Essex County’s Ray Durkin, former Democratic Party Chairman from NJ: 1936-2014

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A vibrant New Jersey political figure who inspired others around him, left behind a vital family led by a fellow proud politician, a local workhorse whose moves projected New Jersey onto the national political stage, former Democratic State Party Chairman Ray Durkin died tonight.

The father of Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, Mr. Durkin of Maplewood was a lifelong and beloved party stalwart, a patriarchal leader of one of those three most distinguished Irish-American political families who built their base in the West Ward of Newark, including the Cryans and Giblins.

Mr. Durkin’s successor as Essex County Democratic Party Chairman, Leroy Jones paid tribute to a mentor.

“First of all, my condolences to the Durkin family,” said Jones, one night after the death of Freeholder D. Bilal Beasley. “This is another great blow to the Democratic Party, not just to Essex Democrats but to the State of New Jersey and to the nation. Ray Durkin was an icon. He was a masterful politician, and he was a person that believed in the democratic principles and delivered them day in and day out of his life. He will be sorely missed.

“He gave me my first start in politics,” Jones added. “Ray introduced me to Bilal Beasley, and I am humbled as a person just to have been able to have passed through the lives of the two people, and the life of [former Essex County Democratic Chairman, the late] Phil Thigpen, and [the late U.S. Rep.] Donald Payne. Ray opened the doors for so many. He will be revered in this county, state and the country as a Democrat who embodied the purpose of those good-minded people who believe in the virtues of government. It is a sad night but it is a night when we see our friend at peace. I was with him through this decline, and he never complained. He never really thought about himself, He thought about others. That’s his legacy, a legacy of selflessness. We should all pay homage to a person who has been that giving to his family, his life and his time. We thank God for Ray Durkin.”

That was a common sentiment tonight among diehard Essex Democrats.

“He was always at the top of our Mount Olympus,” said Democratic operative Tom Barrett. “He was a combination of the man and the moment. When the Democratic Party needed a resurgence, Ray Durkin took charge. I’m absolutely broken. He was a titan.

“At the pantheon of Essex County Democratic leaders, Ray was always at the top,” Barrett added.

An Irish Democrat to the core, a proud husband and inveterate family man, who simultaneously nurtured deep and lasting friendships and political connections, Mr. Durkin ranked as one of his proudest deeds his political and historic push for the state’s first African-American congressman.

Mr. Durkin died tonight at 78 after a long illness.

“My father’s mind was beautiful but his gift was in his love of people,” said Chris Durkin.

Active in politics to the end, the elder Mr. Durkin led the Essex County Democratic Organization from 1980 to 1992 in addition to serving as chair of the state party from 1985 to 1989.

In 1988, he was the first New Jersey Democratic leader to bring future President Bill Clinton to New Jersey, and routinely advanced the argument that his party should put up a Southern Democrat for president. His acolytes, Barrett among them, make the case that Mr. Durkin, by championing Clinton early, was among those handful of party leaders who turned battleground New Jersey blue.

He also helped elect the late Ron Brown as chairman of the national Democratic Party.

In 2008, the St. Patrick’s Honor Guard of New Jersey bestowed on Mr. Durkin the title of 68th St. Patrick’s Guard of Honor on a list going back to 1940 that includes President John F. Kennedy, Justice William J. Brennan, Jr., and governors Richard J. Hughes, Brendan Byrne and former Governor Richard Codey.

In accepting the award, the former Newark City Firefighter and head of the West Ward Young Democrats said he was most proud of his wife, daughter and four sons, including Essex County Clerk Durkin.

The late Ray Durkin often spoke publicly of his love for his wife, Joan Codey Durkin, a first cousin of the former governor.

“My father came from a neighborhood where politics was part of the fabric of life,” Chris Durkin said of his father on the occasion of Ray Durkin’s receipt of the Honor Guard Award. “He combined that with the leadership ability he had and his endearing qualities of humility and humor.”

Son of a Newark born beat cop, the chairman was born and grew up in the Vailsburg section of west Newark, a member of Sacred Heart Parish and one of three future Irish American state party chairs to come from the same Sandford Avenue neighborhood.

The other two, whose families both came to Newark from County Roscommon, were the son of the late state Sen. John Giblin, Tom Giblin,an assemblyman from Montclair who served as party chair from 1997 to 2001; and Joe Cryan, party chair going back to 2006 and son of the late John Cryan, an Irish immigrant bus driver and South Orange Avenue tavern owner who served as as an assemblyman and as county sheriff.A fourth chair, the late Phil Keegan, also came from Vailsburg.

“The Irish started hitting the Vailsburg neighborhood hard in the 1930s and a lot of them worked as janitors, firefighters and cops,” said Giblin, son of a Newark city commissioner.

In the old country, Mr. Durkin’s grandfather shoveled coal with the father of former Chief Justice Brennan.

