Superior Court Judge Harold Hollenbeck will reach the mandatory retirement age of seventy on December 29, possibly ending a career in public service that began with his election to the East Rutherford Borough Council in 1966. But some Republican insiders say that Hollenbeck could be the GOP’s strongest candidate to challenge Bergen County Executive Dennis McNerney in 2010.
Hollenbeck was elected to the State Assembly in 1967, at the age of 29, as part of a Republican sweep of Bergen County in the second mid-term election of Democratic Gov. Richard Hughes. After two terms in the Assembly, he won a State Senate seat in 1971.
Around the same time that U.S. Attorney Herbert Stern issued subpoenas to sixteen businesses with ties to the Bergen County Republican Organization in early 1973, the GOP County Chairman, Anthony Statile, announced that he would step down. Hollenbeck ran for County Chairman as an insurgent candidate and lost on the third ballot to Statile’s candidate, Englewood Municipal Clerk Joseph Carney, by 62 votes.
Faced with being dumped by the organization in his bid for a second term in the Senate, Hollenbeck instead made a deal and wound up on the ticket as a candidate for Bergen County Freeholder. In the Watergate landslide that devastated the GOP that year, Hollenbeck lost his countywide race.
Three years later, Hollenbeck mounted a political comeback as a candidate for Congress in the ninth district. The incumbent, Henry Helstoski, was from Hollenebeck’s hometown (he had replaced Hollenbeck’s father as Mayor of East Rutherford in 1956) and after narrowly (50%-49%) ousting a longtime Republican Congressman in the 1964 LBJ landslide, survived a series of close races in politically competitive district before winning 2-1 in 1974.
In 1975, Helstoski became the target of a federal probe involving a plan to extort money from illegal aliens who wanted the Congressman to pass legislation that would allow them to remain in the U.S. He was indicted one week before the Democratic primary, where he was facing a challenge from Byron Baer, a Democratic Assemblyman. Helstoski won the primary 52%-48%, but a Superior Court Judge ordered the primary rerun in September after finding several thousand fraudulent ballots in the Hudson County portion of the district. Helstoski won the new primary 55%-45%, but lost the general to Hollenbeck by a 53%-44% margin.
Hollenbeck was expected to face a tough race against Assembly Majority Leader Albert Burstein in 1978, but Burstein lost the Democratic primary to Nicholas Mastorelli, who had the backing of the Hudson County Democratic organization. With Helstoski winning 13% of the vote as an Independent, Hollenbeck won a second term by a 49%-38% margin. He was re-elected to a third term in Congress in 1980, defeating Gabriel Ambrosio (who would go on to serve in the State Senate) by 21 points.
After redistricting made the ninth more Democratic in 1982, Hollenbeck lost his seat by a 53%-46% margin to Robert Torricelli, who had served as an aide to Vice President Walter Mondale and Gov. Brendan Byrne. He practiced law in Bergen County with Berek Don and Carmine Alampi, who would later plead guilty to breaking campaign finance laws during Torricelli’s 1996 U.S. Senate campaign. Don, the Republican County Chairman, went to prison; Alampi, who was Torricelli’s treasurer, was fined $5,000.
Hollenbeck actively sought party support to run for Bergen County Executive in 1986, a year after voters approved a Charter Change referendum to create the post. The Republican nod instead went to Sheriff William McDowell. In 1987, Gov. Thomas Kean appointed him to serve as a Superior Court Judge.
After federal prosecutors dropped their charges against him, Helstoski also resurrected his public service career: he served as North Bergen Superintendent of Schools from 1981 to 1985.