Governor Richard J. Hughes Biography

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


Early Life

Richard J. Hughes (New Jersey State Archives; Department of State)

Richard Joseph Hughes (August 10, 1909 – December 7, 1992), lawyer, two-term gover­nor, chief justice of the state supreme court, was born in Florence, Burlington County, to Richard Paul Hughes and Veronica (Gal­lagher) Hughes. His father, an ironworker and insurance broker, served as a state civil service commissioner, as principal keeper of Trenton State Prison, and as Burlington County Democratic chairman and was oth­erwise active in politics and public affairs.

Richard J. Hughes graduated from Cathe­dral High School in Trenton, after which he studied at St. Charles College in Catonsville, Maryland, and at St. Joseph’s College in Phil­adelphia. At one time he intended to become a Roman Catholic priest, but he turned to the study of law, receiving an LL.B. from New Jersey Law School in 1931. Admit­ted to the bar in 1932, he opened a law office in Trenton.

In 1937, after entering Democratic politics in Mercer County, he was elected statewide president of the Young Democrats and Democratic State Committee member from Mercer County. In 1938 he ran as a “Roosevelt Democrat” for Congress from the Fourth District. Though he lost decisively to Republican D. Lane Powers, he drew attention as a vigorous campaigner.

Appointed assistant United States attorney for New Jersey in December 1939, he prosecuted mail fraud, illegal tax withholding, and wartime subver­sion by members of the German-American Vocational League and similar groups. His careful preparations — and frequent convictions — enhanced his reputation and earned him a press accolade as “the nemesis of Nazis in New Jersey.”

For Hughes the call of politics was irresistible. “I like politics,” he said. “I think our politics for the next few years is going to be vitally important if we’re going to keep our children out of another war.” After he was elected Mercer County Democratic chairman in June 1945, he left his federal post and resumed private practice with Thorn Lord, who had been United States attorney over him. Lord and Hughes collaborated in politics as well as law, and under their leadership the Democrats won control of the Mercer County government in 1948.

On September 1, 1948, Acting Governor John M. Summerill, Jr., nominated Hughes to be judge of the Court of Common Pleas (which shortly thereafter was changed under the court reorganization to Mercer County Court). In February 1952, when William J. Brennan, Jr., was appointed to the state supreme court, Governor Alfred E. Driscoll named Hughes to replace him as superior court judge. Hughes was later designated assignment judge for Union County and eventually promoted to the appellate division of supe­rior court.

Hughes’s interest in juvenile problems and his reputation for being tough but fair and hardworking led Chief Justice Arthur T. Vanderbilt to appoint him head of a committee reviewing statutes that affected juvenile and domestic relations and probation services. The supreme court accepted that committee’s recommendations, and as a result the state’s juvenile and domestic-relations courts were revised.

Several times Governor Robert B. Meyner considered Hughes for appoint­ment to the state supreme court. Rather than rise further in the courts, how­ever, Hughes resigned from the bench in November 1957 and resumed private law to support his family. (His first wife, the former Miriam McGrory, whom he had married in 1934, had died in 1950, leaving three sons and a daughter. In 1954 he had married Elizabeth [Sullivan] Murphy, a widow with three sons. The couple had a daughter and two sons.) In a lucrative private law practice Hughes represented the Association of New Jersey Railroads and the Public Service Electric & Gas Company in legislative hearings and rate cases, and he defended polio vaccine manufacturers against antitrust charges.


With Governor Meyner’s second term ending, state Democratic leaders divided over a successor. Hughes, backed by Lord, the Mercer County chair­man, became a compromise choice, and the leaders from the other coun­ties accepted him in February 1961. His Republican opponent was James P. Mitchell, who had been secretary of labor under President Dwight D. Eisen­hower. Since both candidates were Roman Catholics, New Jersey was assured of its first governor of that faith one year after John F. Kennedy was elected as the country’s first Catholic president. Mitchell was better known, but Hughes was a better campaigner. Hughes’s heartiness, wit, familiarity with state problems, criticism of Mitchell for refusing to debate, and tactful iden­tification with Meyner’s achievements generated considerable momentum. Mitchell, handicapped by a broken leg, waged a lackluster campaign. On November 7, 1961, in a major upset, Hughes defeated Mitchell, 1,084,194 votes to 1,049,274. But the legislature remained divided, the senate under Republi­can control and the general assembly under the Democrats.

