George C. Richardson (1931-2021) was a maverick civil rights leader who served four terms in the New Jersey State Assembly in the 1960s and 1970s.
Richardson had sought to become the first Black to serve in the New Jersey Senate and challenged Rep. Peter W. Rodino (D-Newark) in the Democratic primary after congressional redistricting created a Black majority in New Jersey’s 10th district in 1972.
As a freshman lawmaker, Richardson helped pass a bill to curb segregated housing that forced people of color to live in ghettos and sponsored legislation that created a commission to study segregation in public schools, fought racially-biased zoning laws.
He worked as a corrections officer and leader of the Newark branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People before becoming a state legislator.
A leading force in the rise of Black political representation in the city of Newark, Richardson was 30-years-old when Essex County Democrats put him on their nine-member slate of Assembly candidates in 1961.
The launch of his political career came after a life of early turbulence. His mother died when he was 10, and he began looting factories, got into fights with white gangs, and was arrested and sent to the Essex Youth House twice.
He lied about his age and enlisted in the U.S. Army at age 14 and returned to Newark at 17. A year later, he enlisted in the Air Force, where he was promoted to sergeant but was dishonorably discharged after he got caught stealing military property to fund a heroin addiction.
But by the time he returned to Newark in the late 1950s, he had beaten his drug habit and turned his life around. In nine campaigns, his past had never become an issue or found out by journalists.
State Assembly seats were apportioned based on population – each county had one senator – but all nine Essex seats were elected in an at-large, countywide election.
Richardson finished sixth in a field of 31 candidates with 137,393 votes in race where Democrats won eight of the nine Assembly seats. Five incumbent Republican lawmakers – Philip Lindeman (R-West Orange), Herbert Tate (R-Newark), Frank Bate (R-Essex Fells), Beatrice Stiles (R-Bloomfield) and William Everett (R-West Caldwell) – were defeated for re-election. Richardson finished 10,484 votes ahead of Lindeman.
After taking office in 1962, Richardson became the only Black member of the New Jersey Legislature. At one point in his first term, he publicly criticized state NAACP leaders for failing to provide strong support of his school segregation legislation.
He angered some top Democrats, including Newark Mayor Hugh Addonizio, when he led a move to create a civilian review board to examine allegations of police brutality in Newark. He also strongly criticized the newly-elected Democratic governor, Richard J. Hughes, for not embracing reforms to end racial biases in housing.
Richardson and Republican Alfred Beadleston (R-Red Bank) became the deciding votes to defeat a bill that would have allowed store owners the right to detain suspected shoplifters.
After his election to the Assembly, Richardson became the executive secretary of the Newark Insurance Fund Committee.
State Senate bid
Essex County had an epic race for State Senate in 1963, the last time each county elected just one senator regardless of population.
Democrats decided to dump their two-term incumbent senator, Donal C. Fox (D-South Orange) from their ticket after he feuded with the county chairman, Dennis Carey.
After one term in the Assembly, the 32-year-old Richardson, became a candidate for the Democratic Senate nomination after Essex Democrats decided not to support two-term State Sen Donal C. Fox (D-South Orange) for re-election. Fox had been openly feuding with Dennis F. Carey, the powerful Essex County Democratic Chairman.
Fox and Richardson both appeared before the party screening committee – he said “being Carey’s puppet has no place in my political philosophy” — but Democrats gave the organization line to Assembly Speaker Elmer Matthews (D-South Orange).
Fox declined to challenge Matthews in the primary and Richardson decided to run for the Senate as an independent after Democrats refused to support him for re-election to the Assembly.
Instead, Democrats backed Central Ward Democratic Leader Noah W. Marshall for what was considered in 1963 to be the “Negro seat” on the Essex Democratic ticket.
Republicans nominated Assembly Minority Leader C. Robert Sarcone (D-Newark), who had been the lone Republican winner in the 1961 contest for nine Essex Assembly seats.
