Recollections of Governor Hughes: Joseph Katz

Transcript excerpts from an interview with Joseph Katz (State House journalist; Special Assistant and Cabinet Secretary to Richard J Hughes; lobbying firm founder) conducted for the Eagleton Center on the American Governor. The full interview is available in the Video Library.


Q: Let’s talk about your entry into politics. You have a story that I’ve heard or read about, about your departure from the Newark News, that you were, you might say, persona non grata.

Joseph Katz: I became persona non grata the minute I announced I was going to work for a Democrat. But I considered myself let down. There was a shuffle. There was a new editor and a guy was appointed editor and he had a nervous breakdown and they put Bill Clark in as editor and he’d been a very talented, funny political columnist and editorial writer. I don’t think he knew one typeface from another when he became editor. For a while, he looked to me. We had collaborated on politics. He wrote a political column on Saturday and Sunday that was read by everybody in politics. Then somehow, his focus changed and other people became dominant on the city desk and there was a power struggle there and I was a victim of it. I got shoved out of state politics, sort of, until Clark said, “Why did we miss this?” I says, “I can’t go to Trenton anymore.” “Oh, go on down.” But by that time, there was no place for me. I had become very friendly with Thorn Lord, covering the Case-Lord senate race in ’60. He got whomped. The Democrats were having all these secret meetings about whom to nominate and there were only whispers about Richard Hughes. It turned out he was going to get it. Lord was his closest friend and principal backer-up.

Q: Hughes had been a judge.

Joseph Katz: Had been, but he was back in private practice. He and Lord went way back, I’m sure you know all about that. They were law partners. Lord was United States Attorney and Hughes was his assistant and they both turned Mercer County Democratic. Hughes was followed by Lord. Lord came to me and he said, “How’d you like to come to work for Dick Hughes?” He wasn’t in office yet. In fact, he had a primary. I said, “Yeah, I’d like that.”

Q: Just like that? You said, “I’d like that”?

Joseph Katz: It came right out of the blue. Yeah, sure, I was looking for a way out. It would be interesting. We thought he’d be running against Walter Jones, who was the senator from Bergen and the leader of the largest Republican county in the state. He had a lot of enemies though, I guess. Then the whole liberal Republican, Wall Street, Broad Street , and Newark connection case. The Herald Tribune, Newark News, all came together and came up with Eisenhower’s former Secretary of Labor, who had gone back to Macy’s, I think, as vice president of personnel after Eisenhower’s administration ended. He beat Jones in the primary and he had all the momentum. I said to myself, “What’d I get myself into here? I think we could have handled Jones. He’s another power.” As you know and discussed…

Q: How involved were you in the initial Hughes campaign as a strategist? You were brought on to handle his media relations, basically.

Joseph Katz: I insisted that I be involved in the policy and strategy, because I think I knew more about that than anybody else in there, including Hughes, because he had been a judge and a lawyer. They had some smart guys. John Kervick was there. He’d been State Treasurer under Meyner and he knew a lot about stuff. Bob Burkhardt, who really knew about campaigns, was Assistant Postmaster General in the Kennedy administration. Later in the campaign, Hughes says, “You know, I think I can get Burkhardt.” Boy, get him. And he came back and he took charge of the campaign.

Q: Tell us about the campaign. Again, this is your first– you’re kind of on the other side. You went from one side to the other.

Joseph Katz: Yeah, I jumped through the mirror.

Q: What was that like?

Joseph Katz: It was interesting. It was a transition that was easier than I had imagined it would have been. I had to define what we wanted to do and that was to get– our candidate was unknown. In fact, there was a story in Time magazine way into the summer, if not into the fall, about this campaign. The headline was “Who’s Hughes?” We knew we had to get him. We tried every stunt. We had celebrated his birthday in August, 8th or 9th, and I arranged for a party at some motel on Route 27 and Franklin Park . He happened to be campaigning in Middlesex and Somerset that day. We wheeled his poor old father up there in a wheelchair to the party. We had a swimming race between Hughes–

Q: Was this your idea?

Joseph Katz: Yeah, we brainstormed it. And some fat guy, who was a politician from Burlington County, and we got pictures taken and we got them in the paper. We got them in the paper negatively, because there was a big fight over the anti broad-based tax pledge. Hughes, to his credit, said, “We’re not going to put that pledge in our platform this year.” I knew that would subject him to the Newark News, which hated him because he was running against their candidate, Mitchell. He’d have had a better break from them, if he’d run against Jones. But Mitchell, they were used to being the power behind the throne. They ran Essex County and they wanted to run the state and Driscoll had a big voice through the Clean Government Republican. That was the name of the organization there, which the Newark News dominated.

Q: You have described, as others have described, the Newark News as words that you don’t find uttered in the same breath these days, “liberal Republican.”

