There was a time when Perth Amboy was the epicenter of power in Middlesex County politics and the hometown of Edward Patten, one of the state’s most colorful and influential politicians for nearly fifty years.
The gregarious, boisterous, joke-telling Patten started out in politics as a volunteer on Alfred E. Smith’s 1928 presidential campaign. He began as a stalwart of David Wilentz, the the longtime Middlesex County political boss who gained national prominence when he prosecuted the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Perth Amboy was politically competitive in those days and Wilentz recruited the 28-year-old Patten to run on a slate of five candidates for city commissioner in May 1934. Patten was a lawyer who found a better paying job as a teacher at the Boys’ Vocational School in Elizabeth during the early years of the depression.
Wilentz was serving as New Jersey attorney general at the time – there was no line between politics and law enforcement in the 1930’s – so he delegated much of the day-to-day responsibilities to his chief lieutenant, State Sen. John Toolan (D-Perth Amboy). The Republican campaign was essentially run by state Motor Vehicles Commissioner Harold Hoffman, a former congressman and South Amboy mayor who wound up getting elected governor six months later.
Patten turned out to be the top vote-getter with 8,424 votes. The candidate Wilentz and Toolan viewed as the likely mayor, incumbent Albert Walters, won the fifth commissioner seat with 7,712. It was a Democratic sweep, with Republican incumbent William Wilson losing re-election by nearly 1,000 votes.
Wilentz was so pleased with Patten’s performance as mayor that in September 1934, he made Patten the Middlesex County Democratic Chairman. One of the other potential candidates for the post was deputy Middlesex County Surrogate Joseph Karcher, father of the future Assembly Speaker and grandfather of the future state senator.
In 1939, incumbent County Clerk George Cathers wanted to seek re-election to a third term, but he had some health issues and Wilentz decided he wanted Patten to get the job instead. Cathers appeared to express some anger during the ballot drawing, when he gave Patrick Moran Line A in the Democratic primary. Patten won anyway, with 81% of the vote. In the general election, Patten defeated Madison (now Old Bridge) Mayor Maxwell Mayer by a 59%-41% margin; Toolan.
It was clear that Patten was not Ann Grossi’s role model: he won praise in 1944 when his office sent out 20,000 military ballots and only seven were returned undeliverable. He easily won re-election in 1944; in 1949, he beat Charles Klein for a third term with 63%.
In 1953, Patten managed the successful gubernatorial campaign of former Senate Minority Leader Robert Meyner. Meyner won the Democratic primary by just 1,585 votes against former Rep. Elmer Wene, 45.7% to 45.0%. In the general election, Meyner defeated New Jersey Turnpike Authority Chairman Paul Troast by a 53%-45% margin.
Just before taking office, Gov-elect Meyner nominated Patten to serve as New Jersey Secretary of State. He held that post through the entire eight years that Meyner was governor.
In mid-1961, Meyner sought to settle a fight with Middlesex County Democrats over judgeships by nominating Patten to the bench. This was a job Patten had spent nearly a year pursuing.
New Jersey added a 15th congressional seat after the 1960 census. State Sen. John Lynch, Sr. (D-New Brunswick) had pledged to create a Middlesex County-based House district, in the days when the Legislature drew the congressional maps. Lynch initially didn’t think he could get his plan through the Senate – Republicans had an 11-10 majority – but he made a deal that would leave the districts of eight GOP congressman alone if they gave him the Middlesex seat. The state had a Democratic governor and a Democratic-controlled State Assembly to back that up.
Wilentz wanted to give the seat to his son, Warren, but another Perth Amboy Democrat, Middlesex County Freeholder George Otlowski, stood in his way. Otlowski wanted the congressional seat and wasn’t willing to stand aside and make room for the younger Wilentz. Otlowski had developed a following and had essentially sought to split the Middlesex Democratic party in John F. Kennedy’s mid-term election. (Otlowski had started in politics as a 22-year-old volunteer on Patten’s 1934 Perth Amboy race.)
The campaign morphed into a all-out bid to stop Otlowski, and David Wilentz decided to pull his son and run the still-popular Patten. Patten, who appeared more anxious to be a congressman than a judge, was happy to get in the race.
Patten’s assent to the U.S. House of Representatives was hardly automatic. The bitter race became a referendum on Wilentz’s role as the party boss. Patten won by 6,055 votes, 56%-44%. Otlowski, who would later become mayor of Peth Amboy and a state Assemblyman, carried only South River, although the two tied in South Amboy.
With the Wilentz machine back in force, Patten defeated Republican Bernard Rodgers, the mayor of Dunellen, by 20,509 votes in the general election, 57%-43%. He won a 1964 rematch with Rodgers by 54,707 votes, 63%–37%, on the heels of Lyndon Johnson’s landslide.
