Recollections of Governor Hughes: Stanley Van Ness

Transcript excerpts from an interview with Stanley Van Ness (Counsel and Assistant Counsel to Governor Hughes; later NJ Public Advocate in the Byrne Administration) conducted for the Eagleton Center on the American Governor. The full interview is available in the Video Library.


Q: Do you recall your first meeting with Governor Hughes [after being hired as an assistant counsel to the governor]?

Stanley Van Ness: Yeah. I think it was– it wasn’t a formal meeting. I think it was– I was just with Dave [Goldberg] and Dave introduced me to him and we talked briefly. That was it. We– it happened– it so happened that some of the things that Dave asked me to do brought me more in touch with the governor after that, as I had responsibility for dealing with all the accumulated labor legislation that the union had been pushing for fifty years. And it’s the first time in fifty years that they had Democrats in control of both Houses in the Legislature and they were saying, “Well, now’s our turn.”. And so we were given workman’s compensation reform and unemployment compensation reform and all the things including striker’s benefits which we got passed. Probably unfortunately because it probably cost us the legislature in the next election. But Dick was very, very interested in those things, and so I saw quite a bit of him in dealing with that.

Q: What was he like to work for?

Stanley Van Ness: He was a good man to work for. He was amazing. You know, he gave the impression of being kind of bumbling sometimes, but he was, I think, as sharp a man as maybe even Sydney Goldman was. I remember we one incident or one episode involving the Migrant Labor Board. One of the reporters for the New York Times, Ronnie ..

Q: Sullivan?

Stanley Van Ness: Sullivan. Ronnie Sullivan was present and wrote the story, but a fellow by the name of Lou Piezo was on the Migrant Labor Board, and he was quoted in the newspapers making some terribly demeaning remarks about migrant laborers. And that kicked off a big uproar and, as a result, Dick appointed this Migrant Labor Board– Migrant Labor Committee to review the situation and make recommendations, and I was Counsel to the Committee. And we met and the Committee met and we came up with some recommendations. They came up with some recommendations, and they had been given to the Governor, and I didn’t hear anything back. And I guess a couple of months went by and he had a press conference, and in the press conference, Ronnie Sullivan and maybe some others were pressing him about what’s going to happen with this Migrant Labor thing. And he amended the statute as he sat there. I mean, he had the memo that we had sent him, but he didn’t have it in front of him. He had the– he got the book. Somebody got him the book, or I got him the book of statutes, and he went through the statute and amended the thing as he sat there in front of the press corps. And I’m busy under the table making notes as to what he’s saying about this, and as it turned out, we passed the recommendations and I have to think that the Migrant Labor Board is a lot better now than it was then. But he would astound you with some of the things that he would do. I remember when Martin Luther King was assassinated. We decided that he should give a speech about that, and he we spent a whole day, the staff, trying to write a speech or something, and I don’t think– it just didn’t hit the mark. At the end of the day, he was getting ready to go and he asked for it and we told him– we gave him what we had and we told him that maybe there were better things that could be said. The next morning, about seven o’clock in the morning, I got a call from Governor Hughes, who asked me to come up to Morven. I was living in Lawrenceville at that time, was not that far to go. When I got up there, he was in the den and he had obviously been up for most of the night. He had balls of yellow foolscrap all over the place, and he had finally written a speech and he wanted me to comment on it. And I read it and I told him that maybe its not as slick as any speech he’s given, but its what you want to say and I think its more than good to say, and he gave that speech that day. But he was really a miraculous kind of fellow.

Q: Talk a little bit about his political instincts. He was famous as a speaker.

Stanley Van Ness: Yeah, well he was an excellent speaker, and I– you know, the one thing before that I said, the biggest thing that amazed me about Dick Hughes was his ability to remember people. I don’t think if he met you, that he would ever forget you, and I saw an example of that in that, I guess, Meyner came back to try and succeed Hughes in running– and was running against Cahill. I was at a fund raising affair up in Orange or East Orange or something like, and Dick Hughes came in place of Meyner and he knew just about everybody in that crowd. I mean, he walked through the crowd and he was this and that, and finally when Meyner arrived, he went through the crowd throwing his kind of dead fish in people’s hand and out the door, and the contrast was amazing. And the result of the election was not too surprising, either.

