Long-serving State Sen. Gerry Cardinale (R-39) passed away on Feb. 20 at Pascack Valley Hospital after a brief illness.
The 86-year-old Cardinale, who served the 39th Legislative District for 42 years, was the second longest serving Senator in New Jersey history.
Colleagues remembered him for his wit, political acumen, devotion to family and friends, and a deep and abiding love for his state and country as well as celebrating his Italian heritage in many ways with his love of Italian food and the occasional grappa.
Assemblyman Robert Auth (R-39) said his mentor and close friend was one of the best politicians he had ever seen.
“There was never a hand he did not want to shake, a door he did not want to knock on, or a train station where he did not want to greet commuters with a smile,” said Auth, a long-time staffer for Cardinale. “It will be a long time before we see another public servant like Gerry Cardinale who had guts, commitment and passion for his constituents.”
“He worked hard every day to earn the trust of the residents of the 39th District and maintain his connection to the people of New Jersey.”
Gov. Phil Murphy, who ordered flags to be lowered to half-staff when the Senate returns to session Feb. 22, called Cardinale “a true public servant.”
“Senator 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.
Born in New York City in 1934, Cardinale received a B.S. Degree in Chemistry from St. John’s University and earned a DDS from New York University College of Dentistry in 1959. He was first elected and served on the Demarest Board of Education from 1967 to 1973, including as president in 1969 and 1970. From 1975 to 1978, he served as that town’s mayor, with the notable accomplishment of establishing a senior citizen center in the historic Demarest railroad station.
A conservative Republican, Cardinale spent one term in the Assembly from 1980–1981 leading the fight for casino reform legislation; he was the prime sponsor of twelve casino reform bills, which were voted into law, keeping the casinos in Atlantic City free of political manipulation and mob influence before being elected to the State Senate.
During his time in the upper chamber, he cosponsored Joan’s Law in the late 1990s and subsequently conceived and co-prime sponsored Megan’s Law, establishing the model for other state and national laws.
In 2001, Cardinale’s bill requiring parental consent prior to children being subjected to intrusive surveys in public schools became law. The following year, his years long campaign for parental rights regarding sex education was rewarded with the passage of his Stress Abstinence in Sex Education Bill.
More recently, Cardinale’s bill establishing involuntary commitment to outpatient treatment for persons in need of such treatment was passed into law, benefiting the thousands of individuals and families struggling with psychiatric issues.
Dean of the State Senate
Cardinale ran for the Republican nomination for governor in 1989 and U.S. House in 2002 but lost both times in the primary.
Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-21) said as dean of the State Senate Republican caucus, Cardinale 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,” said Kean.
A State Icon
After speculation that he might retire, Cardinale announced in January that he would run for another term. Cardinale was being challenged by Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi for the Republican nomination for the seat this year. Local GOP officials will now choose a replacement for Cardinale in the Senate until November’s election.
In a Facebook posting, Schepisi said “we have lost an icon in our state.”
“Gerry was a well respected and revered Senator…fighting for our community and working to make New Jersey a better place to live, work, and retire,” wrote the Assemblywoman. “I was fortunate to work with him for nearly a decade and will miss his friendship (and) principled leadership in Trenton.”
The press announcement noted Cardinale, who leaves behind his wife of 62 years Carole Cardinale and five children, passed away from a brief non-Covid-related illness.