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Governor Robert Meyner – Biography

Governor of New Jersey 1954–1962

This Biography was reprinted with the permission of Rutgers University Press from:
The Governors of New Jersey: Biographical Essays;
Editors: Michael J. Birkner, Donald Linky, Peter Mickulas
Rutgers University Press; Revised and Updated; 2014

 

Contents
Early Life
Governorship
Last Years and Life after Governor
Citations

 

Early Life

Robert B. Meyner New Jersey State Archives; Department of State

Robert B. Meyner
New Jersey State Archives; Department of State

Robert Baumle Meyner (July 3, 1908 – May 27, 1990), lawyer, governor of New Jersey, was born in Easton, Pennsylvania, the son of Gustave Herman and Mary Sophie (Baumle) Meyner. His parents, who were of German and Swiss ancestry, came from humble back­grounds: his father worked as a loom fixer and silk worker. When Robert was eight, his family moved to Phillipsburg, New Jersey. Except for a short stay at Paterson, his fam­ily remained in Phillipsburg. The need to earn a living occupied his youth, and he worked in various jobs as a newspaper boy, grocery clerk, garage mechanic, and foundry handy­man. In 1926 Meyner graduated from Phil­lipsburg High School and entered Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania, financing his education by working in the silk mills near Easton and Phillipsburg. He developed an early interest in politics in 1928, when he became president of the Young People’s Al Smith for President Club at Lafayette.

From 1930 to 1933 he attended Columbia University Law School, and in 1934 he was admitted to the New Jersey bar. Working as a law clerk for the firm J. Emil Walscheid and Milton Rosenkranz in Union City and later in Jersey City, Meyner gained “a lot of experience but little money.” Offered an opportunity to take over the practice of a deceased lawyer in Phillips­burg, Meyner returned to his native city in 1936. The next year he became a counselor, and in 1940 he was admitted to practice before the United States Supreme Court. His practice centered on trial work. Early in his career he recognized the need for judicial integrity when he “suffered several trau­matic experiences with judges.” In Warren County he built a political base through his active role in the local, state, and national bar associations — along with his work in civic and social organizations.

In 1941 Meyner first ran for political office but lost in the primary for the Warren County state senate seat. After the start of World War II he left for the military. On August 3 1943, he enlisted in the navy at the rank of lieutenant (j.g.). He used his legal training to defend sailors in court-martial trials, and later he became the commander of a gun crew on a merchant vessel. Dis­charged December 1945 as a lieutenant commander, he kept this rank in the naval reserve and returned to law and politics. In 1946 he ran for congress­man against the powerful, and later infamous, J. Parnell Thomas, but the elec­tion went easily to Thomas. Meyner gained a political victory in 1947 when he defeated Republican Wayne Dumont, Jr., for the state senate seat in Warren County. From 1947 to 1951 Meyner gained political experience through work with legislative and party leaders and exerted his independence by criticizing the Republican administration for failing to clean up the corruption in Ber­gen County. Another expression of his strong will appeared when he cast the sole dissenting vote against the creation of the New Jersey Turnpike Author­ity, deprecating all such bodies because “they become grossly irresponsible to the will of the people.” During his term as senator Meyner became minor­ity leader in 1950 and permanent chairman of the Democratic state conven­tion. Despite party recognition, he experienced political defeat once again, when he lost his senate seat to Dumont in a close race in 1951.

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Governorship

By 1953 Meyner seemed a has-been candidate. Few people thought that he would emerge as the Democratic choice for governor. Being from a rural county and having failed even to carry his home district, Meyner had an added political liability, his religion — he was an apostate from the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, luck and hard work (two important rea­sons for his political success) reversed his fortune. Since 1949, New Jersey Democrats had been divided by a vacuum in state leadership. John V. Kenny had defeated the former state boss, Frank Hague, in his native Jersey City. A bloody political battle followed. Hague and his followers tried for the fourth time to regain power by supporting Elmer H. Wene, a flamboyant chicken farmer from South Jersey, in the 1953 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Kenny and other county leaders refused to accept Wene. In desperation they turned to Robert Meyner. Offered a unique opportunity, the Warren County senator accepted and later commented, “I realized I had very little chance to win, but I knew it was the only chance I would ever have. I jumped at it.”

