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New Jersey’s Ten Most Consequential Political Figures

Robeson

This list will no doubt provoke some angst and angry push-back.

For one it doesn’t include judges, and New Jersey has produced many of consequence. The late Justice William Brennan comes to mind; so does the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Exploring that contrast between the leading liberal (Brennan) and leading conservative (Scalia) of the past 50 to 75 years on the United States Supreme Court – both New Jersey natives – is worth its own story.

We could probably fill another column with just the names of jurists who distinguished themselves and influenced the American political system in a unique way.

We also have a number of activists and personalities of note in this state who changed the course of political and cultural history. In recent years, the late Tyler Clementi is such an individual.

There are, certainly, numerous quirky personalities who deserve mention, among them General George McClellan, who challenged Abe Lincoln for the presidency during the Civil War then found a home willing to prop him up as governor in (where else but) Jersey. The late Senator Clifford Case defined liberal Republican politics for a generation, and the effects of Brendan Byrne’s Pinelands Act will be felt in perpetuity. Byrne and his allies can absolutely make a strong argument for his inclusion in the top ten. The late Governor Richard J. Hughes should also be in the discussion.

Anyone with the name “Frelinghuysen ” going back to the beginning of the country deserves inclusion in the conversation.

One could make a strong case that Christie Todd Whitman should be on the list for raiding the pension system to balance her budget, a decision with which every subsequent governor has had to grapple.

Princeton University Prof Albert Einstein’s scientific breakthroughs had political consequences that probably exceed the impacts of most of the names that follow.

We’ll no doubt pick up some ideas from the reactions that flood in after we post this list, and look forward to making adjustments in the future.

We’re watching former FBI Director James (raised in Allendale) Comey with particular interest right now, and New Jersey native Jared Kushner, son-in-law and a key adviser to President Donald J. Trump.

Gov. Chris Christie’s in-your-face, YouTube funny bone hits style just slightly pre-dated Trump in politics, or relates to it in a significant way. A national player during his time in office, he should be in the conversation. Perhaps of most consequence, Christie changed the landscape of New Jersey politics while serving as U.S. Attorney.

In the meantime, below is our list of ten consequential people across a broad spectrum of disciplines, all ultimately political in nature. We listed one honorable mention just below:

Garret Hobart

His statue stands in front of City Hall in downtown Paterson as Silk City’s homage to the man who might have been president. William McKinley tapped good soldier Republican to serve as his running mate. McKinley would go on to get shot and killed in office, but not before Hobart died of a heart attack, prompting McKinley – prior to his assassination – to tap as his new running mate the man who would go on to become one of the country’s most consequential presidents: Theodore Roosevelt.

10. Amiri Baraka (Leroy Jones)

“Just don’t call me the last of the beats,” Baraka once told InsiderNJ. The iconoclastic (and that’s a very polite way to describe his spitfire style) late poet from Newark was an unreconstructed rebel who cut his political teeth during the Newark riots. In 1970, Ken Gibson would become one of a new wave of African American politicians looking to make a profound, here-to-stay impact. He wouldn’t have gotten there as fast as he did without the in-the-streets urgent organizing and poetic fury of Baraka.

9. Bob Menendez

The ultimate machine politician, the former Union City mayor worked with the tools former Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) stalwart Frank Hague put in place to enhance one of the state’s most dynamic political legacies. During the Reagan era, Menendez nearly single-handedly waged a war of attrition to keep Cuban Americans and other Hudson Hispanics in the Democratic column. He would go on to serve as congressman and as the state’s first Latino U.S. Senator, and – before a spectacular and as yet not fully resolved, with a corruption trial set for the fall, plummet from grace – chairman of the powerful U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He endeared himself to a generation with his “nay” vote on giving President George W. Bush the authority to go to war to Iraq.

8. Peter Rodino

The late great newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin wrote a great book called How the Good Guys Finally Won, and it’s about how Rodino, the stately, no-nonsense and nonpartisan chair of the House Judiciary Committee – gathered the facts in the Watergate case that resulted in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. Republicans and Democrats alike herald Rodino of Newark as the gold standard of how to run investigative hearings. He also had the foresight to step aside at the right time and endorse the late Donald Payne for his congressional seat. If you would like to hear the language spoken well, please take the time to listen to this speech that Rodino delivered at the beginning of the Watergate impeachment hearings.

