What a sad day. We just lost a lion of the New Jersey State Senate, a person who sought to fill the space he occupied with commitment and with a very well considered understanding of the country and of our state. Sometimes it’s easy amid all the cynicism about government, often – or usually – well-placed, to forget the depth and substance of some of those individuals who serve us. It’s also easy in this age of oversimplifying people to assume the worst about someone who may disagree with us on some of the issues.
What a shame that is, especially in light of the announcement today about the death of Republican Senator Gerald Cardinale (R-39), a serious public person, a grounded devotee of Thomas Jefferson, and one of our best inquisitors who so obviously thrilled to his responsibility whenever he assumed the floor of the senate, who served the people of the 39th District with honesty and distinction.
One of the most significant memories I have from the past number of years of covering New Jersey politics was visiting the arch-conservative Senator Cardinale in his dentist’s office back in 2014. I sat in the waiting room while he finished with a patient and then I went in and occupied a chair in his office. He came in and sat down in his white dental scrubs and participated in the interview ahead of another scheduled appointment with a patient. I remember being struck by his ability to assume both roles – his day job as a dentist and his role as an elected official – with so much energy and enthusiasm.
He was 80 at the time.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, he moved into his dentist’s office in 1963, four years after first arriving in Fort Lee. A lifelong Republican (as a child he was a Wendell Willkie backer against FDR; and was so heartbroken by Barry Goldwater’s 1964 loss that he removed himself from political matters for three years) he won his first race for mayor of Demarest by 27 votes. He ran for an assembly seat in 1977 and lost, then won in 1979.
He ran unsuccessfully for governor in the 1980s.
“I learned a lot about New Jersey,” Senator Cardinale told me, in reference to his statewide run. “I learned about what it’s like to be on a back road in Salem County at 1 a.m. when you have to get up for a 6 a.m. breakfast in Bergen County. I learned to sleep in the car. I learned that New Jersey is too small for airplane travel, and simultaneously a place where you might need three and half to four hours to get somewhere.”
When he considered what happened to the reputations of those governors with whom he served over the last number of years, among them Christie Todd Whitman and Chris Christie, veteran state Senator Cardinale said he couldn’t help but feel that the governors of New Jersey bear a curse. “I’m lucky I lost that Republican Primary,” Cardinale cracked in 2017, referring to the 1989 Republican contest, when he came in fifth in a statewide contest of eight Republicans. U.S. Rep. Jim Courter won that year, and went on to lose the general election to U.S. Rep. Jim Florio. Senator Cardinale received eight percent off the vote to Courter’s winning 29% in the GOP Primary, but it’s just as well, he told InsiderNJ.
When asked why the governors of New Jersey are doomed, the Republican senator from Demarest said despite New Jersey’s apparent status as a blue state, it really isn’t, as it thrives on transactionalism; and noted the symbiosis of longstanding families like the Keans and Wilentzes, who ride above the fray.
Senator Cardinale said Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno appeared to have the upper-hand in her contest with Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli (R-16). “But then she has to go up against a guy with an unlimited bank account [former U.S. Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy],” Cardinale said. “Of course, it can be done. Jon Corzine lost his reelection bid – but that was only after he had proved himself to be incompetent.”
In the senate, Cardinale recalled working with the late Senator Frank X. Graves, a mayor of Paterson. with whom he successfully partnered to author a bill enabling New Jersey residents to use deadly force to protect themselves in their homes. The pair also teamed up for an unsuccessful self-service gas bill.
“I’m surprised Graves never made it to the governor’s office,” Cardinale said. “He was a personable guy, but he had the public’s interest uppermost.”
The senator’s favorite presidential contest outcome occurred in 2000, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore. “I remember telling [Senator] John Bennett, ‘I think he can pull it out,’ and John said, ‘He needs an entire state,’ and I told him, ‘I think he can turn around Florida,’ which he did.”
He loved politics.
He was also that senator who would frequently – if not always – stand up and offer – in the most eloquent, graceful, and yet also hardnosed and substantive Jersey manner – the counter argument to the prevailing views of Democrats.
Sometimes it was hardly pretty, and worse.
“She graduated graduate magna cum laude,” Senate Judiciary Chairman Nick Scutari chastised fellow Senator Cardinale during the confirmation hearing last year for state Supreme Court Justice nominee Fabiana Pierre-Louis.
Cardinale had just made the observation that Pierre-Louis did graduate from law school.
“Are you a communist?” Senator Cardinale asked, evidently sending Scutari squirming.
But that wasn’t Cardinale at his best. At his best, Cardinale joined with fellow conservative Senator Mike Doherty (R-23) to back legislation increasing the maximum starting age for firefighters by 12 years, from 45 to 57.
“This adjustment will make it more attractive for people to answer the alarm and serve their community as firefighters who are willing to put the demands of neighborhood and the fire company above their own,” said Cardinale. “Membership in the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association is a badge of honor for volunteers who have selflessly dedicated their time to the fire service.”
Among the benefits available to members, the nonprofit NJSFA provides burial benefits and relief assistance to qualified firefighters and their dependents, based on the length of firefighter service with a maximum payment of $12,000 for a fully qualified member.
“I knew of him longer than he knew of me, going back to those commercials of his when he ran for governor,” Doherty told InsiderNJ today. The two men served on judiciary, Cardinale as the ranking Republican. “He had this great commercial where he leaned in and said, ‘I’m going to take down the tolls as governor.’ When I first got to the legislature and had a chance to talk with him, I brought it up. He was quite the conservative icon, and his historical knowledge was amazing. When he started talking in caucus everybody got real quiet. I learned a lot from him. He was always prepared and he always asked tough, no-nonsense questions. You’ve got to admire a man who was always going to go to battle.”
In addition to leading conservatives and mentoring younger lawmakers and party-members, Cardinale was the respected colleague and friend.
“We served for over 20 years together on the Senate Commerce Committee, and we disagreed on everything, but he was well-prepared and well-intentioned and stayed true to his beliefs,” said former state Senator Ray Lesniak (D-20). “I disagreed with him but respected him and we were friends.
“Come to think of it, we disagreed on everything except wine – we had the same taste in wine,” Lesniak added.
At his best, Cardinale backed legislation to propel civics training in school, long before it became fashionable – or urgent – paying specific attention to the writings of his beloved Jefferson.
“What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man! Who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment & death itself in vindication of his own liberty, and the next moment . . . inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose.”
He didn’t just read those words written by Jefferson. He understood them, and lived them.
At his best, Senator Cardinale was that man endowed with liberty and envisioned by the founders of our country, to serve in public office, not while maintaining a public job that might strain or compromise his judgment or vision, but from the modest platform of his own place of work, in his case, a dentist’s office, where he routinely balanced care for his patients, with that long drive from Bergen to Trenton, where he put the same energy and integrity into the care of his constituents.
Godspeed, Senator Cardinale.
New Jersey will miss you, and so will I.
Please take the time to watch the following interview of Senator Cardinale with NJTV correspondent Mike Aron: