groups, he quickly shifted his emphasis to toward lobbying. He spent 25 years as the dean of the State Street lobbyists, at one time representing more than 40 premium clients.
He once said that his clients ranged from the “cradle to the grave. We represented the Medical Society, which delivered babies, to the Cemetery Association.
In later years, Katz was critical of his old newspaper, saying the Newark Evening News was arrogant and strongly Republican.
“They though they could tell the governor what to do,” Katz said. “They thought they owned the state. I always resented that.
Katz served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and then graduated from Rutgers University and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University before becoming a reporter.
He is survived by four daughters, including lobbyist Carol Katz, his sister, and ten grandchildren.
A funeral service will take place on Monday, July 15 at Temple Micah in Lawrenceville.