Joseph Katz: Yeah, they were liberal on national things, but on a state, they were the big voice against the broad-based tax, which liberal Republicans or national people figured we needed. We were one of the two or three states that had neither a sales nor an income tax then. It was a big, modern industrial state.

Q: Did you ever find out why the paper was so vociferously against it, given its politics?

Joseph Katz: Oh, no. Well, I didn’t have many discussions with the Scudders. I think it was just built into their genes, DNA. No, we didn’t know about DNA.

Q: We didn’t know too much about back then.

Joseph Katz: It was a manifestation of their power. They could keep the state from going that way. They weren’t all that liberal. Sure, they were liberal on joining the U.N., things like that. On matters that counted, where they were influential they weren’t that liberal.

Q: Let’s go back talking about Dick Hughes and that campaign. What kind of campaigner was he? Here’s someone who had been a judge, had gone back to private practice. Had he had any previous campaign experience before?

Joseph Katz: He was the county chairman of Mercer County , who turned it from a Republican stronghold to a Democratic bastion. Is that the cliché? He’d run for Congress in ’38 as a 200% Roosevelt Democrat and a bad year for him. He got whomped by the incumbent.

Q: He brought political know-how, then, to the campaign?

Joseph Katz: He knew everybody. It amazed me. He knew all the politicians down to the local level all over the state, even though he spent a number of years on the court. But he was back in private practice for a few years, which he went into when he knew that Driscoll appointed Bill Brennan to the state Supreme Court, he knew he wasn’t going to get that spot, so he left. Like I left the Newark News.

Q: Had there been talk that Dick Hughes would run for the Supreme Court slot?

Joseph Katz: Yeah, understand, I wasn’t around then. Yeah, I think he was ambitious. He was on the appellate division. He was ambitious to go on the Supreme Court. Brennan made quite a name for himself.

Q: What about the first term? What about those first four years that sticks out in your mind in terms of what he accomplished?

Joseph Katz: He got re-elected, that was a big accomplishment, in the face of a tremendous setback in the midterm elections. He pledged that he would not go for a broad-based tax as long as there was any other alternative. They cooked up an alternative. They were going to mortgage the Turnpike. I see that’s up again. Now they’re going to sell it. Before, they were just going to mortgage. Take the surpluses and turn it into a huge, unbelievable sum of $750 million, which was going to carry us for years. I cooked up a real fancy press conference to announce it, so it wouldn’t break in the morning papers, so the Newark News would have to carry it. The afternoon papers were the ones that were read. This was pre-television dependence. We had a 5:00 or 6:00 a.m. press conference to announce it. Like you guys at Eagleton do every day, we gave the reporters free donuts and bagels.

Q: Some things never change, do they?

Joseph Katz: We had a lot of momentum, but it ran out and we lost the bond issues, we lost the assembly, which we had. We had to come back from that. Hughes had a press conference the morning after the Newark News called on him to resign. He said, “I’m bloodied, but I’m unbowed.” We had to fight our way back to a landslide win.

Q: Did you ever think in the midterms that maybe there was too much on the plate to deal with, with the bond issues and with the midterm elections coming up, that it might have been too overwhelming to try to get everything you were after?

Joseph Katz: What was the alternative? We had to try and balance the budget. We somehow balanced the budget after, but we– in fact, we came out for an income tax after that. We were going to go for a sales tax. I remember Arthur Sills was the Attorney General. He says, “We’re Democrats. Why would we push a sales tax? That’s regressive. That hurts the poor people.” Hughes said, “You’re right.” We didn’t get it, but after Hughes swept in ’65, we got both houses and had to produce, and the only thing we could get was the sales tax.

Q: Let’s talk about the ’65 campaign. For people who remember back, there’s a name that sticks out and that’s Eugene Genovese, who was a Rutgers professor at that time. Talk a little bit about the Genovese impact on the campaign, with Wayne Dumont, who was the republican challenger and the incumbent, Dick Hughes.

Joseph Katz: Well, the Genovese issue got a lot of late publicity, but I’m going to speak now from hindsight. We later found out it was about a wash. About three or four percent voted against us, and three or four percent voted for us on that. We didn’t know that. We thought it was going to blow the campaign. We were all shell-shocked by Joe McCarthy, Ezra Jenner and all the red hunters from the ‘50s. The Genoviese thing sort of sneaked up. I used to look through all of Hughes’s mail and I was getting a lot of mail from veterans groups.

Q: Let me just break in and just to clarify for people who might not be familiar, that Genovese was a history professor at Rutgers who supported the– came out of Rutgers and teaching, and said he supported the Vietcong.

Joseph Katz: He said, “I pray for a Vietcong victory,” I think.

Q: I’m sorry, I interrupted you. Go ahead.

