Remembering Fred Hartley

Fred Hartley was once the boy wonder of New Jersey politics: he was appointed to Kearny Library Commission at age 19, and in 1924, at age 21, bucked the local political establishment to election as a Kearny Town Commissioner. In 1928, the 26-year-old Hartley became the youngest person ever to represent New Jersey in the U.S. House of Representatives: he won a three-way Republican primary by just 714 votes in a district that included parts of Essex (Belleville, Bloomfield, Nutley and parts of Newark) and Hudson (Harrison, Kearny and East Newark) counties when the Essex and Hudson GOP organizations backed different candidates (turnout was boosted by a hotly contested contest for the U.S. Senate nomination between Republican National Committeeman Hamilton Fish Kean, former U.S. Senator Joseph Frelinghuysen, former Governor Edward Stokes, former Congressman Edward Gray, and Lillian Ford Feickert, the first woman to run for statewide office) and by 344 votes (after a recount) over freshman Democratic Congressman Paul Moore.

Hartley’s district remained politically competitive through most of his twenty years in Congress. He beat Moore in a 1930 rematch by 843 votes (50%-49%), and held off Democrat Lindsay Rudd by 665 votes (50.2%-49.6%) in 1936. He won 53% of the vote in five other campaigns, and never did better than his 57% showing in 1940. Hartley won his last race — 1946 — by a 52.5%-45.7% margin over a young Newark attorney and World War II veteran, Peter Rodino, Jr.

When Republicans won control of the Congress in 1946, Hartley became Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee — at age 44 he was the youngest person to ever chair a full congressional committee. Suddenly thrust into national prominence after two decades as a back-bencher, the New Jersey Congressman became a co-sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act — legislation that significantly curtailed the power of labor unions and allowed the government to end strikes. While the single piece of legislation cemented Hartley’s immortality in American politics, it also ended his political career: Taft-Hartley was especially unpopular in his blue collar district, where immigrants and union households were important components of his base. Twenty years of sponsoring athletic teams and boxing tournaments could not compete with his new position as the number one target of the American labor movement. Hartley retired in 1948 and moved to a farm in Hunterdon County. He built a new career as a lecturer and lobbyist. Rodino, who would become famous as House Judiciary Committee Chairman during the Watergate scandal, won his seat.

Hartley broke with the New Jersey Republican establishment in 1954 when he refused to support Clifford Case for an open U.S. Senate seat. Hartley and Case had served together in the House for four years, and Hartley viewed him as too liberal. He became a write-in candidate in the general election and won 7,025 votes. He died in 1969 at the age of 67.

Remembering Fred Hartley