Joe Kyrillos will begin the next chapter of his life tomorrow after thirty years in the New Jersey Legislature — and as one of the top vote-getters in Monmouth County history.
In early 1987, I was serving as Executive Director of the Assembly Republican Majority campaign committee. The GOP was looking for a candidate to hold a 13th district Assembly seat going into Gov. Tom Kean’s second mid-term election.
Roger Stone suggested Kyrillos, who had gone to work for the Reagan administration after working on a few campaigns. He suggested that I go down to Washington and meet with Kyrillos, then an aide to U.S. Secretary of the Interior Donald Hodel.
The district had been Democratic until 1985, when former State Sen. Joe Azzolina and Old Bridge Councilwoman JoAnn Smith ousted incumbents Bill Flynn and Jackie Walker in the 1985 Kean landslide.
Azzolina was running for the Senate against incumbent Richard Van Wagner, and Republican strategists wanted a Middletown candidate on their Assembly ticket. Kyrillos grew up in Middletown, where his father was a popular and well-respected pediatrician.
Kyrillos quit his job, moved back in with his parents, and began to campaign full-time. I spoke to him just about every night to see how many doors he knocked on and how many fundraising calls he made. He always seemed to exceed his goals.
One of the first issues Kyrillos had to face was just after filing day, when a group of Middlesex GOP candidates jumped off the organization line and ran with a slate of county committee candidates aligned with Sam Thompson. Thompson was challenging incumbent Bob Main for County Chairman. That’s where the Kyrillos-Thompson alliance began.
Azzolina lost the Senate race by 911 votes (41%-49%), but Smith and Kyrillos won. Kyrillos beat Flynn by 2,106 votes, and 2,133 votes ahead of Walker.
Kyrillos’ first re-election came in 1989. Despite Jim Florio carrying the 13th district in his race for Governor, Kyrillos easily won a second term. He ran 1,675 votes ahead of his running mate, Smith, and 5,543 votes ahead of former Old Bridge Mayor (and pollster Adam Geller’s social studies teacher) Richard Cooper.
In 1991, Kyrillos took a risk and gave up his Assembly seat to challenge Van Wagner. Sensing the upcoming Republican tidal wave in protest to Florio’s $1.8 billion tax increase, Van Wagner quit the race in July after convincing Florio to give him a job at the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.
Democrats appointed Middlesex County Freeholder Jim Phillips to the Senate and picked him to run in the general election. Kyrillos annihilated Phillips, winning by 18,110 votes (68%); he won Old Bridge, Phillips’ home town, by nearly 2,000 votes.
It was the biggest margin in the history of the district – substantially better than Democrat Eugene Bedell did when he ousted Azzolina from the Senate in 1973 by 11,701 votes.
Kyrillos never had a problem holding his Senate seat, but he didn’t break his own record until his last campaign, in 2013, when he beat Democrat Joseph Marques by 18, 289.
After redistricting in 1992, Kyrillos decided to run for Congress against two-term Democrat Frank Pallone. Pallone had won the seat for the first time in 1988 (after Jim Howard died suddenly), with a 52%-47% win over Azzolina. He won a second term by a narrow 49%-46% margin against Paul Kapalko.
The new 6th district put Pallone in a district with another Democratic congressman, Bernard Dwyer. George H.W. Bush had won the new district in 1988 by a 56%-44% margin. The 67-year-old Dwyer retired, even though the new district was about 60% of his old one. Pallone won 55% in a bitter primary with Assemblyman (now State Senator) Bob Smith.
With a fundraising advantage, higher name recognition, and Bill Clinton winning the district by five points, Pallone defeated Kyrillos by 17,317 votes, 52%-45%.
In 2001, Gov. Donald DiFrancesco named Kyrillos to serve as Republican State Chairman. After the primary, GOP gubernatorial candidate Bret Schundler sough to unite his party and asked Kyrillos to stay on. Like Democratic State Chairman John Currie, who was asked to stay on under Phil Murphy, but with a Murphy loyalist to babysit him from the Executive Director role, Schundler dumped Kyrillos’ executive director and put his own guy in the job.
After Schundler lost, Kyrillos brought his own team in. He ran a fiercely partisan operation – as the party out of power ought to – and issued press releases almost daily attacking Gov. Jim McGreevey and Sen. Bob Torricelli.
Kyrillos passed on opportunities to run for U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2006 and Governor in 2005. He played a key role in helping an old friend, Chris Christie, become Governor in 2009.
In 2012, Kyrillos pulled the trigger and ran for the United States Senate. It turned out to be a bad year for Republicans in New Jersey, with Barack Obama winning 58% of the vote. The incumbent, Bob Menendez, a dogged campaigner and strong fundraiser, beat him by twenty points, 59%-39%.
That race effected the relationship between Kyrillos and Christie, whom he didn’t think did much to help him. Kyrillos became an early supporter of Jeb Bush for President, even while Christie was still a candidate.
Kyrillos is 57, and is still mentioned as a possible statewide candidate. He leaves office well-liked, untarnished – and perhaps has a stronger relationship with the new Governor than he did with the old one. It’s possible that after 30 years, he just needs a break from Trenton.