7. Millicent Fenwick

The late congresswoman (she served in the U.S. House of Representatives 1975-1983) from Somerset County – her statue stands near the train station in her home of Bernardsville- hasn’t even yet had her day in court as a political figure. She was way ahead of her time as a woman in politics, in a state that still struggles with misogynistic attitudes and boss-land knuckle-breaking. In an era defined by the amoral self-serving, and inelegant tenor of President Donald J. Trump, Fenwick’s example tantalizes as the ultimate combination of refinement, erudition and passion for public service. The diplomat and peacemaker was instrumental in creating the legislation that facilitated the Helsinki Accords, and would serve in the Reagan Administration as Ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

6. Tom Kean, Sr.

The political animal served two terms as governor (1982-1990) and perhaps best exemplified that quality of political leadership that can establish consensus among sniping rivals. The Republican’s early career provided a glimpse into his capacities to work across the aisle when he relied on the votes of Democrats to land the speakership of the General Assembly. His tenure as governor was defined by moderation and pro environmental strides. He would go on to chair the 911 Commission following the terror attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. Mostly, in a state given over to excess and corruption, the governor provided exemplary moral leadership.

5. Hap Farley

There was a time – and wasn’t too long ago – when Frank Hague and Frank S. Farley divided the spoils of the state between them. Hague took Jersey City and the environs of North Jersey, and Farley covered the waterfront in Atlantic City and South Jersey. Hap picked up where the tax evasion-convicted Nucky Johnson left off, leaving a legacy as the boss through whom the world had to go to get to Atlantic City, the Las Vegas of the East.

4. Aaron Burr

We can already feel the hair on the back of the neck among those Alexander Hamilton acolytes who still can’t watch the reenactments at Weehawken without wondering what if. It’s sad that New Jersey native Burr shows up on this list because he knocked off one of the country’s greatest political talents. Might Hamilton have been president? Might his impetuousness gotten in  the way, or was the island immigrant constitutionally unable to serve in such a capacity? The bottom line is that he was only in his late 40s at the time of his death, and at the very least might have had years more of intellectual achievement had Burr not mortally wounded him in their infamous duel.

3. Woodrow Wilson

So maybe he should be number one. Maybe it’s not even a contest, when you think about the fact that he is the only New Jersey governor to have scaled the starry heights of the presidency. It’s true that Grover Cleveland was born in New Jersey, but he made his political bones in New York, not here. Wilson taught at Princeton, served as governor, dissed the bosses when he got to Drumthwacket, and made the leap to the presidency with a move that most famously in recent times eluded the politically talented Chris Christie. Wilson’s League of Nations concept had lasting impact in the form ultimately of the United Nations.

2. Paul Robeson

Born in Princeton (but denied entry to that institution on the basis of race), and raised in Somerville, Robeson (pictured above) embodied resistance to every tepid political impulse that largely otherwise defines New Jersey politics. He was way ahead of his time when he urged President Harry Truman to get behind “anti-lynching” legislation in the 1940s. During the so called “un-American” inquiries a decade later, Robeson famously said, “Some of the most brilliant and distinguished Americans are about to go to jail for the failure to answer that question, and I am going to join them, if necessary,” in response to a senate query about his communist sympathies. Hailing from racially and economically disjointed New Jersey perhaps gave Robeson a unique perspective on worker injustice, and a unique ability to resist divide and conquer establishment political tactics. “We in America do not forget that it was on the backs of the white workers from Europe and on the backs of millions of Blacks that the wealth of America was built,” said the blacklisted Robeson. “And we are resolved to share it equally. We reject any hysterical raving that urges us to make war on anyone. Our will to fight for peace is strong. We shall not make war on anyone.”

  1. Frank Hague

Elected mayor of Jersey City in 1917, Hague built a political machine out of that human capital otherwise known as the Irish diaspora that landed on the shores of the New York Metropolitan Area. Deprived of a chance to put his fingerprints on the White House when Al Smith failed in his 1928 presidential bid, Hague persuaded Franklin Delano Roosevelt to kick off his ring-kissing prez run in Long Branch – complete with an agenda stripped right from Smith, the original Irish American Catholic candidate for president. That collision of Smith and Roosevelt would go on to reach full flower with the election in 1960 of John F. Kennedy, the country’s first Irish American Catholic president, whose family had an ethnic immigrant story similar to Smith’s and a newfound American glamor derived from the winning Roosevelt. “I am the law” Hague was the local political foundation under an extraordinary arc of American political history.

 

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  • Roger Stryeski

    Too bad that toward the end of his life, Baraka (nee Jones) was nearly incoherent in his writings. His jazz reviews were non-functional.

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