By Wally Edge | October 13th, 2008 - 11:12pm
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Republicans have held the 7th district House seat since 1956, when Florence Dwyer, an Assemblywoman from Elizabeth, unseated two-term Democrat Harrison WilliamsMatthew Rinaldo, who passed away on Monday at age 77, occupied the seat for twenty years.  Now, with the retirement of Michael Ferguson, Democrats are slightly favored to win the seat in a contest between Assemblywoman Linda Stender and her GOP rival, State Sen. Leonard Lance.

Rinaldo began his political career in 1962 when he won a seat on the Union County Board of Freeholders.  When he ran for re-election to a second term in 1965, he lost narrowly (the initial tally, before the recount, said just one vote) to Arthur Fried, a Democratic Councilman from Westfield.  He came back two years later, defeating State Sen. Mildred Barry Hughes, the first woman to serve in the New Jersey State Senate, by 10,657 votes -- a 57%-43% margin.  When he ran for re-election in 1971, Rinaldo ran more than 16,000 votes ahead of his running mate, Frank McDermott, and more than 25,000 votes ahead of his nearest Democratic rival.

When Dwyer retired from Congress in 1972, at age seventy, Rinaldo became a candidate for her seat.  He won the endorsement of the Union County Republican organization over McDermott and two Assemblymen, Peter McDonough and Charles Irwin.  In the general election, he defeated Jerry Fitzgerald English by a 64%-36% margin.  English had won a two-month unexpired term in the State Senate in 1971, and later served as Commissioner of Enviornmental Protection and as Counsel to Gov. Brendan Byrne; she is currently a Commissioner of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.

Rinaldo won re-election to Congress nine times.  His only tough re-election campaign came in 1982, when Adam Levin, the son of a wealthy real estate developer (his father was the President of Madison Square Garden and the largest stockholder in Gulf &Western) and the state Consumer Affairs Director in the Byrne Administration, spent more than $2.3 million to defeat him. Those were the days when the Legislature (controlled by Democrats) drew congressional districts, and Levin gave a huge amount of money to Democratic legislative candidates in the 1981 election. The new district, shaped like a fish hook, went from Union County down through Middlesex County and picked up some Democratic towns in northern Monmouth County.  Rinaldo, with the backing of Elizabeth Mayor Thomas Dunn, still won by more than 20,000 votes, 56%-44%.  (Levin, then 25-year-old, had lost to Rinaldo by a 2-1 margin in 1974.

In 1984, a panel of federal judges overturned the congressional redistricting map, and new districts were drawn.

Often touted as a potential statewide candidate, Rinaldo oftened flirted publicly with running for U.S. Senator and Governor.  He passed on runs for Governor in 1977, 1981 and 1993, and for the Senate in 1982 and 1988.  He dropped his bid for re-election to an eleventh term in September 1992, presumably to take advantage of a law that allowed federal candidates to personally keep unsused campaign funds if they retired by the end of 1992. Rinaldo walked away with over $900,000.  His seat was won by Bob Franks, an Assemblyman and GOP State Chairman, who held it until he ran for U.S. Senate eight years later.  Ferguson won the seat that year.

Rinaldo's seat was the one held by Clifford Case, who later represented New Jersey for 24 years in the U.S. Senate.  Case resigned his House seat in 1953 during his ninth year in office to become the president of The Fund for the Republic. (Case returned to politics one year later when one term Republican U.S. Senator Robert Hendrickson retired). Most observers at the time expected the Republican, Plainfield Mayor George Hetfield, to easily win Case's seat in a November 1953 special election.  His Democratic opponent was a 33-year-old lawyer and World War II veteran who had already lost races for State Assembly in 1951 and Plainfield City Councilman in 1952, Harrison Williams.

The 1953 general election turned out to be an unexpectedly good year for New Jersey Democrats. Robert Meyner, a former State Senator who won an upset victory in the Democratic primary against former Congressman Elmer Wene, beat former New Jersey Turnpike Authority Chairman Paul Troast (who beat Malcolm Forbes, then a State Senator from Somerset County in the primary) in a race many pundits of the day expected the Republicans to win. Partly on Meyner's coattails, Williams scored an stunning victory, winning by 2,075 votes -- a 50.8%-49.2% margin. He held the seat in 1954, but lost it in 1956 to  Dwyer.

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