Hughes’s basic first-term problem was to expand state operations ade­quately to serve a rapidly growing population. He was constrained by the narrowness of his electoral mandate, by limited revenue due to lack of a broad-based tax, by county political organizations wary of gubernatorial power, and by a public uneducated to state needs. He stumped ceaselessly to build public support for the expansion of governmental operations and other policies he generally termed “Northern Democratic liberalism.” By negotiating realistically, he got Republican senate leaders to cooperate on compromise legislation, even though he was feuding with them over their “advise and consent” role on his nominations and vowing to destroy their “vicious” caucus.

His essential optimism helped him survive the voters’ decisive rejection of his $750 million capital construction bond referendum in November 1963, for which he campaigned exhaustively and through which he hoped to defer the tax question and aid the state’s economy. In that election the Democrats lost fourteen legislative seats; former governor Meyner virtually declared his willingness to be the next Democratic gubernatorial candidate if Hughes chose not to run again, and the archcritical Newark Evening News called for Hughes’s resignation. Rebounding, he proposed an income tax on February 3, 1964, to finance his record $590 million budget for 1964 – 65. His proposal stimulated debate but got nowhere.

In Hughes’s first term he provided swift emergency relief to the sea­shore after a severe storm battered it in March 1962; suspended land sales in the Hackensack Meadows pending resolution of title claims; created the Commission to Study Meadowlands Development in May 1963, appointing Meyner as chairman; brought the Democratic National Convention for the first time to New Jersey (Atlantic City, August 1964); vetoed a bill requiring children in public schools to salute the flag and pledge allegiance in contra­vention to a United States Supreme Court ruling (June 1964); secured the takeover of the Hudson and Manhattan Railroad by the Port of New York Authority in return for approval of the construction of the World Trade Cen­ter; formed a citizens’ committee, headed by Princeton University president Robert F. Goheen, to examine public higher education; and supported police behavior during civil disorders in Jersey City and Paterson, meanwhile urg­ing social reforms to eliminate causes of discontent.

The character of the 1965 gubernatorial campaign shaped Hughes’s sec­ond term. He expected sharp campaign debates on state priorities, based on his record and his charges of “legislative inaction.” Instead, his Republican rival, state senator Wayne Dumont, Jr., revived the flag-salute controversy and vigorously belabored Hughes for not forcing Rutgers, the state univer­sity, to dismiss history professor Eugene D. Genovese, who had welcomed “the impending Viet Cong victory in Viet Nam” at a teach-in. Hughes upheld United States policy in Vietnam and called Genovese “outrageously wrong” but nevertheless stoutly defended his right to speak. When Dumont refused to drop the issue and implied that Hughes was tolerating treason, Hughes charged him with disregarding the Bill of Rights and instigating a process that would end in “book burning and concentration camps.” The emotional dispute galvanized liberals and independents behind Hughes, who already had substantial labor support. He swept to victory on November 2, 1965, with 1,279,589 votes to Dumont’s 915,996, a record plurality. Further, both legisla­tive branches came under Democratic control for the first time since 1914.

Hughes now had a clear mandate, but he needed a major new source of revenue, He staked all on an income tax. He expected speedy legislative approval in the belief that many Democrats who owed their seats to his sweeping victory would vote along party lines. Consequently he neglected to court the Republicans energetically or to appeal to the wider public. How­ever, he underestimated the Democratic legislators’ fear of voter reprisal and overvalued the key Democratic county chairmen’s reluctant commitments of support. With some Democrats defecting and Republicans solidly opposed, his income-tax bill only narrowly passed the general assembly on March 17, 1966, and it never reached the floor of the senate, where it faced certain defeat. A chastened Hughes, “the most regular of Regular Democrats,” never again relied solely on his party or its chiefs to back major legislation. Turning to a sales tax, he quickly reasserted leadership, secured bipartisan support, and enlisted a sizable public coalition that induced the legislature on April 26, 1966, to pass New Jersey’s first permanent broad-based tax and finance an $875 million state budget.

