Senior GOP Senator Gerald Cardinale, dead at 86

After serving five terms in the lower house of the New Jersey Legislature, Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi scored some big wins in her quest for the GOP Senate nomination over incumbent State Senator Gerald Cardinale, but she couldn’t end the 54-year political career of the 86-year-old, 12-term incumbent.

Instead, it was death that claimed Cardinale, who had battled a series of health issues over the last year.

In this March 22, 2012 photo, Sen. Gerald Cardinale complains of the negative tone among Senate Judiciary Committee members. Cardinale, died Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021 at Hackensack Meridian Health Pascack Valley Medical Center after 54 years in elected office.

Cardinale, who served almost four decades as a Republican in the New Jersey Senate, passed away Saturday at Hackensack Meridian Health Pascack Valley Medical Center after a brief illness, said his daughter Marisa, who noted that his demise was not COVID-19-related.

He was a conservative stalwart who served longer in the New Jersey Legislature than any other Republican in state history and Cardinale was seeking an unprecedented 13th term at the time of his death.

In January 2015, Cardinale and Richard J. Codey broke the record of Frank “Hap” Farley as the longest-serving state senator in New Jersey history.

Codey’s eight years in the Assembly, made Cardinale the state legislator with the second longest tenure in state history. His 54-year political career began with an election to the Demarest Board of Education in 1967.

Schepisi, the River Vale Republican who was trying to unseat him, said: “It is with deep sadness that I learned this morning of the passing of my friend and longtime colleague Senator Gerald Cardinale who had been battling an illness.”

Senator Gerald Cardinale during a Feb. 28, 2005 debate over pay-to-play reform legislation.

“Gerry was a well respected and revered Senator for nearly forty years, fighting for our community and working to make New Jersey a better place to live, work, and retire,” said Schepisi. “I was fortunate to work with him for nearly a decade and will miss his friendship and principled leadership in Trenton. We have lost an icon in our state. Paul and I and our entire family send our love and support to his family, especially his wife Carol and children, during this difficult time.”

Gov. Phil Murphy ordered flags lowered to half-staff on Monday, when the Senate returns to session and will honor Cardinale.

“Sen. Cardinale’s 54-year record of public service to the state of New Jersey speaks to the level of trust his constituents placed in him,” said Murphy.

Six Republican Assemblymen celebrate their 1979 election victories. From left: District 40’s Walter Kern of Ridgewood and Cary Edwards of Oakland; John Markert and Gerald Cardinale of District 39; and John Paolella and Louis Kosco of District 38.

“Our Senate Republican family is deeply saddened by the passing of our longest serving member, Senator Gerald Cardinale,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. “Gerry, the dean of our caucus, was a trusted voice in the Senate for nearly four decades. Generations of Republicans and Democrats who served alongside him in the Legislature were guided by his sage advice. We are all better legislators for having served with him.”

“This is a terribly sad loss for Senator Cardinale’s family, the people he served in the 39th Legislative District with devotion, and all of us in the Legislature who knew him and respected his commitment to public service,” said State Senate Majority President Steve Sweeney. “He was a distinctive man who worked tirelessly and with sincere conviction to improve the lives of others. Gerry Cardinale will be missed.”

Sen. Gerald Cardinale and then-Bergen County GOP Chairman Bob Yudin salute while the National Anthem opened the Republican National Convention in Tampa Bay, in August 2012.

Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg said, “I join with many others today in mourning the death of my long-time colleague, Senator Gerry Cardinale. While we disagreed on many issues, we found common interest and purpose when it came to serving the people and institutions of North Jersey and Bergen County, whether regarding infrastructure and mass transit, or supporting the preservation of New Bridge Landing, in which we worked together with a mutual respect for the history of Bergen County and the state of New Jersey.”

“Senator Cardinale was a force in the Republican party and the state Legislature,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Westfield). “With more than five decades of distinguished public service he leaves a lasting mark on the state.”

“New Jersey has lost a truly iconic public servant and the Republican Party will sorely miss his leadership. Senator Cardinale has earned the trust of his constituents more often than any other GOP legislator in state history because he was an honest, dedicated and caring man,” said New Jersey Republican State Chairman Michael Lavery. “His legacy of conservative leadership in the state house will live on for generations to come.”

After one term in the New Jersey General Assembly from 1980 until 1982, Cardinale represented the 39th Legislative District in the New Jersey State Senate from 1982 until his death in 2021.

In March 2019 Cardinale expressed opposition to marijuana legalization, calling the social justice arguments in favor of legalization “B.S.” and disputing assertions that tax revenues would solve the state’s budget problems, but after New Jersey voters approved an adult-use cannabis legalization referendum, he introduced legislation that would allow residents to grow marijuana for personal use.

“The people voted to lift the prohibition on cannabis,” said Cardinale. “The Legislature has spent three months fumbling around with what should have been a simple task, and complicated the legalization effort with countless fees, licensing & extra layers of bureaucracy.”

Judith Joan Sullivan takes a photo with Holly Schepisi, and Cardinale in September 2015.

Cardinale also sponsored legislation that would allow more firefighters to qualify for membership in the New Jersey State Firemen’s Association (NJSFA), to help break down barriers to employment because of a prior conviction of a crime, allowing New Jerseyans to pump their own gas and authorizing school districts to educate students remotely when emergencies require school facilities to be closed.

Eight Bergen County Republican mayors urged Cardinale not to run for re-election and to instead support Schepisi for “a new generation of leadership in our community.”

Ray Arroyo of Westwood, Peter Calamari of the Township of Washington, Michael Ghassali of Montvale, John Glidden of Closter, John Kramer of Old Tappan, Al Kurpis of Saddle River, James Wysocki of Mahwah, and Carlos Rendo of Woodcliff Lake told Cardinale he can best serve by moving along.

Cardinale seems to have taken them up on that, but its not clear if he planned to support Schepisi.

At the time of his death, he was the second-most senior senator in the state, behind Richard Codey, who also came in office in January 1982, but had served in the General Assembly since 1974.

Cardinale was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1984, 1988 and 1992 and served as ono the New Jersey Republican State Platform Committee in 1983.

A longtime Bergen County dentist, Cardinale served on the Demarest school board in 1967 and eventually became mayor in 1975, then spent one term in the Assembly before moving to the Senate in 1982.

Cardinale received a B.S. degree in Chemistry from St. John’s University in 1955 and he was awarded a D.D.S. from the New York University College of Dentistry in 1959.

He is a dentist by profession, and he has his office in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Cardinale was born in New York City, and resides in Demarest.

Cardinale served as Mayor of Demarest, New Jersey, from 1975 to 1979, and was a trustee of the Demarest Public Schools Board of Education from 1967 to 1973, serving as its president from 1969 to 1971.

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