The Durkins arrived in Newark’s Down Neck section from County Mayo and later moved to west Newark, where Mr. Durkin forged his skills in politics.

Essex County Democratic Party Operative Barrett said the elder Durkin – who started in the Essex County Young Democrats and later served as chairman of the Maplewood Democratic Party – became an undeniable political power player in the 1978 race for Essex County executive, and later played a key role in supporting then-U.S. Rep. Jim Florio in his run against Republican state Sen. Thomas Kean for governor.

He was close to former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley (D-NJ) and was a key New Jersey ally for 1988 Democratic Presidential contender Michael Dukakis.

“Tom Kean beat Florio in a razor-thin election and Ray came to prominence and went on to become the state chair,” said Barrett, who described Mr. Durkin as a political leader who could think three or four moves beyond those around him, and who used stealth moves more than confrontation to get what he wanted politically.

Humor was a big part of his arsenal.

“My word is my bond until circumstances change,” Mr. Durkin cracked on at least one occasion in a nod to the laughable vagaries of politics.

He delighted in passing out flashlight pens and party favors as political conversation starters, and reveled in political conversation.

Consistently, he jumped out in front of national trends.

Seeing the political population growth of Hispanics, he led a handful of Democrats in 2008 who backed then-New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson – a Mexican-American – in the Democratic Primary.

Mr. Durkin remained friends with both Florio and Kean – whose father served as chair of the Essex County Republican Party.

Mr. Durkin was also a close friend and confidant of fellow Essex County Democratic leader Steve Adubato, Sr., and a tight circle of political friends included Essex County Democratic chairman Leroy Jones, East Ward Democratic Leader Joe Parlavecchio, Giblin, Barrett, and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28).

Parlavecchio said he marveled at his friend’s political savvy – and humor.

“He knew how to call people and put it together; he was a visionary – a brilliant guy,” he said, specifically referring to Mr. Durkin’s advocacy for Ron Brown as the Democrats’ national party leader.

“He would always say ‘Joe, look where the parade is going and jump in front,’” Parlavecchio added with a laugh.

“He lived life to the fullest,” said Giblin. “He had a varied career with different opportunities. He was a fireman, roofer, and even worked for the Essex County Shade Tree Commission at one point, in addition to his own business and entrepreneurial endeavors. He never lost his zest for life. It was only recently that he kind of petered out with the different ailments he suffered – but he was always interested in the different things happening in politics.”

Giblin knew Ray Durkin’s parents. Both future Democratic Party leaders went to Sacred Heart Grammar School, Seton Hall Prep, and Seton Hall University.

They both went on to be state party chairmen.

“We have a common heritage,” said Giblin.

Going back to their roots in politics, Adubato and Mr. Durkin remembered the watershed 1962 mayoral election and the ethnic tensions that ultimately resulted in the Italian electorate catapulting Addonizio past Leo Carlin to win by a 2-1 margin.

“There was a picture of Leo Carlin in the Newark Evening News, holding up his hand,” Mr, Durkin told PolitickerNJ in 2008.

“Addonizio charged that Carlin was raising the specter of the Mafia by referring to the Black Hand,” Adubato explained. “When he tried to tie Addonizio to the Mafia, the Italians were motivated.”

“Addonizio asked Carlin, ‘are you insinuating that the Black Hand is going to be at work if I get elected,’” said Giblin.

“Carlin kind of got sucked into it. That was part of what brought Carlin down. There was also the snowstorm. The Newark Evening News showed a picture of Carlin on a chaise lounge in Florida during a major snowstorm in Newark. That didn’t go over too well.”

With Carlin’s and then later Addonizio’s fall from power in 1970, Adubato backed the city’s first African-American Mayor, Ken Gibson.

The Italian-American party leader stayed in Newark, and remains leader of the North Ward Democratic Organization.

The Irish regrouped.

Having moved out of Vailsburg to the Essex and Union county suburbs in the late 1960s during the waning years of the Addonizio administration, the Durkins, Cryans and Giblins began making their own transition to politics in a larger theater of operations, going statewide with old fashioned West Ward know-how.

If they lost Newark, the Irishmen’s continued high level presence in statewide politics still provides Adubato with an opportunity to shake up staffers when he asks them to tell him who’s the most powerful ethnic group in New Jersey and they answer – “the Italians” – only to be met with the boss’s weary admission that, particularly given the power of Codey, a cousin of Durkin’s by marriage; Assembly Speaker Joseph Roberts (D-Camden); and Cryan, the Irish had the political upper-hand.

Mr. Durkin was the driving force in the 1980s to get the late Donald Payne, Sr. the Newark congressional seat, making the elder Mr. Payne New Jersey’s first African-American congressman.

Mr. Durkin regarded that as his one of his proudest accomplishments in politics.

Tonight, Essex County Democratic Chairman Joe DiVincenzo issued a statement of mourning for the late party chairman.