Encouraged by this success, Hughes’s administration released a torrent of bills for legislative action that altered the scope and structure of state gov­ernment and its relationship to the people. But the Democratic tide ebbed in November 1967, when Republicans captured the legislature in sufficient strength to override gubernatorial vetoes. Hughes, therefore, in his final two years, made more compromises than he might have wished on measures affecting the large cities and increasing governmental services. During his eight years 2,174 laws were enacted, more than under any other governor except A. Harry Moore, who served nine years, and Alfred E. Driscoll, who served seven.

Some of the notable legislative and administrative actions in Hughes’s second term involved the functions and organization of state government. The Department of Community Affairs became operative in March 1967, the State Commission of Investigation was created for a five-year period in January 1969, and the Division of Criminal Justice, the Office of State Public Defender, and the Office of Consumer Protection were set up in the Depart­ment of Law and Public Safety. The Department of Transportation replaced the State Highway Department in May 1966; it had an enlarged mission to upgrade rail and bus services. The Hackensack Meadowlands Commission was established in November 1968 to plan orderly development for a vast tract in the northeastern part of the state.

The state’s role in education grew when the Department of Higher Educa­tion, separate from the existing Department of Education, was created in January 1967 with a chancellor and a state board. The county community college system was established in 1966, and construction was begun on new public medical schools at Newark and Piscataway between 1968 and 1970. Two new state colleges were approved, and fiscal autonomy was granted to the state colleges in 1969.

In finance, the Sales and Use Tax Act, with an initial levy of 3 percent, became effective in July 1966; banks got permission to expand across county lines, and voters approved a state lottery in a referendum in November 1969.

The public service roles of state governmental agencies and public au­thorities expanded enormously at this time. The Garden State Arts Center was constructed, despite a cost overrun from an estimated $1.6 million to over $6.5 million. Funding for the Public Broadcasting Authority was approved by referendum in November 1968, and the first state funds were allotted the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra in December 1969. In 1968 the Housing Finance Agency was set up within the Department of Community Affairs and a $12.5 million low-income housing-assistance bond referendum was passed, and in May 1969 Hughes signed a bill that would eventually pro­vide $1 million to tear down dilapidated structures in cities. Among Hughes’s last measures was to sign into law in January 1970 an act allowing people to challenge alleged exclusionary zoning in communities they did not live in.

Two new bridges across the Delaware River in South Jersey were started in 1966, and a $640 million transportation bond referendum was approved by the voters in November 1968. The New Jersey Historical Commission was established in the Department of Education in 1966, and an Educational Opportunity Fund Act, providing support to college-bound disadvantaged youth, was enacted in 1968. In January 1969 the legislature appropriated $23 million as the state’s share of county and municipal welfare costs. The Migrant Labor Act of December 1967 set higher living standards for sea­sonal farm workers, but an act providing unemployment benefits to strik­ing workers, passed in April 1967, was repealed in February 1968. Purchasers of firearms were required to secure police identification cards (June 1966). These and similar measures that increased the dimensions of governmental authority and operations during Hughes’s second term generally paralleled the greatly enlarged role of the federal government under President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society” programs of the mid-1960s.

On July 14, 1967, Newark’s Mayor Hugh J. Addonizio asked Hughes to dispatch state police and National Guardsmen to end civil disorders in the black ghetto of the city. Hughes took personal charge of the law enforcement operations. He termed the disorders “plain and simple crime and not a civil rights protest” and asserted that “the line between the jungle and the law might as well be drawn here as any place in America.” Hughes soon grasped the deeper socioeconomic causes of Newark’s crisis. But his initial stance helped shape public opinion and perhaps encouraged excessively forceful police and National Guard actions that injured and killed innocent persons and prolonged the unrest. When violence erupted in Plainfield on July 16, Hughes allowed the state police to search without warrants for stolen weap­ons in a black neighborhood.

