Remembering a Progressive hero: Frank Herbert’s story

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Yesterday I had the pleasure of catching up with one of the best public servants New Jersey has ever produced.

He is not well-known even in Democratic circles, let alone the state of New Jersey, and he last served in public office when Leonid Brezhnev was Premier of the USSR.

Frank Herbert, however is definitely not someone to forget, particularly if you’re a New Jersey Democrat or – even more so – a progressive.

You see, Frank Herbert did 2 things that New Jerseyans and progressives should forever be grateful for:

1) He pushed for and got the Legislature to pass the law that created New Jersey Transit, a system that provides business and social lifelines for hundreds of thousands of our residents.

2) He is the only candidate in New Jersey history to win a Federal election as a write-in candidate. In doing so, he saved the Democratic Party from nominating a Holocaust-denying, KKK-loving extremist.

His story is in the extended section below.  

Frank Herbert was born to a Newark working-class family in 1931. After serving in the Korean War, he became a High School English teacher, with a penchant for Shakespeare. Having settled in the wealthy Bergen County suburb of Waldwick, he met his wife Eleanor, to whom he is still married today.  

An unabashed New Deal Liberal with great admiration for Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Herbert became politically active as a result of his opposition to the Vietnam War. His new-found desire to serve the public led him to run for the Waldwick Town Council, where he won in an upset.

In 1973, Herbert was one of the Democratic nominees for Bergen County Freeholder. Just 2 weeks before the general election, Richard Nixon sought to get rid of the Special Prosecutor into the Watergate Scandal. The “Saturday Night Massacre”, together with the right-wing ideology of Gubernatorial nominee Charles Sandman produced a Democratic wave not seen in New Jersey before or since.

“The night Nixon fired Archibald Cox,” Herbert told me, “I went home to Eleanor and told her I was going to win.”

Herbert, his running mates and Democrats across the entire state were elected; a previously unknown judge named Brendan Byrne won the Governorship by over 700,000 votes, or 66-32%, carrying every county except for Cape May.

Three years later, with Byrne and the Democratic legislature having instituted the State Income Tax, and with Gerald Ford carrying Bergen County against Jimmy Carter, Herbert lost reelection.

He would not out of office for long. In 1977 State Senator Raymond Garramone left his district vacant in a quixotic bid for Governor against Byrne in the Democratic Primary (he got 1% of the vote). Herbert ran in his place and, buoyed by Byrne’s surprising reelection victory, defeated Assemblyman John Markert in November.

It is worth noting that Herbert ran as an unabashed supporter of the Income Tax in 1977, in a wealthy suburban district.
Our leaders today could learn a thing or 2 about winning while keeping your principles intact from him.

As noted above, Frank Herbert’s lasting legacy as a State Senator was the creation of New Jersey Transit. He was handed the assignment by Governor Byrne, and the Shakespeare teacher passed with flying colors. Mass Transit remained a core issue for Herbert in his future bids for office; in 2007 he would call for increasing the gas tax in order to pay for new train lines across the state.

The Bergen Record endorsed Herbert for reelection in 1981, citing him as “a model public servant and a truly decent, honest man”. Unfortunately the voters in NJ-39 went with Gerald Cardinale instead. After losing a rematch to Cardinale by a 51-49% margin in 1983, Herbert seemingly left the campaign trail for good.

His greatest campaign was yet to come, however.

Early in 1994, Frank Herbert retired from teaching and moved with Eleanor to Sparta in Sussex County. At the time, Sparta was part of the 11th Congressional District, held by moderate Republican Dean Gallo. Gallo, a friendly and popular incumbent was being challenged from the right by a dentist named Joseph Pennacchio, but was expected to beat back the challenge easily. As such, Democrats in Morris County, which made up the vast majority of the district, only planned to file a token candidate.

Unfortunately, they failed even to do that. Attorney Joseph Tauriello of Morristown filed 104 signatures as their choice to run for Congress. 5 of the signatures were declared invalid after being challenged by a surprise primary opponent, tossing Tauriello off the ballot. That left a man named John Kucek as the Democratic nominee.

Much to the horror of Democratic Party leaders and activists in NJ-11, John Kucek was a public admirer of KKK Grandmaster David Duke. Even worse was the fact that Kucek was on record as publicly questioning whether the Holocaust had ever happened. Indeed, the self-proclaimed “Christian Populist” would continue to deny the existence of the Shoa for the rest of his electoral career.