Patten held his seat, but not in any landslides. He won 57% in 1966 and 55% in 1968.
In 1970, Patten faced a strong Democratic primary challenger: Lewis Kaden, a 28-year-old Harvard Law School graduate who had served on Robert Kennedy’s U.S. Senate staff.
Kaden, fervently opposed to the war in Vietnam. came at Patten from the left, pulling in student volunteers from Rutgers and Princeton and capitalizing on opposition to the U.S. invasion of Cambodia a month before the Democratic primary. He filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that organization lines were unconstitutional, but his case was dismissed.
The grass-roots Kaden campaign reportedly knocked on 100,000 doors but couldn’t compete with the strength of the Middlesex County Democratic organization. Patten won by a margin of 12,023 votes, 66%-34%. Kaden didn’t do so badly: he worked for Gov. Brendan Byrne and later became vice chairman of Citigroup.
In the general election, Patten faced Assemblyman Peter Garibaldi, a bricklayer who ran as a pro-labor Republican. Patten won by 34,322 votes, 61%-39%. After the election, Garibaldi said something profound: “Running against Ed Patten is like running against Santa Claus.”
(Garibaldi later found that Jim Bornheimer was no Santa Claus; he ousted him from his Middlesex County State Senate in 1983.)
Republicans thought they would finally have a shot at Patten in 1972, with a newcomer named Fuller Brooks mounting an aggressive campaign that sought to tie Patten, a moderate Democrat, as a big-spending liberal. Richard Nixon beat George McGovern 61%-39% in the 15th district and Republicans picked up two Middlesex County Freeholder seats – Otlowski was defeated for a sixth term—but Patten held on and eked out an 8,755-vote win, 52%-48%.
Any electoral vulnerability for Patten disappeared amidst the Watergate scandal and Patten was re-elected in 1974 with the biggest margin of his congressional career: 71%.
Republicans nominated Charles Wiley, a conservative activist and broadcaster from Sayreville who had sought the nomination in 1972. With Jimmy Carter taking 54% in the district, Patten coasted to a 59%-30% win.
Patten’s last campaign came in 1978 and he almost lost.
Now 73-years-old, details began emerging about Patten’s involvement in the Koreagate scandal. Lobbyist Tongsun Park was charged with using funds provided by the government of South Korea to bribe six congressmen as part of a bid to ensure that the United States kept their military presence there. The allegation against Patten was that he solicited an illegal campaign contribution from Park, including funds that found their way into the account of the Middlesex County Democrats. Patten allegedly took cash contributions from Park and then wrote personal checks to the county organization.
A 30-year-old Edison attorney, George Spadoro, challenged Patten in the Democratic primary and held him to 59% of the vote, a 6,323-vote plurality. (Spadoro would later become the mayor of Edison and an assemblyman.) Republicans again nominated Wiley to run against him.
Summer headlines on Koreagate dominated the summer news, as well as Patten’s testimony before the House Ethics Committee. Patten steadfastly proclaimed his innocence. In October, the Ethics panel voted unanimously to clear him of the charges. And the Friday before the election, state Attorney General John Degnan announced that he had cleared Patten of any wrongdoing in Koreagate, which had become a state issue since some of the contributions had come to the county party organization.
Patten also faced allegations that he failed to disclose his assets as required by House rules. Patten had filed a financial disclosure saying that he had no personal assets; he eventually announced that all his assets were in his wife’s name.
The scandal took its toll on Patten. He won re-election, but just narrowly 48%–46%, with a plurality of only 2,836 votes.
Despite his near defeat, Patten tried to hang on and run for a tenth term. Democrats were desperate for him to retire, but as the list of potential successors began to grow, party leaders were still reluctant to dump him from the organization line.
Finally, county chairman Nicholas Venezia said that Patten would not automatically receive the organization line and need to appear before the screening committee. Patten said he would not seek party support and would step aside if they didn’t unanimously endorse him.
One possible candidate, Perth Amboy City Administrator (and future Monroe mayor) Richard Pucci, railed against party bosses and called for an open primary.
In a strange twist, there was a newspaper report that Patten was among the congressmen targeted by the FBI sting operation known as ABSCAM, but that he refused to accept a bribe. Patten strongly denied that.
Within a few weeks, Patten realized his career was over and announced that he would not seek re-election. Democrats held his seat, electing Senate Majority Leader Bernard Dwyer with 53% of the vote in a district that Republican Ronald Reagan carried by seven points.
Patten returned to Perth Amboy, where he was remembered for his personality and for his ability to deliver federal funds to his district from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee. He died in 1994, at age 89.