Meyner’s judgment proved correct. Winning only three out of New Jer­sey’s twenty-one counties, he defeated Wene by only 1,683 votes, thanks in large measure to Hudson County’s boss, John V. Kenny, and his 30,000-vote majority in that county. In the general election Meyner faced a strong Repub­lican opponent. The Republicans, who had held the governor’s office for ten years, selected Paul L. Troast, a contractor who was chairman of the New Jer­sey Turnpike Authority. Meyner campaigned for strict law enforcement and again criticized the Republicans for making New Jersey “a mecca for syndi­cated gambling and a haven for the underworld.” Meyner’s campaign gained momentum when a prison scandal marred his opponent’s reputation. News­paper stories revealed that in 1951 Troast had written a letter to New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey asking commutation of the prison sentence of a convicted labor racketeer and extortionist, Joseph S. Fay. The famous “Fay Letter” became the turning point in the election. Meyner went on to victory with a 153,653-vote majority.

When elected governor, Meyner presented an imposing figure. Relatively young at forty-five, he was almost six feet tall, and his gray, curly hair and baritone voice made him physically a model governor. His political style was less glamorous. He was cautious, skeptical, and guarded in facing problems. Having boundless energy and an even temperament, he seemed well suited to govern a rapidly growing state. New Jersey was in the midst of a dynamic era, and Meyner’s administration reflected this change.

Meyner expressed an intense commitment to open government in his inaugural address of January 19, 1954: “I am a strong advocate of submitting important questions to the people on the ground that it makes for livelier, more responsive, and more responsible democracy.” He followed this pol­icy in March 1954, when he began a series of television-radio reports on the activities of the state administration. He courted the press by scheduling two news conferences a week, and he arranged a separate conference for editors of weeklies. In an attempt to gain bipartisan support for his legislative pro­gram, the governor held prelegislative conferences with both party leaders.

A major theme throughout Meyner’s gubernatorial years was his pledge to staff his administration “with men and women who see government as a great challenge to imagination and enterprise.” He often incurred the wrath of party leaders but remained determined to “get people into politics who aren’t out to make a buck, who aren’t out to take advantage of everything.” Republicans and business and labor leaders provided him advice and men to help fill four cabinet posts.

Adhering to his promise to clean house, Meyner in his first year as gov­ernor concentrated on exposing corruption in the Division of Employment Security. Harold G. Hoffman, a former governor (1935 – 38), headed the divi­sion. When Meyner discovered irregularities, he sought the assistance of Prudential Insurance officials to accelerate the payment of unemployment insurance. After an initial inspection, Hoffman was suspended for impropri­eties. He died during the investigation, and Meyner was accused of “killing him.” But a letter Hoffman wrote to his daughter just before his death dis­closed that he had used $300,000 in state funds to cover an embezzlement from the South Amboy Trust Company, of which he was president.

Meyner’s first four years included more than exposing corruption and making qualified appointments. They saw the legalization of bingo and raf­fles, substantial increases in state aid to education, and the restructuring of Rutgers University to be “truly a state university.” Teachers’ salaries were also increased, as was aid to children with mental and physical disabilities. All fourteen state departments were reorganized to provide more efficient and closer communication with the public. Meyner centralized and mecha­nized motor vehicle registration and streamlined the budget bureau. Gov­ernment costs were carefully regulated by vetoes of special-interest bills and investments of state funds in higher-interest-returning securities. Meyner presaged the women’s liberation movement by appointing the first woman cabinet member in New Jersey. In appointing judges, he carefully screened applicants and selected men of high stature. He showed conviction in sup­porting his appointees, as when he vigorously backed Joseph Weintraub’s supervision of the bistate Waterfront Commission.

On state finances the governor preferred to follow rather than to lead the public. Faced with a Republican-dominated legislature, he refused to broach the problem of restructuring the state’s tax system with an income or sales tax. Meyner relied on increases in excise taxes to finance a constantly rising state budget.

