DiAnne Gove, who is expected to replace Daniel Van Pelt in the ninth district State Assembly seat, would become the sixth woman to represent Ocean County in the Legislature, and the first since Virginia Haines left in 1994. Under the current State Constitution, Ocean County has elected 22 men and 4 women.
The first Assemblywoman from Ocean County was Lila Thompson, who was elected in 1923 and re-elected in 1924. Thompson gave up her Assembly seat in 1925 to run for the State Senate, challenging incumbent Thomas Mathis in the Republican primary. Mathis was one of the most venerable politicians in Ocean County history. Known as Cap’n Tom because he commanded J. Pierpont Morgan’s America’s Cup yacht for eleven years,
Starting his career as a Tuckerton Councilman, Mathis won a special election for an unexpired term in the State Senate in 1910. He lost re-election in the 1911 primary, won his seat back in 1913, and lost it again in the 1915 primary. Mathis returned to the Senate in 1923 and became Chairman of the Joint Appropriations Committee.
Thompson’s campaign against Mathis was dominated by a process story: the Assemblywoman’s husband, a state employee, was sent to Massachusetts for several weeks during the primary to conduct a survey of correctional institutions there. The problem for Thompson was that at night, her husband was her driver; in those days, women did not drive alone at night, especially in a county that was then sparsely populated and without major roads.
Thompson decided to drive alone anyway, and accused the Ocean County Republican organization of engineering her husband’s exile out of state. Her husband, according to local lore, was offered a deal to return to New Jersey if he would sign a document exonerating two Department of Institutions and Agencies employees for their role in the exile. He refused, and after several newspaper editorials slammed the GOP organization, he came home.
Mathis narrowly defeated Thompson in the 1925 primary. Thompson never ran for office again, although her husband, Joseph Thompson, won a State Assembly seat in 1929 and was re-elected in 1930. She became director of Ocean County’s old-age pension relief program. She was killed in 1933 when she suffered an apparent heart attack while driving in Lakewood. She was 57.
Mathis went on to become Senate President. He left the Senate in 1931 to begin a ten-year stint as New Jersey Secretary of State. Mathis was also the Ocean County Republican boss, leading a machine that lost just one primary and no general elections during the nearly fifty years he and his controversial son, W. Steelman Mathis, ran GOP politics in Ocean County.
In 1941, Ocean County Republicans sent Cap’n Tom’s son, the publisher of the Ocean County Sun, to the Senate. Three years earlier, Steelman Mathis was arrested on charges of assault and battery with intent to kill after he allegedly beat up Charles Dockarty, the publisher of The Ocean County Record, the Sun’s competitor. The charges were eventually dismissed.
In this first Senate campaign, Col. William Schauffler, the Democratic candidate, alleged that Steelman Mathis was ineligible to hold public office because of his 1918 court martial for disobeying orders, striking a sentry, and being AWOL. Mathis, then a 19-year-old Army soldier, served part of a three-year prison sentence before his conviction was overturned and he was given an honorable discharge. He won by the general election by just 349 votes and was seated after a Senate panel spent two months investigating allegations of voter fraud.
Steelman Mathis resigned from the Senate in 1942 to go on active duty in the U.S. Coast Guard. Thomas Mathis returned to the Senate in a special election that year and held the seat until the end of World War II. Steelman Mathis returned to the Senate in 1946 and served there for twenty years. He was the Senate President in 1954.
In 1956, the state Attorney General sued Steelman Mathis and a real estate developer after the Senator purchased a ten-mile stretch of sand dunes near Barnegat adjacent to state-owned Island Beach and then tried to sell the land to the state. Mathis had bought the land in 1953, while serving as Senate Majority Leader. The suit was eventually settled. In 1960, he was arrested on charges of drunk driving, but was acquitted after a trial.
Thomas Mathis committed suicide in 1958, at the age of 88, two days after his release from the hospital where he had been dealing with a circulatory ailment in his legs. He had put a gun in his mouth and shot himself.
Steelman Mathis retired from the Senate in 1965 and continued to run the Ocean County GOP from his retirement home in Florida. His control waned in 1971 when Assemblyman John Brown beat his candidate, freeholder George Makin, in the Republican State Senate primary. Brown dropped his bid for re-election after the 1973 primary, and endorsed Democrat Brendan Byrne for Governor. John Russo won the Senate seat that year, the first Democrat to represent Ocean County in the Legislature since 1906. Mathis died in 1981.