Joseph Katz: Something like that. I don’t know if those are the exact words. We kept getting mail, “This guy should be fired. You’re the governor, state university.” It kept mounting. I was pretty shaky about it. This was after we had established the parameters of the campaign. We had a slogan, and everybody has used it since, “Because He Cares.” That fitted Hughes’ personality. He was a kindly sort of guy. He was friendly and genuinely appealing to the average person, and to the captains of industry, to everybody. He was a good guy. It played on it. Some guy who was a publicist in South Jersey , I have to give him credit. I don’t know if he’s still around. A guy named Bernie Popick. He came to me with this idea of a whole campaign where the bill was “Because he cares, New Jersey ’s roads grew by so much. Because he cares, the economy went from so and so.” We started that and finally got the idea. Forget about the statistics, just because he cares, re-elect Governor Hughes. That’s what won the campaign. It wasn’t Genovese. Genovese attracted a lot of interest at first. Every letter I got, I sent to Charlie Sullivan, who was our former mayor of East Brunswick who was director of purchase and property, big Middlesex Democrat, who was also the past president of the Am-Vets or some big veterans group. I said, “Charlie, take care of this.” We got big, and then Dumont latched onto it. We had a big emergency meeting at the Stockton Hotel in Sea Girt, where going back, Jim Mitchell spent most of his ’61 campaign with his broken leg. We had a press conference and Hughes went out front and we decided he was going to stand up for the right of expression by freedom of expression–

Q: How tough of an argument did you have to make or those who supported that–

Joseph Katz: It was easy.

Q: –or was Dick Hughes supported right from the get-go?

Joseph Katz: Pretty much. He was a little cautious, but then he went out and he went way beyond what we expected. Saying, “I’m pulling my hair out. I feel the stink of McCarthyism here, or something like that.” I said, “Why do you have to bring him into it?” Because McCarthy had cost us a senate seat, Clifford Case’s first election in ’54. We got all involved with the smear of Case’s sister by McCarthy and the sympathy vote elected Case over Charlie Howe, who should have won that election.

Q: Did Governor Hughes ever tell you why he decided to take that extra step or two steps?

Joseph Katz: He didn’t have to tell us. It was just an impulse. He’s naturally a civil libertarian.

Q: Never express any regrets?

Joseph Katz: No. I didn’t, “Why’d you do that, Governor?” It would have made my job a lot harder. It riles people. He had a better sense of that than anybody. That’s why all the liberals rejoiced and everything.

Q: In the long run, as you said, it really didn’t– it was a wash.

Joseph Katz: It was a wash.

Q: Meanwhile, the Republican challenger, Senator Wayne Dumont, that was what he built his campaign around.

Joseph Katz: To a great degree. The other stuff– Dumont was an honest man in a lot of ways. He was for A broad-based tax. It was not an issue. He was for sales tax. He was a conservative republican. But I guess he did, mostly. It’s just like [Republican gubernatorial nominee Douglas] Forrester in this campaign on [Jon] Corzine’s wife’s statement. I don’t know that that had an impact either way. In fact, I had the same feeling in this last campaign. Just as an old observer, that was going to be a big issue, just like I was afraid of Genovese. In neither case was it.

Q: After the first Hughes campaign, first term, you worked on the second campaign.

Joseph Katz: Oh yeah. I was in charge of issues and everything like that.

Q: But then you left.

Joseph Katz: Sure. I could read the Constitution. He couldn’t run again. I had two children, third one on the way. Very close. He was born in March of sixty– no, what am I saying? In ’65, I had four children. I had four children and I decided I’d go out. As the governor said to me when I told him I was leaving, he said, “Now you’re going to go to the flesh pots.” I said, “Yeah, I guess so.”

Q: Your background was kind of broad in the sense that you not only did publicity, but you were a political strategist, you worked on policy. Where did you see yourself fitting in?

Joseph Katz: I had very little to do with the legislature. Occasionally he’d send me on a mission and I’d go whisper something to someone or do this or that. But the main liaison with the legislature was always his legal counsel. I didn’t imagine myself as being a lobbyist or doing much with the legislature. I knew the legislature. I thought I’d be a publicist for people that needed– I knew all the press in the state pretty well and they knew me. I knew state government and I knew there were a lot of issues down here. I figured I’d set up– one of my predecessors on the Newark News, Bill O’Connor, had set up a business as a PR man in Newark, which was the business capital of the state back in the ‘50s then and in the ‘60s it still was. It was waning. I figured I would start in Trenton, because I was living there and there was a bigger concentration of press in Trenton than anywhere else. By that time, the Bergen Record and the other papers all had their representatives and television would come down there more readily. I didn’t think much of television as a medium for getting any messages out that I would– but if it was there anyhow, it would be a better chance. I envisioned myself doing that kind of stuff that I’d done for years, getting his message out. People came to me early on. They wanted me–after six or seven months–wanted me to pass bills for them and things like that.