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Former Assembly Speaker Thomas H. Kean on election night 1981 at the Holiday Inn in Livingston. (Photo: Eagleton Center on the American Governor, Rutgers University.)

Happy Birthday, Governor Tom Kean

By David Wildstein, April 21 2023 5:09 pm

Thomas H. Kean, one of the most popular governors in New Jersey history, is celebrating his 88th  birthday today.

Kean was elected governor in 1981 after winning the closest gubernatorial race in New Jersey history.  He defeated Democrat Jim Florio, a South Jersey congressman, by just 1,797 votes, a 49.6% to 49.38% margin.  Four years later, Kean was re-elected in the largest landslide ever recorded in a New Jersey governor’s race: 70% of the vote and a plurality of 794,229 votes.

Tom and Debby Kean arrive at the Republican National Convention in New Orleans in 1988. (Photo: David Wildtein Collection).

In the 32 years since Kean completed his second term as governor, New Jerseyans view him in high regard.  A 2021 Monmouth University poll put his statewide favorables at 33%-14%, substantial numbers considering the length of time he has been out of office.

A descendant of New Jersey’s first Governor, William Livingston, Kean is the scion of one of the nation’s most notable political families.   His great-great-great-grandfather, John Kean, represented South Carolina in the Continental Congress and served until joining George Washington’s administration.  His father, Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston), served ten terms in the U.S. House of Representatives, and his grandfather, Hamilton Fish Kean, was a United States Senator from New Jersey.  His great-uncle, John Kean, was a congressman from Central Jersey.  A cousin, John Kean, was also a U.S. Senator.

Kean’s son, Thomas H. Kean, Jr., spent 21 years in the New Jersey Legislature and was the longest-serving Senate Minority Leader in state history.  He is currently the congressman from New Jersey’s 7th district.

He launched his political career in 1967 as a candidate for the State Assembly in a politically competitive Essex County-based district and served five terms.

Kean and his running mate, Philip Kaltenbacher, won the Republican primary by over 2,200 votes against former Assemblyman Donald FitzMaurice (R-Maplewood) and Vivian Tompkins Lange the sister of former U.S. Attorney William Tompkins.  Kean scored a landslide general election victory against Democrats Bernard Kuttner and Eugene McNany,

Despite the 1973 Watergate Democratic wave, Kean ran 4,839 votes ahead of his new running mate, Jane Burgio, and 5,918 votes in front of the top Democratic vote-getter, 26-year-old labor leader Thomas P. Giblin.

He served as Majority Leader in 1971, Speaker in 1972 and 1973, and Minority Leader from 1974 to 1977.

After running for Congress – he lost a GOP primary to Millicent Fenwick (R-Bernardsville) by 83 votes in 1974 – and for Governor – he finished second in the Republican primary – Kean won the 1981 gubernatorial primary with 31% of the vote in an eight-candidate field.

Kean delivered the keynote address at the 1988 Republican National Convention and was mentioned as a presidential and vice presidential candidate.  After leaving office, he served as president of Drew University.

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