A former maid and the granddaughter of slaves, Remay Pearce served as an assemblywoman from Essex County for about seven weeks in 1979 and 1980.
In those days, when a seat in the legislature became vacant, it would remain empty until the next general election – even if the seat were about to expire. That led to a few short-term legislative careers.
In 1979, the 28th legislative district – Irvington, South Orange and the West Ward of Newark — was in flux.
Assemblyman Peter Shapiro (D-South Orange) resigned in November 1978 after his election as the first Essex County Executive. That was preceded by the resignation of the longtime Essex County Democratic boss, Harry Lerner.
Lerner’s replacement was Horace (Bus) Gausepohl, the Bloomfield Democratic municipal chairman and the head of the county Public Works Department. He defeated Newark Mayor Kenneth Gibson by a 56%-44% margin.
Gausepohl decided that in 1979 he would hold a series of mini-conventions to select legislative candidates.
The result was a decision to dump freshman Assemblywoman Mary Scanlon (D-Newark) from the ticket — she had replaced her late husband, Patrick Scanlon, when he died in office in 1977 – and run Newark Fire Director John Caufield and former Essex County Freeholder Harry McEnroe for Assembly. Scanlan ran as an independent in the general election.
Caufield had run for mayor of Newark in 1970 – incumbent Hugh Addonizio fired him as fire director after he became a candidate – and won 13% of the vote. He then backed Gibson in the runoff. After Gibson ousted Addonizio, Caufield got his fire director job back.
McEnroe, the South Orange Democratic Municipal Chairman, had launched his political career in 1971 as a State Assembly candidate against Assembly Majority Leader Thomas Kean (R-Livingston). He won a freeholder seat in 1973 and was re-elected in 1976, but his term was cut short in 1978 when a new board was elected as part of a shift to a County Executive form of government.
In August, 47-year-old Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Martin Greenberg (D-South Orange) resigned his Senate seat to devote more attention to his law practice. Later, he announced that he was becoming the President and General Counsel of the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City.
That triggered a special election in November 1979 for the remaining 26 months of Greenberg’s Senate term.
Caufield entered the race for Senate and defeated Newark West Ward Councilman Michael Bottone at a Democratic convention by a 135 to 53 votes, 72%-28%. Shapiro supported Bottone while Gibson and Gausepohl backed Caufield.
James Zangari, a former Essex County Freeholder who, like McEnroe, was a casualty of the change in the form of government, replaced Caufield on the Assembly ticket. He ran with the backing of Irvington Democratic Municipal Chairman Rocco Neri, who had lost his Assembly seat to Shapiro’s off-the-line challenge in the 1975 Democratic primary.
On the ticket with Caufield, McEnroe and Zangari was Pearce, a 59-year-old West Ward Democratic county committeewoman.
Pearce was born in Georgia and moved to New Jersey with her father, a construction worker, at age two following the death of her mother. All four of her grandparents were slaves.
She briefly attended Weequahic High School and worked as a domestic servant before getting a job in the Newark Health Department. Pearce became involved in local politics and was an ally of Mayor Gibson.
While the 28th was hugely Democratic, Republicans still nominated a candidate to take on Pearce for a 10-week term in the State Assembly: Joseph Soriano, a 63-year-old retired newscaster for two North Jersey radio stations, WNJR and WBNX.
Soriano mounted an aggressive campaign, working harder than the other three Republicans on his legislative ticket, even though the result of an uphill battle would be just seven weeks in Trenton. Omnipresent in that race where volatile countywide races for Sheriff (which Republicans won) and Register of Deeds and Mortgages (which Democrats held by just 800 votes countywide).
Pearce defeated Soriano by 3,381 votes, a 61%-39% margin.
Caufield won. 58%-25%, with Bottone receiving 17% as an independent. In the Assembly race, McEnroe and Zangari defeated Republicans Bill Conway and Marian Jackson by over 5,000 votes, with Scanlon taking slightly less than 8% as an independent.
Pearce was sworn in when the Assembly returned on November 19 and served until the end of Shapiro’s term on January 8, 1980. She never ran for office again and died in 2007 at age 87.
A product of the year-long vacancy in the Assembly was that the Essex delegation pushed for a new law to hold special elections within a few months of the vacancy. That passed but turned out to be an expensive option and was later replaced by giving the replacement power to the county committee.
This story was first published on May 13, 2021.