Joseph W. Katz, who was one of New Jersey’s most powerful and respected political insiders for decades, died Friday. He was 91 years old.
Katz became the founder of the contract lobbying firm in New Jersey, single-handedly developing an industry to outsource lobbyists to Trenton. Prior to that, he was an influential political journalist, campaign agent, and senior aide to the governor.
In the 1950s, Katz was a reporter for the Newark Evening News, where he covered the campaigns of Governor Robert Meyner and Senators H. Alexander Smith, Clifford Case and Harrison Williams, as well as the campaigns of President Eisenhower. He spent time as a state reporter – he arrived in Trenton during the final weeks of Governor Alfred Driscoll’s tenure – when the Newark Evening News was the state’s most influential newspaper.
During the 1953 gubernatorial race between Meyner and Republican Paul Troast, Katz revealed a story Troast wrote to New York Gov. Thomas Dewey to seek pardon from Joe Fay, the head of the Overating Engineers. Union. Fay was in jail after his extortion conviction and the report that Troast, who ran one of New Jersey’s largest construction companies.
Katz spent several years writing a regular column for the Sunday Newspaper titled “All About Essex,” which included plenty of insider news and little information about politics in the state’s largest county.
In 1961, saying he was tired of being a “bystander in the process,” Katz left the newspaper to play a major role in the campaign for Superior Court Judge Richard Hughes for the governorship.
Hughes was virtually unknown to Democrats, a compromise candidate among Democratic Party leaders after the top frontrunner, former Attorney General Grover Richman, dropped out in February after suffering a heart attack.
The expected winner of that race was former US Secretary of Labor James Mitchell, but Hughes – thanks in part to the strategy and media plan Katz showcased, took a shaken victory of 50-49%. Part of Katz’s plan was to ask the Democratic State Committee to buy a bunch of handout machines that allowed the Hughes campaign to quickly produce flyers for Katz to write.
Hughes appointed Katz as his special assistant, a job that in today’s world would be a combined role of deputy chief of staff, chief of policy and director of communications. He helped organize Hughes’ 57% to 41% re-election in 1965 against State Senator Wayne Dumont (R-Phillipsburg).
Katz left the governor’s office in 1966 to open what was originally intended to be a public relations and political advisory firm. But at the request of several business and trade groups, he quickly turned to lobbying. He spent 25 years as the dean of State Street lobbyists, at one point representing over 40 premium clients.
He once said that his clients went from “the cradle to the grave.” We represented the Medical Society, who gave birth, at the Cemetery Association.
Years later, Katz criticized her old newspaper, claiming the Newark Evening News was arrogant and strongly Republican.
“They thought they could tell the governor what to do,” Katz said. “They thought they owned the state. I’ve always felt that way.
Katz served in the United States Navy during World War II, then graduated from Rutgers University and Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism before becoming a journalist.
He is survived by four daughters, including lobbyist Carol Katz, his sister and ten grandchildren.
A funeral service will be held on Monday July 15 at Temple Micah in Lawrenceville.