For the first Election Day in almost 50 years, the Surf City ballot did not include the name of Leonard Connors as candidate for mayor. After having the keys to, and driving, Surf City since 1966, Connors’ service will come to an end after he declined to seek another term.
This also likely marks the conclusion of the 86-year-old’s political career in which he also served as an Ocean County freeholder and a state senator.
Born just months before the 1929 stock market crash, the Jersey City native began his public service in 1947. For two years, he was a sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. He then worked in construction, an occupation that lasted for decades.
“I didn’t like the way things were being ran at a local level,” Connors said.
In 1962, Connors joined Surf City’s council and, four years later, successfully ran for mayor of the small Long Beach Island town. Could Connors have foreseen himself serving as mayor for nearly 50 years?
“No,” Connors quipped.
As mayor, he took things one year at a time.
The first reference to Connors in The Beachcomber was an article from April 14, 1966 in which Connors took issue with the Long Beach Island Surfing Association’s desire to hold its second annual contest on 22nd Street.
“The Borough has had trouble, with them disrobing on the beach, burning Christmas trees, and other undesirable behavior,” Connors was quoted in the paper. Connors “instructed police to maintain a strict patrol against open lewdness, disrobing, and picnicking on the beach.”
Fast forward 18,108 days: There is rarely disrobing on the beach, and no Christmas tree burning. While that may seem rather peculiar, the 1966 news article gave readers a hint of what Surf City residents would apparently have in their new mayor: a leader, with unmoving integrity.
Ocean County Freeholder Gerry Little says the best contribution any political figure can make is to leave his or her constituents living in a better place. Connors did that, noted Little, also a former Surf City councilman.
“It’s just been an absolutely remarkable career. As a resident of Surf City and representative of Surf City, he has left us with a financially stable community.”
Little added that police, public works, tax stability and administration are all excellent. To Little, that is due in part to Connors’ leadership as mayor.
Taking time out during a vacation to Wyoming, Stafford Township Mayor John Spodofora also answered The SandPapers’ request for remarks about Connors’ career. His first comment: Connors is the best mayor to ever serve in Ocean County.
“He’s always been an inspiration to me,” Spodofora said. “I probably never would have had interest in holding public office if it wasn’t for him.”
That inspiration goes a way back for Spodofora, knowing Connors since Spodofora was in his childhood. His parents moved to Surf City, and it was Connors who built his family’s home. This was not just a business relationship. Connors formed a friendship with the family. The term “straight arrow” was used and then applied to why Spodofora’s family respected Connors.
“That had to back in – geez – 1963 was when I met him,” Spodofora said.
Spodofora, now 69, was 17 years old at the time. Connors lived “just up the street” from the family’s home, the Stafford mayor said.
“We share a lot of history together,” Spodofora said.
From 1977 until 1982, Connors was an Ocean County freeholder before he was elected to the state Senate, beginning his first term in January 1982. Yet Connors also stayed on as mayor of Surf City, and that’s likely where a lot of history was formed.
“It was quite a challenge,” Connors said. “I just got through it.”
Put on top of that construction work and a family – whew. Looking back, Connors said he might have done some things differently. The keyword there is some.
Asked what it was like growing up in the Len Connors household, son Chris Connors chuckled. Discipline and work ethic were the first two terms he associated with the family’s values.
“He always made the time, no matter how busy he was both in his occupation as a builder and in public service, for my brother and I,” said Chris Connors, who occupies the same Ninth District senate seat his dad did. “He involved us in things. He was just very generous with his time.
“You learn. And I appreciate even more now, being the father of two children, how enormously difficult that can be.”
Chris shared some details on how his father got it done. He would be up around 5 a.m. each day. The newspapers would be read. The paperwork would be completed. He would have a day’s work completed before Chris woke up. Then, Len would be off to work by 7:30 a.m.
“He immersed himself in anything that he did, and he did it well,” Chris said.
The younger Connors learned, perhaps rather gained, much from his father, serving as a mayor and state senator. Chris Connors was elected to the Lacey Township Committee in the late 1980s, serving part of his term as mayor.
