Political consultant Tom Blakely’s sudden death on Saturday left his New Jersey friends and colleagues shocked at the passing of a man who had realized success and who, at only 46-years-old, had the potential to achieve so much more.
“The best was ahead of him,” said state Sen. Kevin O’Toole, a friend of Blakely and a cousin by marriage.
Blakely’s rise to prominence in the behind-the-scenes political world began with the 1990 12th district Congressional campaign of Dick Zimmer, after strategist Larry Weitzner, who was the then Zimmer’s campaign manager, advised Zimmer to take him on as a field worker. Zimmer was so happy with his performance that he hired him as his district director after he was elected, and he eventually managed his unsuccessful Senate campaign against Robert Toricelli in 1996.
“He was utterly reliable, very pragmatic, and it set my mind at ease asking him to do something because I knew he would do it,” said Zimmer.
Those who worked with Blakely over the years recalled a no-nonsense campaigner whose background as a marine showed through in what they described as a sort of quiet strength.
“He was a man of action, and he spoke in muted tones,” said state Sen. Leonard Lance, who just spoke to Blakely on a conference call on Friday to discuss strategy for his congressional race. “He was a can do type of guy. And it was always a joy listening to him and working with him.”
Republican strategist Thom Ammirato said that Blakely exhibited “confidence without being cocky.”
“He probably often was the smartest guy in the room, but he didn’t have to show it, unlike a lot of people in our business who simply can’t wait to tell you they’re the smartest guys in the room,” said Ammirato.
O’Toole and Blakely met on the 1994 county executive campaign of Jim Treffinger, where they discovered their shared lineage (cousins by marriage) and began a lifelong joke of referring to each other as “cuz.”
O’Toole had met Blakely after asking consultant David Murray for a competent campaign manager – someone who had the wherewithal to fight an uphill battle against Democrat Cardell Cooper.
“He said ‘I’ve got a guy that’s tailor made and that’s Tom Blakely – a former marine, a guy who’s hard core,’” said O’toole.
Blakely rarely raised his voice – with one exception. He had produced some opposition research for Treffinger about Cooper’s use of limousines as mayor of East Orange. Just prior to a debate with Cooper, Blakely told Treffinger not to use it so they could hold onto it until a few weeks before the election. But Treffinger, hot headed during the debate, couldn’t hold his tongue.
“He was furious. He pulled him to the side and stuck a finger in his face and said ‘You are the most undisciplined candidate I’ve ever worked with,” said O’Toole. “Treffinger, to his credit ,laughed and said ‘I haven’t been yelled at like that since my father.’”
Treffinger wound up winning that election by a narrow margin.
Blakely didn’t hang on and become part of Treffinger’s staff. In fact, the two hadn’t talked since well before Treffinger was convicted of corruption. And although Treffinger doesn’t typically talk to the press, he made an exception for Blakely.
“He had developed those kinds of disciplined habits, he had a very dry sense of humor, he was very bright and a very decent person,” said Treffinger. “He was an all-around good man. I’ll miss him.”
A wake will be held on Monday, March 24 from 2PM to 4PM and from 6PM to 9PM at the Kingston and Kemp Funeral Home in Hamilton. The funeral mass is on Tuesday, at the Church of the Holy Angels in Hamilton at 11AM. Blakely's business partner, Larry Weitzner, says a college fund will be established for Blakely's two daughters, Brielle, 3, and Maggie, 1.