Home>Campaigns>The end of an era: The story of Tom Giblin’s magnificent political career

Thomas P. Giblin at the 1992 Democratic National Convention. (Photo: Ace Alagna collection courtesy of the Monsignor William Noé Field Archives & Special Collections Center, Seton Hall University Libraries, South Orange).

The end of an era: The story of Tom Giblin’s magnificent political career

The son of a labor leader who served as a freeholder and senator, Giblin has been a key figure in New Jersey politics for parts of eight decades

By David Wildstein, March 25 2023 10:57 am

Thomas P. Giblin got hooked on New Jersey politics at the age of seven, when his father won a seat on the Essex County Board of Freeholders in 1954.  Over the last eight decades, he’s had a front-row seat watching the state’s history unfold.

The Essex County legend served as a freeholder for a decade and then as Essex County  Surrogate.   He was the Essex County Democratic Chairman from 1993 to 2003. He became the New Jersey Democratic State Chairman in 1997 after backing James E. McGreevey for governor in the Democratic primary that year.

The 76-year-old Giblin will not seek re-election to the State Assembly seat he’s held for nearly eighteen years, bringing one chapter of a remarkable life in the political arena to a close

Giblin’s real clout comes from his family business, the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 68, where he is the longtime business manager.  His later father, John J. Giblin, an immigrant from Ireland, ran the politically influential union from 1948 until his death in 1975: John Giblin was a freeholder from 1955 to 1957 and a state senator from Essex County from 1966 to 1968.   Another son, Vincent Giblin, succeeded him as president of the IUOE in Washington, D.C.

Tom Giblin also serves as president of the Essex-West Hudson Labor Council, AFL-CIO.

Still, despite his extraordinary success in state and county offices, the one job Giblin desperately wanted, Essex County Executive, continued to elude him.  He ran three times, never making it out of the primary.

In 1973, at age 26, Giblin launched a political career of his own as a candidate for State Assembly in the old 25th district, which began in Millburn and extended through western Essex County into Pequannock and Lincoln Park in Morris and Wayne in Passaic.   A New Jersey Air National Guard veteran, he ran on a ticket with Fairfield Councilman Nicholas Saleeby.

Legislative redistricting that year put three incumbent Republican assemblymen into the new district: Assembly Speaker Thomas Kean (R-Livingston), Philip Kaltenbacher (R-Short Hills), and Michael Horn (R-Wayne).  Since most of the district was in Essex, Horn announced his retirement.

After the primary, Kaltenbacher unexpectedly changed his mind about running, and the Republicans picked former Essex GOP vice chair Jane Burgio to replace him on the ticket.  (One of the people who sought Republican party support to replace Kaltenbacher was Ralph Caputo, a 33-year-old former GOP assemblyman who had moved from Newark to West Caldwell).

Kean ran 4,839 votes ahead of Burgio, who edged out Giblin by 1,079 votes.  The 25th was one of just four districts in the state that elected a Republican senator and two Republican assemblymembers in the Watergate landslide.   That was the only general election Giblin ever lost.

Giblin was appointed to the freeholder board in January 1977 after Peter Stewart (D-Caldwell) resigned to become Essex County Counsel to replace Francis McQuade.  He easily won a special election for the unexpired term with 60% of the vote against Matthew Carracinco, a Republican from Caldwell.

But Giblin’s first tenure as a freeholder was short-lived.  On the same day, Essex County voters approved a charter change referendum switching to a county executive form of government.   That effectively changed the election Giblin had just won from a two-year term to one that would last only eleven months.

In 1978, at age 31, Giblin sought party support to run for county executive as part of a faction of the party led by Philip Keegan (D-Newark), the county purchasing agent and a former assemblyman.  Then-Assemblyman Richard Codey (D-Orange), attorney Michael Critchley, Stewart, and Giblin were possible candidates for the post.

Giblin formally entered the race for county executive, filing over 7,000 signatures on his nominating petitions and announcing endorsements from Keegan, Stewart, Newark West Ward Democratic powerbroker George McCormack, Maplewood Democratic Municipal Chairman Raymond Durkin, and a list of labor leaders that included New Jersey AFL-CIO President Charles Marciante and the president of the New Jersey Building and Construction Trades Council, James Grogan.

But a promised endorsement from  Gov. Brendan Byrne never materialized, and Giblin dropped out of the race on ballot draw day.  Within a couple of days, Giblin signed on as campaign manager for a good friend, Sheriff John Cryan.  The primary was won by Peter Shapiro (D-South Orange), a 26-year-old assemblyman.

After a few years on the State Racing Commission, Giblin returned to county government in 1981 as a candidate for freeholder-at-large on the organization line.  He won easily – Essex Republicans haven’t won a countywide Essex freeholder seat since State Sen. Geraldo DelTuo (R-Newark) won in 1971 — and was re-elected in 1984 and 1987.

