By Wally Edge | January 7th, 2008 - 1:43pm
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When Eldridge Hawkins, a 31-year-old African American lawyer from East Orange, won the District 11E State Assembly seat in a politically competitive district in 1971, he was widely viewed as a rising star in Essex County Democratic politics.  Hawkins is no seeking a political comeback of sorts: his son, Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., 28, announced this week that he was a candidate for Mayor of Orange.

Legislative redistricting was in constant turmoil in those days, as New Jersey sought to follow the U.S. Supreme Court's one man, one vote decision.  Districts were redrawn in 1965, 1967, 1969, 1971 and 1973.

The story of District 11E starts in 1967, when Kenneth Wilson, a 31-year-old Social Studies teacher from West Orange and John Dennis, 34, a businessman from Verona whose family owned the Annin Flag Company, were among a group of seven young Republicans elected to the State Assembly.  (That group included future Governor Thomas Kean, 32, and Ralph Caputo, 27, who returns to the State Assembly tomorrow after a 35 year absence.)

In 1969, mapmakers drew a new (Cedar Grove, Essex Fells, Montclair, Orange, Verona, and West Orange) that included three incumbents: Wilson, Dennis and Frank "Pat" Dodd, a 31-year-old West Orange Democrat who won the seat six years earlier and held it narrowly in the '67 Republican year.  Wilson was the top vote getter, and Dennis defeated Dodd by 874 votes.

Two years later, Montclair and Verona were dropped from 11E and replaced by Caldwell and East Orange.  Dennis moved to District 11D (where he and Carl Orechio defeated Caputo in the GOP primary; Caputo had beaten Orechio's Democratic brother, Nutley Commissioner Carmen Orechio, in 1969; Carmen Orechio won a State Senate seat four years later and served as Senate President), leaving an open seat in 11E.  The Democrats nominated Hawkins and Peter Stewart, the 31-year-old Mayor of Caldwell.  In those days, West Orange voted Republican and Orange was a swing town, making the district especially competitive.

Hawkins was the top vote getter with 18,896 votes, and Stewart beat Republican John Trezza by just thirteen votes, 18,877 to 18,864.  Wilson finished fourth with 18,695 votes.

The District 11E race gave Democrats a narrow 40-39 majority in the Assembly, with Independent Anthony Imperiale also winning.  The affirmation of Stewart's victory after a recount was to mean a new Democratic Speaker, before Kean cut a deal with Hudson and Union County Democrats to secure the post.

Stewart served just one term; he ran for Essex County Freeholder in 1973 instead of facing Republican incumbents Kean and Philip Kaltenbacher in a new Republican-leaning district.  (Kaltenbacher wound up dropping out of the race after the primary and his replacement, Jane Burgio, narrowly beat 25-year-old Democrat Thomas Giblin that year.)

Dennis lost his seat in the 1973 GOP landslide to Democrat Robert Ruane, though Carl Orechio was re-elected.  He returned to the Assembly in a 1975 rematch with Ruane, and lost a State Senate bid against Carmen Orechio in 1977.

Hawkins ran for re-election in the new 26th district, which included East Orange, Orange and West Orange and part of Newark, on a ticket with Dodd, who had won a State Senate seat in 1971, and Richard Codey, a 26-year-old mortician from Orange.  Hawkins and Codey won easily against Republicans Monroe Jay Lustbader, who would win an Assembly seat in 1991, and Conrad Koch, who went on to serve as a Superior Court Judge.

In 1977, Hawkins decided to challenge Dodd in the Democratic Senate primary.  Essex Democrats were at war that year, with a group of reformers challenging the slate of Democratic County Chairmen Harry Lerner.  Instead of backing Hawkins, the reformers endorsed state Athletic Commissioner Althea Gibson, an African American woman who had won the Wimbledon and U.S. tennis championships in the late 1950's.  Dodd, running the Lerner-backed ticket, won renomination after African American anti-organization Democrats split their votes between Gibson and Hawkins. 

That defeat marked the end of Hawkins' political career.  Four years later, Dodd gave up his seat to run for Governor (he lost the Democratic primary, and later moved to the Jersey shore and served as a Casino Control Commissioner).  His replacement was Codey.

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