This was the only time in New Jersey history that the sitting Assembly Speaker and Minority Leader faced off for a State Senate seat. The Essex Senate race was also a rare occurrence: three incumbent assemblymen running in a general election for one seat. Addonizio’s brother, Victor, was picked to replace Matthews on the Assembly ticket. Five Republicans and four Democrats – including Addonizio, but not Marshall – won for the lower house.
Richardson formed the New Frontier Party for an election that occurred while John F. Kennedy was still President. The New Frontier Party nominated thirteen Black candidates and one Latino for the legislature and freeholder.
Sarcone defeated Matthews by 15,902 votes, 51%-44%, with Richardson winning 4% of the vote. Richardson received a total of 10,164 votes. Sarcone returned the Essex Senate seat to Republican control for the first time since 1955, when Fox unseated State Sen. Mark Anton (R-West Orange)
With Richardson’s departure, the legislature became all-white for the first time since 1957.
In 1964, Richardson announced that he would run as an independent candidate for U.S. Senate against Harrison Williams, a Democrat seeking re-election to his second term. He filed as the New Frontier candidate, but ultimately decided not to run and focus his efforts on the re-election of President Lyndon B. Johnson.
A supporter of civil disobedience, Richardson let a move to oppose planned highway blockade of the New York World’s Fair in 1964, asking people to delay the action as Congress considered passing the Civil Rights Act.
After the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-Man, One-Vote decision, Richardson led a move to draw an Essex-Hudson congressional district for the 1966 mid-term election that would create a block of Black voters and possibly elect the state’s first Black congressman.
Still feuding with Carey, Richardson didn’t bother seeking party support for one of the four Senate seats apportioned for Essex County under the Supreme Court’s decision. Instead, he announced that he would run as an independent on the United Political Freedom ticket, along with a mostly-Black slate of Assembly and freeholder candidates.
After Essex County Clerk Nicholas V. Caputo, a Carey loyalist, refused to bracket Richardson with the rest of his slate, Richardson mounted a legal appeal of the ruling.
The New Jersey Supreme Court decided on October 21 that Richardson should be on the ballot. That forced Caputo to reprint more than 435,000 sample ballots that had already been mailed to voters at a cost of around $55,000 – more than $475,000 in today’s dollars.
Democrat nominated Newark municipal court judge Nicholas Fernicola, former West Orange municipal court judge Maclyn Goldman, and former freeholder John J. Giblin, a labor leader and the father of Assemblyman Thomas Giblin (D-Montclair) to run for the Senate.
Also on the ticket was Newark physician Hutchins F. Inge.
Inge was a last minute addition to the Democratic ticket. Essex County Democratic Chairman Dennis Carey wanted an African American to balance a ticket that included Irish, Italian and Jewish candidates. His first choice was Eulis “Honey” Ward, the Central Ward Democratic Chairman. Ward appeared in a photograph of the ticket sent to several newspapers — but some last minute vetting by Democrats made them decide to pick another candidate after the filing deadline.
Sarcone sought re-election to a second term on a ticket that included a recruitment coup – William Tompkins – along with Assemblyman Irwin Kimmelman (R-South Orange) and Newark funeral director James Churchman.
Both parties thought Tompkins would coast into the Senate.
Tompkins had been elected to the Assembly in 1948 and was President Dwight Eisenhower’s pick for U.S. Attorney in 1953. He had founded one of New Jersey’s top law firms, Tompkins, McGuire, Wachenfeld & Barry.
Kimmelman was a freshman assemblyman – he would later serve as a Superior Court Judge and as Gov. Thomas Kean’s attorney General – and Churchman was the first Black Republican to run for the Senate.
1965 turned out to be a Democratic year and with Gov. Richard Hughes carrying Essex County by nearly 70,000 votes, Democrats won all four Senate seats. Tompkins finished last, almost 24,000 votes behind Inge.
As an independent, Richardson finished ninth in a field of twelve candidates for Senate, with 10,409 votes, about 1% of the total votes cast countywide.
