Twenty years before Watergate, Rodino almost gave up his House seat to run statewide

Peter Rodino, who as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee won a place in American political history when he presided over impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in 1973 and 1974, nearly gave up his seat in Congress twenty years earlier to run for the United States Senate. Buoyed by their success in the 1953 gubernatorial election, New Jersey Democrats set their sights on winning a United States Senate seat in 1954. Democrats had not won a Senate race since 1934 and both parties viewed the incumbent, Robert Hendrickson, as vulnerable. Rodino, 45, an Essex County Democrat, was actively seeking support from party leaders for the chance to take on Hendrickson. By early 1954, GOP leaders had already decided to withdraw party support for the 56-year-old Hendrickson, a former State Senate President from Gloucester County who served as State Treasurer after losing the 1940 gubernatorial race to Charles Edison. Former Congressman Clifford Case and former State Treasurer Walter Margetts had already announced their intention to challenge Henrickson in the Republican primary. Congressman Robert Kean, the father of the future Governor, was interested in running for the Senate and had considerable support among party leaders for the nomination. But Kean refused to enter the race as long as Hendrickson remained a candidate for re-election. Hendrickson waited until the day before the filing deadline to announce that he would not be a candidate for a second term, leaving Case with a clear path to the GOP nomination. Kean waited until 1958, when Senator H. Alexander Smith retired; he lost to Democrat Harrison Williams. On the Democratic side, two other candidates were competing with Rodino for party support: Charles Howell, 50, a three-term Congressman from Trenton and the Democratic State Chairman, and former State Treasurer Archibald Alexander, a Wall Street lawyer who had been Undersecretary of the Army in the Truman administration. Alexander, a decendent of the Rev. Archibald Alexander, who was the first Professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary, had run for the U.S. Senate twice before: he lost 50%-47% to Hendrickson in 1948, and lost 56%-44% to Smith in 1952. Robert Meyner, in his second month as Governor, weighed in with a public endorsement for Dwight R.G. Palmer, a millionaire industrialist from Short Hills who had served as Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee. Palmer was about to retire after 23 years as President of General Cable, which supplied power line cables. But the 67-year-old Palmer declined to run (he later spent twelve years as the state Highway Commissioner, now the Department of Transportation) and Meyner then picked Howell. Rodino, who would have become the first Italian-American to run statewide in New Jersey, remained in the House until his retirement in 1988. Case won the general election by about 3,3000 votes statewide, a 48.7%-48.5% margin. Case served four terms in the Senate before losing the 1978 Republican primary; his grandson, Matthew Holt, was elected Hunterdon County Freeholder in 2006. Howell served as state Banking and Insurance Commissioner from 1955 to 1969. For extreme junkies: a group of conservative Republicans, led by former National Association of Manufacturers President James P. Selvage, strongly opposed Case as a liberal with ties to organized labor and the Amerians for Democratic Action (ADA). Most of their anti-Case efforts centered around a jingle sung to the tune of Three Blind Mice:

A, D, A; A, D, A. They made them run. They made them run. First they nominate Clifford Case, Then they throw Howell in the race. A, D, A; A, D, A . . . Have you ever seen such a race as this? You can only vote for two socialists . . . A,D,A …

Twenty years before Watergate, Rodino almost gave up his House seat to run statewide