Thomas H. Kean, one of the most popular governors in New Jersey history, is celebrating his 87th 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.
In the 32 years that have passed since Kean completed his second term as governor, New Jerseyans continue to view him in high regard. A 2021 Monmouth University poll put his statewide favorables at 33%-14%, strong 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 a candidate for the Republican nomination for Congress in New Jersey’s 7th district.
He launched his political career in 1967 as a candidate for State Assembly in a politically competitive Essex County-based district and served five terms. He served as Majority Leader in 1971, as Speaker in 1972 and 1973, and as 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.