Richardson again sought office in 1966, this time as a candidate for Newark City Council. He was aligned with the United Committee for Political Freedom, a coalition of Blacks, Puerto Ricans and liberal white voters that was backing political newcomer Kenneth Gibson in his challenge to Mayor Hugh Addonizio and become the city’s first Black mayor.
He sought the Central Ward council seat occupied since 1958 by Irvine Turner, an Addonizio supporter. In the South Ward, the group backed Earl Harris, a Black Republican freeholder, against incumbent Lee Bernstein, also a Republican.
The Gibson-Richardson-Harris slate renewed a call for a police civilian review board that Richardson started as a freshman assemblyman in 1962.
Addonizio beat Gibson finished third in the six-candidate field of mayoral candidates – he defeated former Mayor Leo Carlin in the runoff – and Turner easily defeated Richardson. Bernstein was also re-elected, but after Harris forced him into a runoff.
Richardson’s political comeback
Legislative reapportionment that followed the 1966 New Jersey Constitutional Convention ended countywide Assembly elections and created six Essex County Assembly districts.
Since leaving the legislature four years earlier, Richardson had worked aggressively to register Black voters in Newark and continue fighting Addonizio to establish a civilian police review board.
His political standing had been enhanced earlier that year when he worked with local officials to seek calm in the community following the 1967 Newark riots.
Richardson’s burgeoning political organization led Essex Democrats to support him for a State Assembly seat in 1967 instead of two-term Essex County Freeholder Charles J. Matthews, who had been the second Black to serve on the freeholder board.
He was the top vote-getter in the Central and West Ward-based Disrtict 10A with 4,475 votes, but his running mate, Assemblyman Walter Vohdin (D-Newark), won the Democratic primary by just 198 votes against Leon Ewing, a Black businessman from Newark. Vohdin, the business manager of the Bricklayers, Masons and Plasterers Local 16, was white and Matthews, in a rebuke to the organization line, supported Ewing.
In the general election, Richardson ran 5,320 votes ahead of Republican Joseph Bradley, a former Newark police officer, and 5,946 ahead of Republican Rev. J. Wendell Mapson.
Republicans won a solid majority in the Assembly that year and Richardson joined an Essex delegation that included 32-year-old Tom Kean (R-Livingston) and 26-year-old Ralph Caputo, then a Republican from Newark’s North Ward.
As a freshman assemblyman for a second time, Richardson introduced legislation to establish a civilian police review board for Newark.
Richardson only reluctantly agreed to support Hubert Humphrey, the choice of the new Essex County Democratic Chairman, Harry Lerner, for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination. He was angered by a photo that showed Humphrey with his arm around Lester Maddox, the segregationist governor of Georgia.
Also in 1968, Richardson was on a list of ten Blacks and ten Jews that the American Civil Liberties Union had asked that Baltusrol Golf Club admit as members. The club had no Black or Jewish members at the time.
He and Assemblyman S. Howard Woodson (D-Trenton) opposed a proposal by Assemblyman Robert Wilentz (D-Perth Amboy) to establish a state lottery, suggesting that his constituents could not afford the price of the ticket. Wilentz saw the lottery as a way to cut the profits of a numbers game run by organized crime.
Richardson joined with Assemblyman Philip Kaltenbacher (R-Short Hills) to pass a consumer protection bill. He said that a belief that some businessmen took advantage of Black residents contributed to the looting of stores during the riots.
He sponsored a largely symbolic bill in Trenton to declare the Vietnam War unconstitutional and prohibit the Nixon administration from sending troops to Asia.
In 1969, Democrats backed Richardson for re-election in a newly-drawn district that combined the Central and South Wards. He teamed up with two-term Assemblyman Ronald Owens (D-Newark). Unopposed in the Democratic primary, Richardson ran 928 votes ahead of Owens in the general election and 13,244 votes ahead of Mapson. A second Republican, Martha Daniels, trailed Richardson by 14,725 votes.