As the leader of his party Meyner helped build the Democratic Party throughout the state, and he made the party a twenty-one-county organiza­tion instead of the one-county, Hudson-dominated machine it had been for thirty years under Frank Hague. Meyner also spoke forcibly against McCar­thyism and criticized the Wisconsin senator’s activities as “a perversion of basic American principles.” The energetic governor also used his office to defend court rulings on civil liberties and civil rights. Because of his capable administration and a nationally publicized romance, Meyner’s popularity grew throughout his first term. In January 1957 he married Helen Day Ste­venson, a distant cousin of Adlai Stevenson and the daughter of Eleanor B. and William E. Stevenson, the president of Oberlin College. Meyner’s mar­riage, his ability as an orator, and his charming style made him the “Glamor­ous Governor of New Jersey.” In 1957 Meyner ran for reelection against state senator Malcolm S. Forbes. Meyner became the first governor to be reelected for a four-year term when he defeated Forbes by more than two hundred thousand votes and led the Democrats to control of the assembly. Respected by both Democrats and Republicans, Meyner was at the pinnacle of his polit­ical career. Throughout his second term he groomed himself for the possibil­ity of national office by traveling widely, commenting on foreign policy, and criticizing President Dwight D. Eisenhower; however, at home he continued to be a prudent administrator.

Meyner focused attention on the state’s transportation problems. In deal­ing with rail and road problems, he relied on his highway commissioner, Dwight R. G. Palmer. Symbolic of the rubber and concrete era, Meyner spent $93 million a year for road building. However, he did not ignore the rail services. A Rail Transportation Division was formed in the Highway Depart­ment to provide for rail improvements and consolidations. Rail subsidies were provided, and in 1959 a mass-transit plan was proposed. Funds from the New Jersey Turnpike Authority were to be diverted to aid the deteriorating railroads, but opposition from Hudson County and rural areas defeated the proposal. Plans to have the Port of New York Authority take over the bank­rupt Hudson and Manhattan Tubes were initiated. At the end of Meyner’s administration he advocated the construction of a jetport in Morris County, but he failed to convince the public. He constantly emphasized traffic safety, and New Jersey had one of the best safety records in the country.

Strong on conservation, Meyner started the reclamation of fifteen thou­sand acres of North Jersey’s meadowland through the creation of the Mead­owland Regional Development Agency. A “Green Acres” program attempted to regain land for recreational use. Educational expansion continued with increased construction and appropriations for higher education. Notable advances were also made in mental health, treatment of juvenile delin­quents, care of the aged, and consumer protection. The state’s economy prospered with heavy investments in new industrial plants and the exten­sive growth of New Jersey’s research facilities. Meyner continued to avoid a broad-base tax by using a corporate income tax.

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Last Years and Life after Governor

Meyner’s success as governor led him to the 1960 National Democratic Convention with the hope of achieving a national office or at least helping to determine the convention’s choice. He joined Stuart Symington and Lyndon B. Johnson in an attempt to block the nomination of John F. Kennedy. But his luck and good timing ran out. Refusing to allow the New Jersey delegation to vote for Kennedy on the first ballot, Meyner lost the opportunity to make New Jersey the deciding state. Meyner had failed to emulate his idol, Wood­row Wilson, and his political career began to decline. The Kennedys did not forget his actions in 1960.

Meyner spent his last years as governor in recommending further im­provements in transportation and education. When he concluded his term, he returned to law and private industry — accepting lucrative positions with banks and insurance companies and becoming the administrator of the cig­arette industry’s code on fair advertising. In 1969 he attempted to regain the governorship (having been constitutionally prohibited from running in 1961) and won the Democratic primary. But the charisma and appeal of the 1950s were gone. He lost in a one-sided race to William Cahill.

Meyner’s stewardship of New Jersey left a legacy of efficiency and econ­omy in government. Though not a social reformer or experimenter, he was certainly a good administrator. Perhaps he best expressed his philosophy of government and life in his first inaugural address: “Above all, we must ever be conscious that in government, as in life, nothing is ever permanently settled, nothing ever disposed of beyond the need for cautious study and action. It is a timeless process and an endless campaign against smug self-approval.”

In later years Meyner pursued an active legal and business career. He also supported his wife Helen’s involvement in politics. Helen Meyner was twice elected to Congress (1974 and 1976) but was defeated for reelection in 1978. In declining health after suffering a stroke Meyner died at his home in Captiva, Florida, in 1990. 

Author: William Lemmey

Citations

Robert B. and Helen Stevenson Meyner Papers, Lafayette College, Easton, Pa.

Records of Governor Robert B. Meyner, New Jersey State Library, Trenton, N.J.

Doig, Jameson W. Empire on the Hudson: Entrepreneurial Vision and Political Power at the Port of New York Authority. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

Felzenberg, Alvin S. “The Impact of Gubernatorial Style on Policy Outcomes: An In-Depth Study of Three New Jersey Governors.” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton Uni­versity, 1978.

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