The legend of Bill Sutphin and how Frank Pallone got to Congress

In politics, timing is everything, and few politicians had the timing and perennially tough campaigns of Democrat William Halstead Sutphin.

In politics, timing is everything, and few politicians had the timing and perennially tough campaigns of Democrat William Halstead Sutphin. Republicans had been trying to unseat Sutphin for twelve years — often coming close but never able to win. Sutphin had been elected Mayor of Matawan in 1914 at age 27 and quit after less than two years to serve in the military during World War I. He returned to politics in 1926 as a candidate for Mayor and in 1930 ran for the open House seat vacated when two-term Republican Harold Hoffman (who was elected Governor in 1934) gave up his seat to become state Motor Vehicles Commissioner. Back then, the old third congressional district included all of Monmouth and Ocean counties and part of Middlesex County. This was the mid-term election of Republican President Herbert Hoover and in the midst of the Great Depression, the 43-year-old Sutphin defeated Republican Thomas Gopsill, a 35-year-old four-term Assemblyman and Red Bank Commissioner (and the grandson of former Jersey City Mayor James Gopsill) by a 51%-49% margin.

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Sutphin beat Stanley Washburn by a 51%-48% margin in 1932, Oliver Van Kamp by a 52%-47% margin in 1934, Albert Herman by an incredibly narrow 50.6%-47.6% margin in 1936, State Senator James Allerdice (whose political clout came as the longtime Clerk of the Ocean County Board of Freeholders) by an even closer 50.5%-49.5% in 1938, and 36-year-old Assemblyman Joseph Irwin, a former Red Bank Councilman, in 1940 by a margin of 52%-48%.

In 1952, Republicans recruited James Coats Auchincloss, one of those candidates party leaders find in central casting: Yale graduate, World War I Army intelligence officer, successful stockbroker and seventeen-year Governor of the New York Stock Exchange, seven years as a Rumson Councilman and five years as Mayor (in those days, the rich and powerful didn't consider local government beneath their dignity). Auchincloss, then 57, decided to challenge Sutphin. He won by 6,536 votes, a 53%-47% margin.

Auchincloss went on to serve 24 years in Congress, never having any great trouble holding the Monmouth County-based House seat. Except for 1960, when Democrat Katharine White held him to 53%, his percentage never fell below 57%. He retired in 1964 at the age of 79. He was the founder of the Capitol Hill Club, a private social club for Republicans in Washington.

Republicans expected to hold the seat with a very solid candidate: Marcus Daly, a 56-year-old Monmouth County Freeholder who had served in President Dwight Eisenhower's administration. Daly was a successful businessman — he made considerable money in insurance and as the owner of a brewery — and then became a Professor at Fordham University. Eisenhower appointed him to serve as a Director of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration, a 28-nation organization dedicated to the resettlement of European World War II refugees; he was the author of the Daly Plan, a five-year plan to solve the problem of training European immigrant workers in Latin America and meet the needs of emerging democratic counties.

The Democratic candidate was James Howard, a 37-year-old World War II veteran and Acting Principal of an elementary school in Wall Township. Howard, the President of the Monmouth County Education Association, had never held public office before.

Daly was expected to be the easy winner, and in a typical election year he would have won. But 1964 was a Democratic year in New Jersey — President Lyndon Johnson beat Barry Goldwater by 903,828 and Democrats picked up four congressional seats. Howard defeated Daly by just 1,740 votes — 50.4%-49.6%.

Through hard work, Howard was able to parlay the good fortune of running in a Democratic year into a 24-year congressional career that included the chairmanship of the powerful House Transportation and Public Works Committee.

