William J. Kohm, a legendary and important New Jersey lobbyist and former reporter who counselled some of the state’s most influential Republicans for fifty years and served as Clerk of the New Jersey State Assembly in 1956 and 1957, passed away on December 31. He was 92.
After serving in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War, Kohm worked as a reporter for the Hudson Dispatch for nine years until becoming the North Jersey bureau head for the Newark Evening News.
Assembly Republicans selected the 25-year-old Kohm as the next Assembly Clerk following the 1955 election.
The part-time, $7,000-per-year position (adjusted for inflation, the position paid $74,237 today) was the top Assembly patronage position at the time and had belonged to the six-member Bergen delegation since 1943. The Bergen GOP policy committee chose him to succeed William Ludlum, a former Bergen County freeholder and mayor of Glen Rock. Kohm was the youngest Assembly Clerk in state history at the time.
In addition to working as the Assembly Clerk, Kohm was a key member of the Bergen County Republican Organization’s staff. He married Norma Fichter, the secretary of State Senator Walter H. Jones (R-Norwood), in 1957; they were married for 63 years until her passing in 2020.
In 1957, the Democrats won control of the Assembly and replaced Kohm with Harry Dudkin, the Democratic municipal chairman of Newark’s South Ward and a two-time candidate for Congress against Rep. Robert W. Kean (R-Livingston). Dudkin’s 1987 murder remains unsolved.
In 1958, Kohm turned down the opportunity to serve as clerk of the Bergen County Grand Jury in favour of working for Jones on legislative committees investigating the New Jersey Legalized Games of Chance Commission and local waste collection.
In July 1958, he became the regional communications director for Kean’s campaign for the U.S. Senate. This occurred when Jones backed Kean’s chief opponent, the former White House Cabinet Secretary Bernard Shanley.
Kean was the favourite to replace retiring U.S. Senator H. Alexander Smith, but the Democratic wave in President Dwight Eisenhower’s second midterm election resulted in the unexpected victory of former Rep. Harrison Williams (D-Plainfield) by a margin of 51% to 47%.
After the election, Kohm worked as chief of staff for Jones and executive director of the Bergen County Republican Organization. In 1961, Kohm assisted Jones in his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for governor.
Soon after Jones, the Senate Majority Leader, lost the primary to former U.S. Secretary of Labor James P. Mitchell, 44%-35%, Kohm established Kohm Associates in Hackensack. His first customer was the Republican Organization of Bergen County. In 1962, when the New Jersey Legislature did not have political staffs, Senate Majority Leader Charles Sandman (R-Erma) appointed him press secretary and spokesman for the Senate Republicans.
In 1963, Kohm ran one of the most epic legislative campaigns in state history in an attempt to switch the Democratic Essex County Senate seat to the Republican party.
Democrats opted to replace their two-term incumbent senator, Donal C. Fox (D-South Orange), with Assembly Speaker Elmer Matthews following his dispute with county chairman Dennis Carey (D-South Orange).
Republicans nominated Minority Leader of the Assembly C. Robert Sarcone (R-Newark). This was the only time in New Jersey’s history when the Assembly Speaker and the Minority Leader ran against one another for a State Senate seat. By a margin of 15,902 votes, 51%-44%, Sarcone defeated Matthews, with Assemblyman George Richardson (D-Newark), the sole Black member of the assembly, receiving 4% of the vote as an independent.
In 1964, when Shanley again ran for the U.S. Senate, Kohm joined the campaign as a campaign strategist and spokesman. Williams won his attempt for a second term against Shanley.
In 1965, Kohm suffered a defeat when Democratic Governor Richard J. Hughes won Bergen County by 13 percentage points and the Republican legislative slate he ran in the county lost four state senate seats and six of seven Assembly seats. In 1966, Kohm handed up his Bergen GOP contract.
In 1966, Kohm and Joseph W. Katz, a Democrat, served as press assistants for the New Jersey Constitutional Convention.
In 1968, Kohm became the New Jersey state director for Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s presidential candidature campaign. The next year, he served as communications director for New Jersey governor-elect William Cahill, a South Jersey congressman. Kohm was appointed to Cahill’s transition team.
After Cahill assumed office, Kohm’s firm grew to become the largest contract lobbying firm in the state, with a vast portfolio of private and public sector customers, including the newly formed New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority. Additionally, Kohm bought Attitude Analysis Research Services, a polling organisation based in Paramus.
In 1986, Kohm formed Public Strategies with Harold Hodes, a Democrat and former chief of staff to Governor Brendan Byrne. His firm, which included another Hudson Dispatch reporter-turned-political insider, James McQueeny, ultimately combined with a lobbying firm led by Republican Roger Bodman, who served as Gov. Tom Kean’s campaign manager and cabinet secretary, to establish the massive Public Strategies Impact. His retirement occurred in 1993.