In the 1970’s and 1980’s, the Villapiano family was fairly prominent in Central New Jersey, largely due to the athletic prowess of Phil Villapiano, an All-State high school football player who spent eight years as an NFL linebacker with the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills. He played on four bowl teams, and was a member of the Super Bowl XI championship team.
In 1986, the Villapiano’s branched out into politics when Phil’s younger brother, 34-year-old John Villapiano, won election to the Monmouth County Board of Freeholders — a rare victory for Democrats in this solidly-GOP county. Two years later, when seven-term Republican Assemblyman Anthony “Doc” Villane resigned to become state Commissioner of Community Affairs (Governor Thomas Kean gave the cabinet post to Villane as a consolation prize after the GOP picked Joseph Azzolina, not Villane, to run for an open congressional seat that was won by Frank Pallone), Villapiano ran for the State Assembly. In the last legislative Special Election before a new law went into effect, in September 1988, Villapiano defeated Thomas Villane, a political consultant and Doc Villane’s son.
After Pallone went to Congress in a November 1988 Special Election to fill the seat of the late James Howard, Monmouth County Democrats held the state’s first Special Election Convention and picked Freeholder John D’Amico, who had run with Villapiano in ’86, to serve in the Senate. Four-term Republican Assemblyman Joseph Palaia challenged D’Amico and won by 3,900 votes — 28,344 to 24,444, despite a huge Democratic trend in the 1989 General Election statewide. But in the Assembly race, Villapiano scored a landslide victory: he received 36,655 votes, carrying in his running mate, former Pallone aide Daniel Jacobson, who edged out Asbury Park Councilman Paul Kapalko by 2,288 votes, 30,286 to 27,998. Villapiano ran more than 6,000 votes ahead of his running mate, and more than 11,000 votes ahead of the other Republican candidate, Dennis Sternberg.
At the time, some insiders felt that Villapiano was a stronger candidate than D’Amico to hold Pallone’s Senate seat against the popular Palaia. His overwhelming plurality in the Assembly race seems to validate that belief. One Monmouth Democrat active in the 1980’s said that party leaders viewed D’Amico, who had won two-Freeholder races, as the heir apparent.
But by 1991, even the Villapiano name couldn’t protect him from the wrath of voters angry with Governor Jim Florio’s $2.8 billion tax increase. Villapiano and Jacobson were tossed out of office, replaced by Republicans Steven Corodemus and Thomas Smith. Corodemus is retiring this year, after sixteen years in the Assemby, and Sean Kean, who went to the Assembly after Smith died in office in 2002, is running for the Senate seat being vacated by Palaia. Eighteen years after his defeat, Villapiano is mounting a comeback as the Democratic Senate candidate against Kean. No longer the young rising star, Villapiano is widely viewed as a longshot candidate.
There is some irony to the reunion of Villapiano and D’Amico, the ’86 and ’89 running mates. After his defeat, D’Amico spent ten years as a Superior Court Judge and four years as Chairman of the New Jersey Parole Board. Now, at age 66, D’Amico is the Democratic candidate for Monmouth County Freeholder.