“We affectionately described Ray Durkin as being a member of the Old Guard because he had so much experience in Democratic politics,’ DiVincenzo said. “He was a remarkable strategist, leader and mentor who tutored generations of young Democrats, including me. Ray had a quick wit and great sense of humor, but he also had keen insight about government and politics, knew how to build bridges and find consensus, and handled all situations with a calm demeanor. A devoted husband, father and grandfather, our hearts and prayers go out to his family during this difficult time.”

“I am deeply saddened to hear about the death of my good friend former NJ State Democratic and Essex County Democratic Chairman Ray Durkin,” U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8) said. “The residents of Essex County have lost a great leader and the Durkin family has lost a beloved patriarch. My sympathies go out to his wife Joan Codey Durkin, their children Chris, Tim, David, Raymond and Maureen. His dedication to his community and to the State of New Jersey truly epitomizes the dignity and determination of what it means to be a public servant. I salute Chairman Durkin on a life well lived.”

Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill said Mr. Durkin was an inspiration.

“He was a true role model for all of us,” GIll said. “He was a role model to the younger generation of Essex Irish pols as well. Amazing man.”

The following text is reprinted courtesy of Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin, who delivered these remarks in 2008 to introduce his father, Ray Durkin, at the Annual Christmas Award Luncheon by the St. Patrick’s Guard of Honor of New Jersey. A former State Democratic Party Chairman, Ray Durkin received the Guard of Honor’s”Irishman of the Year” award.

It is an honor to have this opportunity to introduce my father…my best friend.

My father was born and raised in Vailsburg. The “Burg” as he would call it. And growing up I would hear stories of this fantasy neighborhood come to life.

When I was a little boy my father took me to the funeral of a legendary Irish politician. The funeral was at Sacred Heart Church in Vailsburg on South Orange Avenue. As we were sitting in the pew the priest rose to eulogize this man. He pointed down and said there lies a great politician and an honest man. I tugged on my father’s suit jacket looked up at him and said, “how can they fit two people in such a small coffin?”

I don’t want to talk about Ray Durkin as Politician. I would like to talk about Ray Durkin as father. My father has 5 children who idolize and love him. And growing up in our household my parents had different jobs around the house.

My mother’s jobs were to pay all the bills and to perform all the manual labor…she mowed the lawn, she moved the furniture and she painted the house. And my earliest memory as a child was when I was 5 years old and my mother was 8 months pregnant w/ my sister Maureen and she was up on a rickety old ladder painting our house and the mailman came to the front door and asked to see my father. He said to my father I can’t believe you have your wife 8 months pregnant up on a rickety old ladder painting your house. So the next day my father went out and bought my mother a new ladder.

My father would take his 5 children to church every Sunday morning at Our Lady of Sorrows Church in South Orange…11 o’clock mass.

He would also do the food shopping every week with his 5 children.

And he would get us ready for school every morning and we would line up outside the bathroom from oldest to youngest…my sister being the youngest. And we would walk in the bathroom one at a time for my father to brush our hair for school. I can tell you that my sister has changed hairstyle since.

In our house the discussions and arguments were on 3 subjects. Sports, history and politics. And my father passed on his interest in newspapers to his children. First it was the Star Ledger and every Saturday night we would drive to the stand on South Orange Avenue for Sunday’s First Edition. And then it was the NY Times and then as my brother Tim would say for some sanity and some balance the NY Post.

And because of my father…by the age of 10 my brother Tim could easily navigate the Obituary Section.

Our friends would often seek advice from my father and when I was a freshman in college I brought a friend home with me.
My friend sat across from my father as my father sat in his recliner chair…remote control in the left hand and cigarette in the right.
My friend said, “Mr Durkin…I need some advice…I think I want to quit school.” And my father said, “why would you want to do that?” My friend said, “I want to quit school because I want to travel…I want to travel across Europe because I want to find myself.” My father took a puff of his cigarette he turned and looked at my friend and said, “kid, when you find yourself…you’re not gonna like it.”

My father never let us forget just how blessed we were to be living in the greatest country in the history of the world. He taught us to treasure our Irish heritage and to celebrate our Irish traditions.

My father has been blessed to have had a couple 2nd chances in life. And the mark and the measure of a man is what he does with his 2nd chances. My father has been the bearer of many a kind word and many a kind deed.

And at a trying moment in my father’s life he handed me a poem. This poem says a lot about the Irish and our fascination with both life and death. And I think it’s a poem we can all live by and it goes like this.

The clock of life is wound but once
And no man has the power
To tell just when the hands will stop
At late or early hour
Now is the only time you own
Live, Love, Toil with a will
Place no faith in time
For the hands may soon be still

I give to you…my father..Raymond Michael Durkin.

Essex County’s Ray Durkin, former Democratic Party Chairman from NJ: 1936-2014