-- Remembering Jerry O'Connor by Leon J. Zimmerman
Jeremiah F. O'Connor
Image: Stellatto Funeral Homes, Inc.
Although Jeremiah F. O’Connor was years ahead of his time when he got into politics and public life in the middle 1960s, his boundless passion and energy carried him very far. His passing on May 13 brings back memories of his remarkable leadership and dedication to public service for the people of Bergen County and New Jersey. He was able to negotiate the perils of politics and the complexities of government to make a difference.
I first met Jerry O’Connor in 1965 when I was a political writer on the staff of The Record, still often referred to by its previous name, the Bergen Record. He was the newly elected mayor of Saddle Brook and one of four Democratic candidates for the State Senate from Bergen County. Initially, I got to know him largely through interviews and coverage of his political activity, and came to discover his ebullient personality was ideal for politics. He was a rarity in government and politics. Along with energy and compassion. he had a great sense of humor, was popular with his colleagues and appealing to the people he met along the campaign trail.
Jerry actually got his first taste of the political scene in New York, where he was born and raised, during President Kennedy’s 1960 presidential campaign.
He shared with me an experience of attending a primary election rally in the Bronx at which Bobby Kennedy predicted victory for his brother and told the Democratic faithful how important their support was at that time or they will miss out. Jerry, 27 years old at the time, recalled Bobby Kennedy speaking for his brother, who was not at the rally, something to the effect that they had better “get on board now, if you want to be with us, because the train is pulling out of the station and it will be too late afterwards”. That was good enough for him. He clearly was bitten by the political bug.
After moving to Saddle Brook, he entered the political arena in 1963, leading an upstart faction of local Democrats who had ousted the censured leader of the opposition faction. They went on beat the Republicans to take control of the township governing body. More importantly, the Democratic leadership in Bergen County took notice and chose him to be one of four State Senate candidates in the historic 1965 election.
Bergen Democrats won all four Senate seats in a landslide election that was led by then Governor Richard Hughes. Democrats won 2-1 control of the State Legislature with many first-termers like Jerry O’Connor.
Noted for his energetic nature of moving about quickly and determinedly, he burst on the Trenton scene with new ideas for landmark legislation that few lawmakers had the temerity to propose. During the 1966-1967 legislative session in which he served, the list of bills he introduced was ambitious to say the least.
He made news with a legislative agenda as prime sponsor of bills that included lowering the voting age to 18, requiring public members on the State’s industry-controlled professional and occupational licensing boards, and reform the state’s antiquated divorce and abortion laws to make them relevant to life in current times. These were significant, far-reaching and controversial proposals for that period of time. As The Record’s full-time “Trenton Correspondent” in the State Capitol, I had covered these important stories.
Ignoring the advice of more senior lawmakers, O’Connor surprised State House observers by scheduling a public hearing on his professional-licensing bill to protect the consumer. There had been years of criticism that these licensing boards, composed only of licensees in their respective businesses, met in private and were not taking action against unscrupulous licensees for violating state rules and regulations. His goal was to shine the spotlight on this closed-door practice to protect consumers who had been disadvantaged when using these services. When O’Connor arrived in the State House to chair the Senate committee hearing, he was the only senator to attend. Left alone that day by his colleagues, he listened for several hours of testimony from representatives of the professions and occupations attacking him and vehemently opposing the bill.While the legislation was not passed then, he was praised for standing up to industry establishment. Decades later, when O’Connor’s idea became more universally accepted, this law subsequently was enacted by a future Legislature. A graduate of Catholic schooling, O’Connor took a great deal of heat from religious interests on his divorce and abortion law reform bills. They also were not passed. Again, years later when attitudes changed, future Legislatures eventually passed similar versions. His legislation to give 18-year-olds the right to vote fared much better. Although it did not get through when he was in office, it was passed shortly thereafter.
Unfortunately, the Democratic election landslide of 1965 that swept O’Connor and his Bergen Democratic colleagues into office was reversed two years later with a Republican landslide sweep in 1967. Jerry O’Connor’s relatively brief legislative career was only a prelude for what was to come in a significant career in politics and public life in Bergen County. He had an innate ability to get along with people and unite them for a common good marked his next chapter in public life.
After a 1973 Democratic victory giving his party three seats on the Bergen County Board of Freeholders, O’Connor led the ticket that won three more seats in 1974 and took 6-3 control of the Board. He was chosen Freeholder Director 1975 and served in that position for five years, as Democrats maintained Board control. That began an era of significant accomplishment. I had the opportunity to observe his leadership skills at the county level since he got my newly created public relations and lobbying firm involved as a campaign consultant.
And he became a role model and mentor for scores of future Democratic public officials and leaders, perhaps most prominent of whom is Loretta Weinberg, the current State Senate Majority Leader.Weinberg, who has described O’Connor as a “visionary”, worked closely with him as clerk to the Freeholder Board when he was Director on many ground-breaking County programs.
Just as in his earlier legislative career, O’Connor came to the position with far-reaching, public interest ideas. As the leader of the County administration, unlike when he was one of many in a large legislative arena, he was now in a position to develop new programs at the County level to improve life for Bergen residents.
During this period of time, he was an early anti-discrimination advocate for what is now known as the LBGTQ community, and an outspoken advocate for victims of domestic violence. He was largely responsible for getting the county to award a significant grant to Shelter Our Sisters to purchase a building that allowed the non-profit organization to safely house and feed abused women and children. That organization later honored him as an “Outstanding Public Official” for his leadership in this effort.
Other Bergen firsts during the O’Connor-led administration included the first affirmative action program in New Jersey, the first office devoted to the developmental disabilities community, expansion of programs and facilities for senior citizens and county offices on women, consumer affairs and transportation.
The late Senator Ted Kennedy, in his eulogy of his late senator brother, said that Bobby Kennedy “was a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it". The same could be said for Jerry O'Connor. He was the genuine article, the real deal for sure, and will not be forgotten. (Leon J. Zimmerman, a national award-winning journalist and one-time politics editor for The Record of Hackensack, NJ, knew Jeremiah F. O’Connor for 55 years, covering him as State House Bureau Chief, politics writer and editor, campaign consultant and personal friend. Zimmerman was honored in 1969 by the American Political Science Association for Distinguished Reporting of Public Affairs.)