The United States Tennis Organization has announced that Althea Gibson, the first African-American to win the Grand Slam title will finally be honored with a statue at the National Tennis Center in New York. Yesterday’s announcement comes six years after Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo beat the USTA to the punch, erecting his own Gibson monument at Branch Brook Park.
Gibson had a brief career in New Jersey politics: in 1977, she challenged State Sen. Pat Dodd (D-West Orange) in the Democratic primary. It was all about local politics.
After her tennis career ended, Gibson was given a job running women’s programs for the Essex County Parks Commission. A few years later, Gov. Brendan Byrne named her State Athletic Commissioner – the first woman in the U.S. to hold that job. Frustrated with the state bureaucracy, she resigned after a year.
One of her friends was former Freeholder Thomas Cooke, who had run afoul of Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner and was running off the organization line in a primary challenge to East Orange Mayor Bill Hart. Cooke put his own line together and got Gibson to run for Senate. They ran with Jim Florio, who was challenging Byrne in the Democratic gubernatorial primary.
Lerner was apoplectic that Florio, the South Jersey congressman, would dare to assemble a serious line to challenge the machine. Lerner, the most powerful county chairman in the state, vowed to never support Florio for anything. But by the time Florio ran again in 1981, Lerner had been ousted by a group of reformers and had moved to Florida.
Also in the race was three-term Assemblyman Eldridge Hawkins (D-East Orange), a talented legislator who decided to run for the Senate amidst speculation that Lerner was going to drop him from the Assembly ticket. Lerner tried to cut a late deal to let Hawkins run for the Assembly again, but by then it was too late. Hawkins believed a large black turnout from East Orange could propel him into the Senate seat.
Hawkins wanted to run with Byrne, but the governor decided not to run a line against Lerner; instead, he wound up in an alliance with State Sen. Raymond Garramone (D-Haworth), who wound up finishing sixth in the gubernatorial primary with just 1$ statewide.
Dodd, the owner of a popular tavern and had served two years as Senate President, was well-known, likeable, and with the line, unbeatable. He won 59% of the primary vote, beating Gibson (23%) by 7,731 votes. Hawkins finished third with 18%, 917 votes behind Gibson.
Between Gibson and Hawkins, the turnout in East Orange was heavy enough to allow Cooke to beat Hart in the Democratic mayoral primary.
Footnote to the story: this was also the district of two-term Assemblyman Richard Codey (D-Orange). Codey was a loyal machine guy in those days (he started out as Dodd’s legislative aide) and ran on the Essex line with Dodd and Lerner’s selected gubernatorial candidate, former State Sen. Ralph DeRose (D-South Orange). Codey finished first in a five candidate field, winning by roughly what Dodd did.