After his re-election, Richardson was named Assistant Assembly Minority Leader after siding with Hudson County in a leadership fight with South Jersey. David Friedland (D-Jersey City) defeated John Horn (D-Camden) by two votes, 11-9.
Bids for Newark mayor, Congress
Richardson carefully weighed a bid for mayor of Newark in 1970. Addonizio, under indictment on federal corruption charges, was seeking a third term.
A 600-person rally held by supporters seeking to draft Richardson to run in January was thrown into chaos when someone set off smoke bombs inside Newark’s Continental Ballroom, but the assemblyman announced a week later that he would enter the race.
But liberal Democrats who comprised Richardson’s political base, concerned that his candidacy would split Black voters and lead to a victory by Addonizio or City Councilman Anthony Imperiale, pushed him to get out of the race
But Richardson’s campaign never really picked up steam as an alternative to Gibson, the city engineer making his second bid. Gibson led Addonizio in the May non-partisan municipal election by 19,741 votes, 43%-20%. Imperiale finished third with 16%, followed by Newark Fire Director John Caufield (13%), Republican State Sen. Alexander Matturri (5%). Richardson finished sixth with 2.3% of the vote – 35,642 votes behind Gibson. A third Black candidate, teacher Harry Wheeler, finished last.
Within a few days, Richardson endorsed Gibson in the runoff.
Richardson later said he had no regrets over his loss, saying that his leadership position enabled him to effect more change from Trenton.
While Richardson remained closely allied with the Essex Democratic machine, he still showed signs of the dissident legislator who had served a decade earlier. Just before the 1970 mid-term elections, Richardson proposed that liberal from both parties join together to support a third party presidential candidate in 1972 who held principles similar to Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King. He identified George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy, Ted Kennedy, and New Jersey Republican Clifford Case as potential candidates.
In Trenton Richardson continued to work with Democratic lawmakers on issues of racial equality. He led a group that slammed GOP Gov. William Cahill for delaying a program that would help people of color open their own businesses.
Two years later, Richardson and Owens held their seats against primary challenges from Bobby Wright and Fiorentino “Finney” Alati, the former executive secretary of the Newark Planning Board. (His son, John, later served as a freeholder).
Wright and Alati were allied with a rival Democratic slate headed that included five Senate candidates: United Auto Workers union leader Joel Jacobson; Newark City Council President Louis M. Turco. Three other Democrats joined Jacobson and Turco on their slate: Irvington Board of Education secretary-business manager Michel A. Blasi, the former nine-term president of the International Union of Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers Local 430; former Newark Fireman’s Mutual Benefit Association Local 4 President Francis X. McCarthy; and former Newark Police Captain Edward Williams.
(When the Newark riots started in 1967, Addonizio had appointed Williams as the city’s first Black police captain with the hope that the move would placate rioters. Williams served as the police department’s director of community relations.)
Essex County Democratic Chairman Harry Lerner gave the organization line to: Freeholder Director Wynona M. Lipman, who would become the second woman and second Black to serve in the New Jersey Senate; Assemblyman Frank “Pat” Dodd (D-Orange), Irvington Councilman Henry Smolen; and two South Orange attorneys, Ralph DeRose, who had been an aide to State Sen. Donal Fox (D-South Orange) and nearly won a 1969 race for Essex County Supervisor, and former Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Martin Greenberg.
Richardson ran 241 votes in front of Owens; he held Wright by 1,505 votes and Alati by 1,515.
The 1971 general election was easier: he ran 411 votes ahead of Owens and outpolled the Republicans by more than 10,000 votes. Two Essex County Bi-Partisan candidates, Albert Cernadas and John Pelt, ran just behind the GOP contenders.
The Cahill mid-term elections that year left Democrats with a 40-39 majority, with the final seat won by Imperiale, who won as an independent. Woodson was supposed to become the first Black Assembly Speaker, but Friedland led a group of four Democrats instead made a deal to back Kean.