Q: Any other anecdotes about Governor Hughes as when you were an Assistant Counsel, when you still had at least Dave Goldberg, I guess, to work through.

Stanley Van Ness: Yeah, well ..

Q: Did you not have the direct contact?

Stanley Van Ness: Well, this is one story that I told a few times. But that first summer that I was there, when the campaign started for his re-election, he was going to be campaigning in Newark on a Sunday in black neighborhoods. The tradition at that time was politicians would go to the supermarkets and to the churches. One place or the other in a black neighborhood. And he was scheduled to go to Newark. Joe Katz, I think Joe Katz suggested that I accompany him to Newark, so– and then maybe I’d go, I don’t- <laughs> I don’t know what this is all about. And we’d get there, and the first church he spoke at, he introduced me as a new member of his staff and one that he thought had a lot of promise. And the second church we went, I was one of his trusted advisers.

Q: <laughs>

Stanley Van Ness: And we went to the third church, and he never did anything without talking to me about it.

Q: <laughs>

Stanley Van Ness: I told him– it was years later, when I felt that I could say it to him, I told him, I said, “You know, one more church and I’d have been Attorney General.” <laughs>

Q: <laughs>

Stanley Van Ness: But he was a very political man. He used to tell the story that his father told him that you don’t favor one party over the other. You take the best man in any kind of election. He says, “For 50 years, I’ve been looking for a situation where a Republican was the best man.”

Q: In any event, maybe because of that Newark church, he promotes you very rapidly.

Stanley Van Ness: Yeah, he did.

Q: Dave Goldberg–

Stanley Van Ness: –left and became Commissioner of Transportation. And Larry…his secretary became counsel for a time. Then I succeeded. Larry Bilder, yeah. I succeeded Larry. It was in 1967. In fact, I was supposed to be sworn in on the Friday of the week that the riots began in Newark on a Wednesday. Again, it was Joe Katz that chased me up to Newark to be with the governor. I got there on, I guess, Thursday night. I was there until Sunday night, Monday morning, I guess. I don’t know when it was, really. That was a short trip through Hell.

Q: Describe that in more detail. It must have been very scary.

Stanley Van Ness: It was scary. When I got there, I think the governor had made the speech to virtually taking over control of the whole thing and kind of pushed [Newark Mayor Hugh] Addonizio aside, which was a good move, because people weren’t responding to Addonizio at all. I went out– we were looking for some people that we could start talking to that might be able to calm things down. We were looking for a guy that I had been in the U.S. Attorney’s office with who was then counsel to the poverty agency in Newark . I was in a car with a Black colonel from the National Guard. I don’t know whether he was– he may have been a minister with Ray Brown. We were going through the central ward, and they were going down some little narrow street. There was a fire truck in front of us. The colonel was driving. All of a sudden, he slammed the brakes on and started backing up and the fire truck was backing up and people were throwing Molotov cocktails off the roofs at the fire truck. That was my introduction to what went on there. We finally got people together about 3:00 the following morning. This must have been Friday night. It was a Friday night, because it was Saturday when we then met with Tim Still]. He was the president of the poverty agency and a number of his associates at his apartment. He was in the Colonnades, I think. Dick met with these people, I guess it had been 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. As a result of the meeting, they agreed to go out and try to calm people down. The next morning, the same morning, about 8:00 , I was down at City Hall talking to a group of people that they had rounded up and sent down there, that we were going to go out and talk to the people in the community to see if they could establish some calm. We got there and the doors were locked. The mayor had arranged to have the doors opened at the City Hall. We had contact with Dick Hughes and back and forth and we finally got in and got these people out. It did go out. They put green on us. I think it was a bilious green armband that they had gotten somewhere, a bunch of them and they put them around their arms, so to identify themselves and they went out. Then I met with them that night at 7:00-8:00 at night, I guess it was, over by where the Star Ledger was then. It’s a different place now. We met, I think, in the Star Ledger building. They reported what they had done, that things were calming down. We came out of the building and there was some guy on the roof that was shooting at the State policemen. They were shooting back. Bullets were going over the top of our heads as we were coming out. I remember getting on my hands and knees and probably my belly at the time. That passed. Then when we got back on– I guess that’s the night that the State Police rioted and shot the windows out of a number of stores that had put “Soul Brother” on it to protect themselves from the rioters. Those windows got shot out and some people got hurt. The following day, a Sunday, these people were then complaining about the State policemen rioting. I think there was a real basis for their concern. Throughout that time, I guess it was Paul Ylvislaker and myself on one side and the Attorney General, Arthur Sills and maybe Larry Bilder on the other, in terms of what kind of approach needed to be taken. I think Paul and I prevailed ultimately. The governor pulled the State Police out of the areas, under the theory that if they’re not there, there’s not any shootout and the people will stop shooting. That seemed to work. That seemed to bring down the temperature of the area. Then on Monday, I think they were able to move out altogether.

