On April 21, former Republican Gov. Thomas Kean celebrated his sixty-eighth birthday. I think it is highly appropriate to commemorate a person who was, in my opinion, the greatest and most respected governor in our state’s history.
The son of a congressman, Kean grew up in Washington, D.C., and Livingston, N.J. The Kean family has deep political roots in N.J. In 1958, Kean assisted his father’s unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate.
In 1967, Kean ran successfully for the General Assembly in what was mostly a middle-class suburban district in Essex County with the exception of Irvington. He became majority leader when Republican Gov. William Cahill was elected. Kean had several early legislative accomplishments with environment, assistance to urban schools and campaign financing laws.
Kean later became Speaker of the Assembly with the help of Hudson County Democrats who worked well with him and Cahill.
The Watergate scandal left the N.J. Republicans in disarray: only 14 Republicans remained in the Assembly. When Rep. Peter Frelinghuysen chose to retire after the 1974 election, Kean ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination.
Kean then returned to the Assembly and worked as the campaign manager of President Ford’s successful N.J. election campaign. In 1977, he ran for governor, but lost the Republican primary to State Sen. Ray Bateman. Bateman made a mistake by opposing the state income tax, which led to his defeat in the general election. Once a state adopts an income tax, it becomes extraordinarily difficult to eliminate it and maintain the funding structure.
In 1981, Kean ran successfully for the gubernatorial nomination by forming an essential coalition of moderates and conservatives. He went on to defeat then Rep. Jim Florio, but the general election results were so close that the race was decided by a recount that ended weeks later.
Kean viewed himself as a conservative who believed in law-and-order legislation, welfare reform, fiscal discipline and limited government while championing liberal issues such as environmental protection, education, civil rights, urban policy and assistance for the economically disadvantaged.
The 1982 recession had a devastating impact on the state’s economy, forcing the governor to make cuts in spending and public employees while approving increases in the sales and income taxes. Without the balanced budget requirement and the line-item veto, Kean would not have been able to avert fiscal chaos.
Kean then carried out his promise to refurbish N.J.’s economy by slashing the unemployment rate in half, improving the business climate, signing five tax cuts including the repeal of the inheritance tax and leaving the state with a significant surplus that would be returned to the taxpayers with the help of Speaker Chuck Hardwick.
Gov. Kean is probably known best for his ground-breaking reforms in education, including an $18,500 a year minimum salary for teachers, a limited merit pay system, higher standards, doubling spending for urban schools, recruitment reforms and tougher minimum skills tests.
I’m delighted that another member of the Kean family is now in the state legislature, Tom Kean, Jr. is a State Senator from District 21, Union County. I have met Kean’s son and I have found him to be very charming, talented and knowledgeable on the issues.
Kean, Jr. will be in the U.S. Senate or in the Governor’s office someday, I’m sure of it.
On behalf of all N.J. Republicans, we will never forget what Gov. Kean did for our party and we will always remember how he brought back pride in N.J.