Even for a race against the impregnable Dean Gallo, Kucek was unacceptable as a nominee. Yet he was the only Democrat on the ballot for the June 1994 Congressional primary. What could be done?

The answer was to launch a write-in campaign. It was a desperate effort; no New Jersey candidate had ever won a Congressional nomination by write-in, let alone a general election. Nevertheless, “It had to be done,” Frank Herbert told me years later. “Even if we failed, we needed to fight against bigotry and Anti-Semitism. The Party of FDR could not be the Party of John Kucek.”

Frank Herbert, newly arrived in the district, was as disgusted as anyone else by the thought of a Holocaust denier as the Democratic nominee. When the word got out that Democratic leaders were looking for a candidate willing to be written in – and to work as hard as possible to pull it off – Herbert answered the call.

In the 6 weeks between the decision to run and the primary election, Herbert and a small army of volunteers scoured Morris County, along with the small part of Essex County that was part of the district. They went everywhere; fairs, parades, picnics and even local municipal government meetings saw Herbert and his team show up to make their case. According to one article from the Bergen Record years later, “this effort was run on shoe leather, lung power and the passion that comes with winning against all odds.”

Instructions in how to cast a write-in vote were mailed to Democrats throughout the district. Without computerized machines, that literally meant writing in Frank Herbert’s name by hand on a paper ballot. Voters also had to be made aware of why Kucek was unacceptable, and to avoid voting for him by accident simply by walking into the voting booth and going straight down the Democratic line.

On Primary Day, June 7th 1994, Dean Gallo won renomination handily over “Dr. Joe” Pennacchio.

The real story was that Frank Herbert won as well. He had made history as the first successful write-in candidate in a New Jersey federal election. In fact, nearly 6,000 Democrats had correctly wrote his name in to make him their nominee – over 70% of the votes that were counted. Kucek only carried the Somerset County portion of the district, where no organized effort was made (thankfully only 400 Democrats voted there at all).

As it turned out, Frank Herbert did not face Dean Gallo in November 1994. The incumbent, fatally stricken with cancer, withdrew from the race in August and was replaced by Assemblyman Rodney Freylingheusen (Gallo died 2 days before Election Day). Herbert went after his opponent on economic and social issues alike, running as the proud New Deal Democrat he was and is.

Even in a good Democratic year, Herbert had no chance in a staunchly Republican district. 1994, of course, saw a Republican tidal wave sweep the country, putting Newt Gingrich in the Speaker’s chair and ending 40 years of Democratic control of the House of Representatives. Unsurprisingly, Freylingheusen crushed Herbert by over 2:1.

In reality, however, Frank Herbert had already won – and so had Democrats in Morris County, New Jersey and the nation. By decisively defeating Kucek in remarkable fashion, Frank Herbert proved that right-wing extremist and bigotry were unacceptable in the modern Democratic Party.

He also showed that a write-in campaign, if highly coordinated and with a dedicated group of supporters, could stop even an unopposed candidate if they were truly unacceptable to their Party. Kucek would be beaten by a write-in again, this time for the Assembly, in 1995 (by 2 candidates, no less), and got just 7% of the vote in seeking the Congressional nomination again in 1996. He never ran for office again.

Frank Herbert went back into retirement after losing his bid for Congress. In 2007, however he returned to politics to challenge State Senator Anthony Bucco (he had moved to Rockaway Township) in the 25th Legislative District. Hampered by ill-health, however, he was unable to run an active campaign and lost 3:2 to Bucco. It was in that year that I first met and came to know the former State Senator, and I remember to call him every so often to see how he and Eleanor are doing.

Frank Herbert’s remarkable political career was not a particularly successful one – he never won reelection to any office he held in his career. Yet I would argue that the man who pushed for New Jersey Transit, and who made history by stopping a white supremacist from representing our Party in a Congressional election, deserves more recognition than he has gotten. This (lengthy) article will, I hope, help to correct that oversight.


Comments (3)

  1. Stephen Yellin (Post author)

    For the record, Frank recently turned 80. He is recovering from having successful surgery to install a pacemaker. Unlike Dick Cheney, Frank already had a heart – it just needed repairing.  

  2. Bill W

    I first met him when he was mounting the write-in campaign against Kucek, and he came off as one of the most genuinely admirable people I’ve met in politics.  Really smart, idealistic, and fair-minded.  He even had a few good things to say about Gerald Cardinale.  

    And I often cite the Kucek debacle as an object lesson in why campaigns need to make sure all their paperwork is in order.  And to make sure they’ve got way more signatures than they need.  


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