Friedland had aggressively courted Richardson to back Kean, but he steadfastly stuck with Woodson and bashed his onetime Hudson ally for blocking a Black man from becoming Speaker.
After the 1970 U.S. Census results were certified, Richardson sought to create a Black majority House district that put Newark and East Orange in the same district. Until 1992, congressional maps were drawn by the legislature.
While the process was mostly controlled by Republicans – the GOP had a governor, Senate President and Assembly Speaker – the narrow working majority in the Assembly made congressional redistricting politically competitive. Republicans had sought to merge two Hudson districts into one and create a new GOP seat in western New Jersey.
Richardson accused Rodino and Rep. Joseph Minish (D-West Orange) of conspiring with the New Jersey AFL-CIO to block a Black majority congressional district. In the past, Newark was split, and East Orange was in Minish’s district.
In the end, the 10th district was drawn with a majority of its residents being Black.
The incumbent, Rodino, was a somewhat obscure 12-term Democrat from Newark’s North Ward and had picked up plenty of new territory.
Richardson challenged Rodino in the 1972 Democratic primary, but so did East Orange Mayor William S. Hart, who had become the first Black to win a citywide election there in 1959 and the first Black mayor in 1969.
Lerner gave the organization line to Rodino, and Richardson took him to court in a bid to block his ability to do so. That bid was unsuccessful.
But it turned out to be Hart, not Richardson, who won the backing of the district’s top Black leaders, including Gibson and activist Amiri Baraka, a poet and the father of future Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
Rodino won 57% of the vote, defeating Hart (37%) by 13,532 votes. Richardson finished third with 3,086 votes (5%). Another Black candidate, Wilburt Kornegay, received 1% of the vote.
In that primary, Rodino won 98% and a 3,985-vote margin in Harrison, the only Hudson municipality in the 10th. He beat Hart by fifteen points in Essex.
Also in 1972, 84-year-old Emmanuel Celler was upset in the Demcoratic primary by Elizabeth Holtzman. That set up Rodino to become the House Judiciary Committee chairman during the Watergate scandal and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. As a result if his national prominence, Rodino didn’t face real primary challenges until Donald Payne, Sr. took him on in 1980 and 1986. Rodino remained the congressman from a Black majority district until he retired in 1988.
Returning to the Assembly, Richardson led a successful fight to pass a rent control bill through the lower House. But the bill died in the GOP-controlled Senate.
In 1973, when a new 40-district map was drawn for the first time – before that, all legislative races were entirely within a single county – Richardson found himself in the new 29th district, a Black majority district that included Newark’s Central and South wards.
Lipman moved from Montclair to Newark to run in the 29th, with Owens and Richardson as the two assemblymen.
But Essex County Democrats dropped Richardson from their organization line and backed Willie Brown, a South Ward Democratic leader with ties to Gibson.
Richardson said he was dumped because he wouldn’t support Lerner’s candidate for governor, State Sen. Ralph DeRose (D-South Orange). Richardson viewed DeRose as too conservative.
Once Superior Court Judge Brendan Byrne entered governor’s race in late April, it was too late to run his own line of legislative candidates. Richardson, seeing the handwriting on the wall, declined to seek re-election off-the-line.
At 42, Richardson’s 12-year electoral career had come to an end.
After leaving the legislature, Richardson devoted attention to the nation’s war on drugs. He later moved to Harlem to pursue a career as a community organizer before he moved to Trenton a few years ago.
Richardson formed his own public relations firm, Periscope Associates.
Following his passing, Richardson’ family issued a statement: “Throughout his long career in politics, he was always a champion of building coalitions of diversity and always working to understand the needs and urgencies of even those who opposed him. He never faltered in his commitment to a strong politics of inclusion and compassion. As a father and a grandfather, George was the embodiment of kindness and good humor. His family remembers him for his ‘militant optimism’ and his boundless energy in the effort to offer help and encouragement. His presence in our lives will be sorely missed.”