Q: Of course, Paul Ylvislaker was the Commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs.

Stanley Van Ness: Community Affairs, at the time, yeah.

Q: Was the decision by Governor Hughes partly, at least at your suggestion to pull out the State Police, resisted by the–?

Stanley Van Ness: I think it was. Yeah, I think it was resisted by Dave Kelly, who was the Superintendent of State Police at the time. There being, again, well you’re going to let evildoers get away from this. That was true. People that had been up there shooting, and when they stopped shooting, they were able to get away. But we weren’t going anywhere the way it was going. I think Dave and I talked about that afterwards. I don’t know that he ever agreed with me that that was the right thing to do, but I think he allowed that maybe there was some basis for it.

Q: Any other key people that you remember? You mentioned meeting at the Ledger. Were there people from the Ledger who were influential at the time?

Stanley Van Ness: No, not at that meeting. There were a number of people who were helpful. Some of them that I had contact with and some that were kind of operating on an independent basis–Bob Curvin and others from the community were working with Dick and talking to him.

Q: I guess it was somewhat difficult finding who had influence with the street people?

Stanley Van Ness: With the street people, that’s true. That’s true. United Progress, I think is the name of the poverty agency. I believe that’s what it was. They did have some ground roots support. They could reach out and touch people. Other than that, I don’t know that there was anybody that had any special rapport. Certainly, the Black political leaders, they did not have any basis to call upon the community. They were viewed as Addonizio’s people and not interested, except under extraordinary circumstances were they interested.

Q: Tell me more about the politics of Newark and Essex County at that point during the Newark riots.

Stanley Van Ness: Well, Addonizio was the mayor of Newark, he was a former congressman, a war hero and at one time looked at as somebody who really might go far in politics. I think he kind of sold out along the way and he had to select the people to run for office to represent the Newark area. They really had allegiance to him as the primary qualification for the job. The county of Newark was under the control of Dennis Carey. But I don’t think that Carey had very much to do with the day-to-day operations of what was going on in Newark . That was the thing that was annoying a lot of the community there. That the day-to-day operations were not being run well and they weren’t being run fairly. I think the focus was really on the city government.

Q: After things quiet down somewhat and you have more time to reflect as to what has happened, not only in Newark but in other New Jersey cities and nationally around the country, what were the types of meetings and discussions you had with Governor Hughes and Commissioner Ylivisaker and others about what New Jersey should do?

Stanley Van Ness: I know that the governor believed that he needed the Commission to look into the causes underlying the riots. I’m sure that came to his attention. I don’t know whether anybody recommended or not, but I know that I met with him and he was talking to me about people that ought to be on this Commission. I think his initial focus was what Black people can we get on this Commission that would tell us what was going on? I recall telling him that I thought that he was mistakenly looking for black people. That it was not a black problem; it was a white problem. Maybe it would be better served if this commission were composed of white people that were influential in the state. He came up, agreed with that proposition and then the committee was chaired by the guy who was president of Bell Telephone at the time. Governor Meyner was on it. John Gibbons, who was then the president of the New Jersey Bar Association, was on the committee. Ray, a lawyer from Jersey City . I don’t know. I’m getting old here, Don. I’ll think of it in a minute. And a couple of the clergymen. It was a good commission and they came up with a good report. Ray Brown was the lawyer’s name. I can’t think of the Bell Telephone guy, but the report takes his name. The legislative program for the governor the following year was basically to enact the recommendations of that committee. He got a good portion of it through. By that time, both houses were controlled by Republicans. We had lost both houses. He was still able to get through the Republican legislature, a more than adequate response to the committee’s recommendations.