A commission of ten prominent citizens whom he named to analyze the disorders and recommend steps to prevent recurrence barely mentioned his role and actions in its report, issued in February 1968. Hughes hailed the report as “historic” but delayed implementing its recommendations because he was grappling with personal pessimism over urban problems and with the fear of voter backlash against his party. Members of the commission and of his cabinet increased the pressure for remedial action.

Further disorders followed the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., on April 4, and he delivered a special legislative message on April 25 calling for a “moral recommitment” to the cities. He requested an initial $126.1 million to aid ghetto schools, improve law enforcement, and relieve local welfare burdens. The legislature appropriated $58.5 million, enough to start an urban aid program, and Hughes, consistent in his urban-oriented liberalism, voiced the conviction that the problems of New Jersey’s cities were soluble.

Hughes was known nationally for stalwart support of the foreign policies of presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. He once described the latter as “the master strategist of the century.” He served on a presidential advisory committee on civil defense until 1967. He helped arrange Johnson’s meeting with Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin, June 23 – 25, 1967, at the state college in Glassboro. In August 1967 Johnson appointed Hughes to a panel to observe the South Vietnamese elections, which the governor judged to be open and fair. He did not break publicly with Johnson’s policies until Octo­ber 30, 1968, when he urged a bombing halt and a United States withdrawal from Vietnam. In March 1968 he became chairman of the Democratic Party’s Equal Rights Committee.

At the party’s Chicago convention in August he headed the eighty-vote New Jersey delegation, which endorsed Senator Hubert H. Humphrey’s nomination for the presidency. Hughes served as chairman of the conven­tion’s Credentials Committee, which screened over one thousand delegate challenges. His firm handling of the challenges on the basis of nondiscrimi­nation won overwhelming convention approval, but he lost his own rather low-keyed quest for the vice presidential nomination to Senator Edmund Muskie. Hughes was “bitterly disappointed” by what he termed “the hate vote” which Governor George Wallace got in the presidential elections in New Jersey in November 1968, and he felt it facilitated Richard M. Nixon’s capture of the state. After the Democratic defeat Hughes urged the party to make internal reforms, press voter registration, and build “a coalition which includes labor and the blacks to correct such problems as urban ills.” In Richard Nixon’s first year in office Hughes criticized the president for reduc­ing urban assistance programs without seeking comparable cuts in funds for antiballistic missiles and the supersonic transport.

Life After Governor

At the end of his governorship Hughes maintained that he had fulfilled his intentions of giving the state a sense of identity and destiny and aiding “the forgotten New Jerseyans.” On January 16, 1970, he declared his family’s net worth, which was $178,986; this unprecedented step exemplified the public disclosure he advocated for state officials.

He resumed private law practice, joining the Newark firm of Hughes, McElroy, Connell, Foley & Geiser and becoming chairman of the American Bar Association’s commission on improving prison facilities and rehabilita­tion procedures. He was named state Democratic national committeeman on February 27, 1970.

After state supreme court Chief Justice Pierre P. Garven died, Governor William T. Cahill nominated Hughes to replace him. Confirmed by the sen­ate, Hughes was sworn on December 18, 1973, the first person in modern his­tory to have been both governor and chief justice of New Jersey.

As chief justice he directed an increasingly activist court, which handed down pathbreaking decisions on zoning, legislative redistricting, and thor­ough and efficient education. In 1979, when he reached the mandatory retire­ment age of seventy, he went back to private legal practice. Hughes died of congestive heart failure in 1992, in Boca Raton, Florida. He was interred in St. Mary’s Cemetery in Trenton.

Author: Stanley B. Winters

Sources and Citations

Records of Governor Richard J. Hughes, 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.

———. “The Making of a Governor: The Early Political Career of Richard J. Hughes.” New Jersey History 101 (Spring – Summer 1983): 1 – 28.

Leone, Richard C. “The Politics of Gubernatorial Leadership: Tax and Education Reform in New Jersey.” Ph.D. dissertation, Princeton University, 1969.

Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968.

Wefing, John B. The Life and Times of Richard J. Hughes: The Politics of Civility. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2009.