But for Howard, like Sutphin a generation earlier, the district was never easy to hold and he faced a long line of strong challengers with Monmouth County Republicans never quite giving up on capturing the seat. He defeated James Coleman, then an Assemblyman and later the Monmouth County Prosecutor and a Superior Court Judge (he is now married to former Republican National Committeewoman Judith Stanley Coleman) in 1966 by a 53%-47% margin and six-term State Senator and former Senate President Richard Stout by a 58%-42% margin in 1968. In 1970 he faced William Dowd, then a young Nixon White House aide (and later an Assemblyman and for seventeen years the Monmouth County GOP Chairman) and defeated him by a 55%-47% margin; Dowd ran again in 1972 and did much better, 53%-47%, and was preparing to mount a third challenge to Howard in 1974 when the Watergate scandal made his Nixon administrations contacts less helpful. That year, Howard won the biggest landslide of his career: a 69%-30% victory over Republican Kenneth Clark. New Jersey Business & Industry Association President Bruce Coe held Howard to a 56%-44% win in 1978.

In 1980, three-term Assemblywoman Marie Muhler (until 2007, the Monmouth County Surrogate) came within one percentage point of defeating Howard; she lost by 2,085 votes — a 50%-49% margin. She tried again two years later and lost badly, 62%-36%. Brian Kennedy, who had unexpectedly lost his State Senate seat to a virtually unknown 32-year-old Long Branch Councilman, Frank Pallone, in 1983, held Howard to a 53%-46% win in 1984; Kennedy ran again for Congress in 1986 and Howard won by a decisive 59%-41%.

That was Howard's last campaign. He died suddenly in March 1988, less than two weeks before the filing deadline. Republicans expressed confidence that they could win the seat and picked one of their most venerable stalwarts: their candidate was Joseph Azzolina, a former State Senator (1972-74) and Assemblyman (1966-72, 1986-88) who had lost a bid to unseat State Senator Richard Van Wagner a year earlier. The Democrats picked Pallone, who had survived a Republican challenge for his Senate seat a year earlier. Pallone won 52%-48%.

Initially, Pallone — like Howard and Sutphin — had to work to get re-elected in this Republican-leaning district. In 1990, Pallone battled voter anger toward Democratic Governor Jim Florio's $2.8 billion tax hike and (like popular U.S. Senator Bill Bradley) came extraordinarily close to losing. Paul Kapalko, a former Asbury Park Councilman (now a Worker's Compensation Court Judge) who had spent 44 days as an Assemblyman less than a year before, held Pallone to a 49%-47% win — a margin of 4,170 votes.

Congressional redistricting in 1992 made Pallone's district much more Democratic. Some Republican Monmouth suburbs were moved to GOP Congressman Richard Zimmer's district, and some strong Democratic territory in Middlesex County was added. But this wasn't entirely great news for Pallone: he was also in a district with another Democratic incumbent, 71-year-old Bernard Dwyer, a former Edison Mayor and Senate Majority Leader who had served in Congress for twelve years. Like Pallone, Dwyer also had a close call in 1990, winning a reliably Democratic district by a narrow 51%-47% margin against Paul Danielczyk, a little known and under financed Republican. Dwyer decided, albeit reluctantly, to retire rather than face Pallone in a primary. Instead, the Middlesex Democratic machine backed then-Assemblyman (now State Senator) Robert Smith against Pallone in the primary.

In the general election, Pallone beat State Senator Joseph Kyrillos by a 52%-45% margin and then went on to score relatively easy re-election victories against Michael Herson (60%) in 1994, Assemblyman Steven Corodemus (61%) in 1996, future 7th district Congressman Mike Ferguson (57%) in 1998, Kennedy (68%) in 2000, college professor Ric Medrow (67%) in 2002, perennial candidate Sylvester Fernandez (67%) in 2004, conservative activist Leigh-Ann Bellew (69%) in 2006, and former municipal court judge Robert McLeod (66%) in 2008.

After losing his House seat, Sutphin (who had spent eleven years as a factory representative for asphalt roofing company before going to Washington) became a Vice President of a New York City paint manufacturing company. He died in 1972 at age 85. Auchincloss was 91 when he died in 1976. Daley, the almost-Congressman, won a second term as Freeholder in 1965 (among the Republicans on his ticket was a young Assembly candidate named Joe Azzolina) and died in 1968.

The legend of Bill Sutphin and how Frank Pallone got to Congress