Giblin had an unexpected opportunity in 1989.  Republicans had captured the county executive and surrogate posts in 1986, Surrogate Earl Harris, a former Newark Council President,  passed away toward the end of his second year in office, triggering a special election.  Democrats picked Giblin to run against the interim Republican surrogate, Bob Cottle, a former Newark police lieutenant, and Montclair NAACP member.   Giblin won with 64% of the vote.

Rep. Donald Payne, Sr., center, with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, left, and Assemblyman Thomas P. Giblin.

He served as surrogate for under four years when County Executive Thomas D’Alessio, under indictment for embezzlement, money laundering, and extortion, resigned as Essex County Democratic chairman.  He had been facing a challenge from Codey, then seeking his fifth term in the State Senate and the winner of a primary challenge from Orange Mayor Robert Brown.

Giblin resigned a surrogate to run for county chairman, and Codey withdrew, allowing Giblin to run unopposed.

In 1994, with D’Alessio headed to prison, Giblin ran for county executive in what became an astonishingly close primary election with Cardell Cooper, the mayor of East Orange.

Cooper initially defeated Giblin by 25 votes, setting a recount into motion.

Cooper had won the Election Day machine voting by 120 votes, but Giblin carried the absentee ballots by 120.  The Essex County Board of Elections, which rejected 37 emergency ballot cast in the primary, declared the race to be tied.

The contest for the Democratic nomination continued until late August – judges moved slowly on election matters in New Jersey even then – and the assignment judge, Burrell Ives Humphries, ruled that the emergency ballots should be counted.  That gave Cooper a victory by a margin of exactly 17.
There were grounds for Giblin to appeal, and many of his supporters wanted him to precisely do that – but the county chairman decided it was time to end the campaign for the good of the party.

Cooper went on to lose the general election to Democrat-turned-Republican James W. Treffinger, a freeholder and former Verona mayor.

Giblin became a substantive statewide player in 1997 when State Sen. James E. McGreevey (D-Woodbridge) and Rep. Rob Andrews (D-Haddon Heights) were locked in a close Democratic primary for the chance to challenge Republican Gov. Christine Todd Whitman.

Both sides aggressively courted Giblin, who decided in late March that Essex would go with McGreevey.

Rep. Bill Pascrell and Assemblyman Tom Giblin.

McGreevey beat Andrews in Essex County by 27,076 votes, a 66%-13% margin – former Morris County Prosecutor Michael Murphy finished second with 21%.   That helped McGreevey score a 9,993-vote win against Andrews, 40%-37%.

As expected, McGreevey picked Giblin to serve as Democratic State Chairman.  He held that post for four years.

With Treffinger giving up his county executive post in 2002 to run for U.S. Senate – then U.S. Attorney Chris Christie put his thumb on the scale days after the filing deadline, and Treffinger’ dropped out following an FBI raid on his office – Giblin launched his third campaign for county executive.

His primary opponent was Joseph DiVincenzo, the Essex County Board of Freeholders president.

McGreevey, elected governor in 2001, endorsed Giblin, along with U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg and two state senators, Codey and Ronald Rice (D-Newark).   But DiVincenzo was backed by Democratic powerhouses Stephen Adubato, Sr. and George Norcross.  U.S. Senator Bob Torricelli and Reps. Donald Payne, Sr. (D-Newark) and Bob Menendez (D-Union City) eschewed the organization line to run with DiVincenzo.

After a particularly nasty primary, with each candidate spending more than $1 million, DiVincenzo prevailed by a large margin.  He won by over 12,000 votes, 61%-39%.

DiVincenzo’s freeholder slate swept eight of nine races;  the lone exception was in the 5th district, where Caputo, a former Republican assemblyman who had switched parties in the mid-1970s, defeated Bloomfield Councilman Vincent Esposito by sixteen votes.  Caputo ousted Republican incumbent Joseph Scarpelli (R-Nutley) and returned to the Assembly in 2007.

Caputo resigned from the Assembly this week to take a seat on the Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey board of directors.

Legislative redistricting created a new 34th district in 2001 that included East Orange, Montclair, and Clifton.  Essex Democrats gifted one Assembly seat to Passaic County, which Peter Eagler (D-Clifton) occupied for four years.   (Giblin was a member of the Legislative Apportionment Commission that year.)

But in 2005, Essex reclaimed the seat and sent Giblin to the legislature.  He won nine elections by overwhelming margins, running first with now-Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, then with a protégé, soon-to-be state senator Britnee Timberlake.

Some considered the Assembly seat a consolation prize, but Giblin did not.   He chairs the Assembly Regulated Professions Committee and has been a deputy majority leader for nearly sixteen years.  He has been a zealous advocate of labor unions, civil rights, and services to veterans, children, and the economically disadvantaged.   He also was a generous benefactor to Democratic candidates and organizations.

Part of Giblin’s legacy is the third generation of his family.  His daughter, Noreen, serves on Murphy’s senior staff as director of the Authorities Unit.  Two of his sons have held public office: Ted was a councilman in Verona, and Patrick was the mayor of Cranford.

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