Walter Kavanaugh died this evening, just one day after the expiration of his State Senate term. He spent 32 years in the New Jersey Legislature — a considerable career, and among the longest tenures in state history.
The former Air Force helicopter pilot first ran for office in 1963, winning a seat on the Somerville Board of Education. When Republican Victor Rizzolo announced that he would not seek re-election to the State Assembly in 1975, the 32-year-old Kavanaugh became the Somerset GOP organization candidate for the Assembly. He won his first general election with ease, finishing ahead of four-term incumbent John Ewing in his race against Democrats Edward Brady and Peter Dowling. He never had a tough race; even when Democrat Timothy Carden ran an aggressive campaign that put him within 3,000 votes of winning, Kavanaugh still won by more than 10,000.
During his second year in Trenton, Kavanaugh won an Assembly leadership post. The slot became available when Thomas Kean resigned as Minority Leader to concentrate on his campaign for Governor In those days, leadership was rotated every two years, putting Kavanaugh in line to become Republican leader, or Speaker, if his party won control.
In 1982, when Millicent Fenwick decided to to give up her fifth district House seat to run for the U.S. Senate, Kavanaugh decided to run for Congress. But when New Jersey lost a House seat after the census, mapmakers eliminated Fenwick’s district, effectively ending Kavanaugh’s congressional aspirations.
After the 1983 legislative elections, a group of Republican Assemblymen led by Chuck Hardwick ran a slate of candidates against most of the incumbent GOP leadership; Kavanaugh was defeated, along with Marie Muhler, Anthony “Doc” Villane, and Karl Weidel. Hardwick, who leapfrogged over Kavanaugh, became Minority Leader after Dean Gallo went to Congress in 1984, became Speaker after the Republicans won control of the Assembly in 1985 — Kavanaugh, for at least a few hours, had been a candidate for Speaker.
Kavanaugh remained in the Assembly until 1997, waiting for octogenarian Ewing (who went to the Senate in 1977,when Raymond Bateman ran for Governor) to finally retire from the Senate. Bateman’s son, Christopher Bateman, replaced Kavanaugh in the Senate yesterday.
For extreme junkies: while attending Notre Dame University (which lost both their Senators with the retirement of Bill Gormley), Kavanaugh worked the carnival circuit, guessing weights and ages. Years later, Kavanaugh could still guess the weight and age of a person with tremendous accuracy.