One of the great stories about New Jersey politics in the mid 1970's was the one about Byron Baer and how he came excruciatingly close to winning a congressional seat 28 years ago.
The Congressman from the 9th district was Henry Helstoski, a six-term Democrat with a trademark crew cut who made his mark as an opponent of the Vietnam War. Helstoski was the 39-year-old Mayor of East Rutherford when he beat a nine-term Republican incumbent by 2,428 votes in the Democratic landslide of 1964. Amidst the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Helstoski turned his Chicago hotel room into an infirmary for Eugene McCarthy delegates and volunteers who were injured during the anti-war demonstrations. He ran for Governor in 1969, becoming a candidate just thirty minutes before the filing deadline, and finished second in the Democratic primary for Governor.
In 1975, Helstoski became the target of a federal corruption investigation that last two years and spanned four grand juries. In April 1976, his brother was convicted of filing a false income tax return and his chief of staff plead guilty to extortion charges.
Baer was a 46-year-old Assemblyman serving his third term. Sensing the vulnerability of the incumbent, he decided to challenge Helstoski in the Democratic primary. Helstoski received the organization line in Bergen County; in Hudson County, where 35% of the voters lived, Democratic County Chairman Bernard Hartnett (a reformer allied with Mayor Paul Jordan — and the interim Hudson County Executive in 2001-02) gave the line to Baer.
On the Thursday before the primary, Helstoski was indicted on charges of extorting a total of $8,375 from illegal aliens from Chile and Argentina in exchange for sponsoring special legislation to allow them to remain in the United States. He was also accused of obstruction of justice, giving false testimony before a grand jury, and conspiring to influence other witnesses to lie. Helstoski steadfastly denied each allegation, saying that the charges were politically motivated.
In an NBC debate on Sunday, Baer hit the incumbent hard, saying that if Democrats went with Helstoski, they would be handing the seat over to the Republicans.
Election Day provided one of the closest races in New Jersey political history. Helstoski outpolled Baer by 106 votes, 18,547 to 18,441. A third candidate, Fairview attorney Robert Mauro, received 4,377. Helstoski watched his margin grow, thanks to the support of some old-fashioned machine politicians in North Bergen and Union City (including former Mayor and Senator William Vincent Musto), who came up with 1,642 additional absentee ballots for Helstoski and only 79 more for Baer.
Allegations of fraud surfaced quickly, and Hudson County Board of Elections Chairman Jerome Lazarus, a Hartnett ally, made sure the results would be properly certified. Hudson County Superintendent of Elections Joe Brady ordered the absentee ballots impounded. As Brady was impounding the Hudson County votes, Helstoski was in Federal Court for a 10 AM arraignment.
Baer maintained that the Hudson results were fraudulent and quickly challenged the election in court.
Baer said that irregularities in the absentee ballots included erasures and similarities in handwriting.
Observers said it was not fraud, but rather a obvious tampering — the attempted erasure of votes for Baer with replaced votes for Helstoski in different colored inks and pencil. Some of the erasures of Baer votes made holes in the ballot.
The challenge lasted well into the summer. Baer picked up 200 votes on June 24 when Superior Court Judge Thomas O'Brien ordered a recount of voting machines in North Bergen. On August 11, more than two months after the primary, Superior Court Judge John Marzulli ordered that a new primary election be held on September 21. Helstoski willingly agreed to the new election, partly out of fear that the Judge was prepared to disqualify enough votes to certify Baer as the winner.
Meanwhile, the disarray of the Democratic primary was good news for Republicans. Their candidate was Harold Hollenbeck, a 37-year-old attorney who served four years in the Assembly and two in the State Senate before the Watergate scandal helped Democrats sweep Bergen County three years earlier.
Despite the indictment, Helstoski mounted an aggressive campaign for re-election, and in the September 21 rerun of the congressional primary, he won a decisive 55%-45% victory over Baer. 35,313 Democrats came out to vote in the unprecedented do-over of the Democratic primary — a turnout that was 43% heavier than the June primary that also included a critical presidential primary where New Jersey's votes actually made a difference. Helstoski won because Democratic machines in North Bergen and Union City delivered large pluralities, while Baer's constituency in the eastern part of Bergen County did not deliver.
The indictment and two primaries against Baer took their toll on Helstoski, and he lost the general election to Hollenbeck by a 54%-46% margin.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the legislation he sponsored could not be used against him, and Helstoski never was tried on the bribery charges. He tried twice to regain his seat in Congress, winning just 13% as an independent in 1978, and losing the 1980 Democratic primary to Gabriel Ambrosio. In 1981, he became the North Bergen Superintendent of Schools.
Baer stayed in the Assembly until 1993, and the moved up to the State Senate when Matthew Feldman, in poor health, retired. Health problems forced Baer to end his 33-year legislative career in September 2004.
Political junkies have to wonder how different politics would have been if Baer won the June primary. He probably would have beaten Hollenbeck in the fall, and gone on to a long career in the House of Representatives. With a Democrat firmly ensconced in the 9th district House seat, there would have been no congressional seat for Robert Torricelli (who beat Hollenbeck in 1982) to seek. Would, perhaps, the Torch have run for Freeholder instead?
For extreme political junkies: while they ended up becoming close political allies and friends, Baer and Loretta Weinberg were once on different sides. Weinberg began her political career in 1964 as an aide to Helstoski, and worked against Baer in the '76 Democratic primary.