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Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham

Trailblazer: Mayor Glenn Cunningham

First Black mayor of Jersey City

By David Wildstein, January 17 2022 12:05 am

Glenn Cunningham (1943-2004) was the first and only Black to win election for mayor of Jersey City.

After serving in the Marines, Cunningham began a 25-year career as a Jersey City police officer.  He retired as a captain.

Cunningham began his political career in 1975, winning a seat on the Hudson County Board of Freeholders.

He lost party support for re-election in 1978 after Jersey City mayor Thomas F.X. Smith decided to pick his own candidate.  Instead, he ran for re-election as an independent and came within 803 votes of winning against the Democratic candidate, Harry Massey.

Cunningham was elected to the Jersey City Council in 1981, winning a race for the Bergen-Lafayette Ward seat.   Cunningham ran with mayoral candidate Gerald McCann, while rival Harry Laurie was the running mate of State Sen. Walter Sheil.

In the May election, Laurie led Cunningham by 30 votes, 34%-33%, in a race that forced a June runoff.  Cunningham defeated Laurie by 323 votes/

Cunningham became a bitter rival of Mayor Gerald McCann.  He was re-elected in 1985, winning a runoff on a ticket with Anthony Cucci, who ousted McCann.  He became the council president.

In 1987, Cunningham challenged two-term State Sen. Edward O’Connor in the 31st district.  He lost by 1,049 votes, 52%-48%.

He ran for mayor of Jersey City in 1989 and finished second in a seven-candidate field.  McCann led Cunningham by 3,904 votes, 26%-18%, followed by former mayor Smith (13%), former mayor Cucci (12%), Councilman Thomas Fricchione (12% and two others.

After leaving city government, he became the Hudson County director of public safety.

McCann won the runoff by 5,920 votes, 55%-45%.

President Clinton appointed him to serve as U.S. Marshal for New Jersey in 1996.

Cunningham returned to elective politics in 2001 as a candidate for mayor.  The incumbent, Bret Schundler, did not seek re-election into to become a candidate for the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

In the May election, Cunningham led council president Tom DeGise by 5,384 votes, 39%-24%.  Freeholder Louis Manzo finished third with 20%, followed by Kevin Sluka (9%) and Robert Cavanaugh (8%).

Cunningham defeated DeGise in the runoff by 2,651 votes, 53%-47%.

State Sen. Joseph Charles (D-Jersey City) did not seek re-election in 2003 and instead was nominated to serve as a Superior Court Judge.

Cunningham sought the open Senate seat – at the time, New Jersey permitted dual officeholding – and defeated Jersey City Council President L. Harvey Smith by 2,088 votes in the Democratic primary, 48%-27%.  Former Assistant Hudson County prosecutor Vincent Militello finished third with 13%.

Despite the certainty of Cunningham’s general election victory – Republicans have never won the Jersey City-based Senate seat – Smith challenged Cunningham in a September special election convention to fill the remainder of Charles’ term.  He won by a vote of 159 to 104.

Cunningham won the Senate seat with 79% and took office in January 2004.

On May 24, 2004, Cunningham died of a heart attack.  He was 60.

His widow, Sandra Bolden Cunningham, won his State Senate seat in 2007.

This story was first published in January 2020.

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