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New Jersey lawmakers returned to Trenton on Monday, June 29, 2020, for the first in-person voting session in months. Lawmakers wore masks and kept their distance to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Trenton Bureau

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Gerald Cardinale, one of New Jersey's longest-serving legislators whose four decades in Trenton saw an unwavering advocacy for conservative causes, died Saturday morning at Pascack Valley Hospital. He was 86. 

The cause of death was not immediately released, but a statement from the New Jersey Senate Republican Office said Cardinale had a brief illness that was not related to COVID-19. 

Gov. Phil Murphy said all flags would be lowered to half staff on Monday when the Senate returns to session in honor of Cardinale, a Republican. 

"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, a Democrat.

Cardinale served the 39th district from his upper Bergen County political stronghold for 41 years — a tenure that spanned eight presidents and 10 governors, from Brendan Byrne to Murphy. He had the second-longest Senate term in New Jersey's history.

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Cardinale leaves behind his wife Carole of 62 years, five children and four granchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.

Republicans and Democrats took to social media and other venues Saturday to mourn and praise Cardinale despite some sharp political differences.

Assemblyman Robert Auth, R-Bergen, said Cardinale was a longtime mentor to generations of Republicans and one of the best retail 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 former Cardinale aide.

A longtime dentist with a practice in Fort Lee, Cardinale had no plans to slow down his political career despite his age.

He was gearing up to run for a 13th term this year despite a challenge from longtime ally Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi, R-Bergen. Bergen Republicans were to decide whether to support Cardinale or Schepisi in June’s primary at a convention next month.

Schepisi said Saturday that the state lost a political icon.

"Gerry was a well-respected and revered Senator for nearly 40 years, fighting for our community and working to make New Jersey a better place to live, work, and retire," she said.  

Born in New York City in 1934, Cardinale grew up in Brooklyn where he met his wife in preschool but didn't get acquainted until three different friends over the years fixed them up on blind dates.

He graduated from St. John's University with a degree in chemistry and then went to NYU's dental school before moving to New Jersey.

Often angered by bureaucracy, Cardinale's foray into politics came in an unusual way. In the late 1960s, Demarest school officials ruled that Cardinale's daughter was too young for kindergarten. He won the ensuing argument and the next election for school board in 1967.

He became more involved in politics in the ensuing years and eventually became mayor of Demarest in 1975.

Cardinale was part of a November 1979 Republican wave that saw the GOP gain 10 seats in the New Jersey Assembly. By 1982, Cardinale was the state senator for District 39, a collection of wealthy, mostly "Rockefeller Republican" Bergen County suburbs.

"Generations of Republicans and Democrats who served alongside him in the Legislature were guided by his sage advice," said Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean Jr. "We are all better legislators for having served with him."

Cardinale was known for his quick wit and a feistiness that rarely saw him backing down from a fight. On any given day that could include scuffles with The Record's editorial writers, with liberal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, and even with leaders of his own party.

He rose through the ranks in the Legislature and in 1989 ran for governor in a crowded GOP field. Cardinale had the support of anti-abortion groups and gun rights organizations but his abrasive style rubbed state party leaders the wrong way — including then-Gov. Tom Kean, who criticized the campaign. Cardinale finished fifth in the primary.

During his decades in the Legislature, Cardinale was often found trying to make state government smaller, fighting against affordable housing mandates, fixing a broken car insurance system and trying to reform civil service laws. He was consistently one of the most conservative legislators of his time voting against progressive measures even popular ones such as marriage equality in 2012.

He was one of the prime sponsors of both Joan's Law, which denies parole to anyone convicted of killing a child under 14, and Megan's Law, which requires community notification when a sexual offender moves into a neighborhood.

Cardinale was a supporter of the death penalty and an ardent critic of judges who he thought were too liberal — a fight he took to the highest levels of New Jersey's judiciary.

Almost from the start of his legislative career, Cardinale challenged what he viewed was the liberal drift of the state Supreme Court, a role that put him on a collision course with Robert N. Wilentz, the powerful chief justice from 1979 to 1996, who shepherded through landmark rulings on school funding and affordable housing.

The first clash came in 1983, when Cardinale moved to stop the reappointment of Appellate Court Judge Sylvia Pressler by using his “senatorial courtesy,’’ an unwritten rule that lets senators indefinitely block a judicial nominee from their home county.

Wilentz’s lobbying prompted the Senate leadership to take the rare step of stripping Cardinale’s courtesy privilege.

Three years later, Cardinale led the opposition to Wilentz’s own reappointment for tenure. Cardinale and others took aim at Wilentz’s dual residency in New Jersey and Manhattan, although it was clear that the real source of fury was the “activist” rulings of the court.

The Senate, with lobbying from Kean, approved Wilentz’s renomination by a razor-thin 21-19 vote after he promised to return to New Jersey full time once his wife recovered from cancer treatments.

Cardinale had long enjoyed a solidly Republican district that kept reelecting him term after term. But in the 2000s, former Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero targeted Cardinale and invested $1.6 million in a 2007 campaign by Joseph Ariyan to unseat him. 

The result was a nasty campaign with a barrage of television and radio advertisements in which Republicans attacked Ariyan as a puppet of Ferriero, who was convicted a few years later on corruption charges. Democrats countered with ads that assailed Cardinale as out of touch and beholden to special interests.

Cardinale spent $1 million and won by about 10 percentage points. 

After winning reelection, Cardinale would often take his closest staff and volunteers out to dinner where they would share a celebratory bottle of grappa, one of his favorite drinks.

"His opponents would make him out to be a guy that would pull the wings off a butterfly or steal a child's lollipop," Auth said Saturday with a laugh. "But Gerry was a just fighter all the way 'til the end."  

Staff Writer Terrence McDonald contributed to this story.

Scott Fallon covers the environment for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news about how New Jersey’s environment affects your health and well-being,  please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: fallon@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @newsfallon 

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