“We both served as mayor simultaneously, and we both served in the Legislature simultaneously,” said Chris, whose first state office was election as a Ninth District assemblyman. “It was one of those very unique opportunities to be working side-by-side with your father.
“It was great to have that time together in that capacity, than what we otherwise might do as father and son.”
Chris said he admires his father’s straightforwardness with those he served, saying his father worked “without fear or favor.” This earned his father a reputation of being passionate and fair in the eyes of those he worked beside. Whether in Trenton or in Surf City, Connors’ No. 1 obligation was to the taxpayers who elected him, according to his son.
“He defied what the opinion may be in terms of dual public office holders because the constituency of both of those offices accepted the level of representation they received,” Chris said. “It never seemed to bother the constituency at all.”
He said his father, when in Trenton, never forgot that he was there for the Ninth Legislative District. There would be pressure from all sorts of entities to vote a certain way or hold the party line. Yet Len Connors did not have it in his nature to do so, Chris said. “If it wasn’t good for the people he served, he was just not going to support it.”
Chris said this was passed down to him; he cited his own recent opposition to a Gov. Chris Christie veto of a gun control bill.
“I have had that voice inside of me, in which I could essentially hear my father say, ‘do what you think is right for the people you serve. Don’t be intimidated by anyone or anything,’” Chris recounted. “That’s part of his legacy that will continue to live on, at least through me.”
That said, Chris Connors knows where his father ultimately stood politically. He referred to the fact Surf City has no municipal debt, but also has a low tax rate.
Connors’ service as mayor made him a better freeholder and a better state senator, according to his son. This gave him firsthand knowledge of how laws passed in Trenton affected those back across the state at home.
Freeholder Little said Connors has provided him and his family with a tremendous friendship. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without Len Connors, his friendship and all the things he gave me,” said Little, who spent many formative years on Connors’ legislative staff at their district office in Forked River. “I’m thankful. I’m blessed.”
Connors had Little serve as his chief of staff for more than 20 years while Connors was a state senator. Little described Connors as a “fierce” politician who commanded “great respect.”
“He was like the Ted Cruz of the New Jersey State Senate,” Little remarked.
Just like Cruz, there has been no shortage of quotes coming from Connors. Addressing a potential rise in federal flood insurance following Superstorm Sandy, Mayor Connors remarked, “This country is going broke.”
At Surf City Taxpayers Association meetings, Connors was personable, once saying, “I have a pussy cat,” when asked if the town would consider building a dog park. While he added that he once owned a German shepherd, he professed to be more of a cat guy. At an earlier council meeting, he spoke about the cat, Spencer, making it through Superstorm Sandy, safe and dry. Instances like these made Connors seem like just another average Len.
“He likes to hear people’s stories. And, can he tell a story!” said Surf City Councilman Peter Hartney. “There’s a richness in his stories.”
Connors was a frugal mayor, once refusing to pay for painting the town’s street curbs yellow in no-parking areas. The Republican’s political beliefs were reflected in the budget, too. At a taxpayers association meeting in June 2014, he said the town had the smallest amount of debt in comparison to Ship Bottom and Beach Haven, at $25,000. At the meeting, he also claimed Surf City’s population pays the smallest amount of municipal taxes in comparison to those towns:
An example of the taxes for a $600,000 residential property is $1,512 in Surf City, $2,268 in Ship Bottom and $2,310 in Beach Haven. In true conservative fashion, he said Surf City also came out on top for smallest 2014 municipal budget among the three: $6,358,173.
That budget consciousness dates back to the beginning of his mayoral service. He considers his fiscal work among his best contributions to Surf City.
Other contributions: “Oh, man, there’s probably several I could point to. One would be beach tags,” Connors said.
Connors helped implement beach badges as a way to pay for lifeguards and beach maintenance; Surf City was the first Long Beach Island town to charge the public for beach use. He said prior to the inception of beach badges, “going back a ways,” tourists would use the beach but not contribute to its upkeep. At the time, beach operations were paid strictly by the residents of Surf City.
“It was costing us too much money,” Connors said. “No one (else) paid.”
Now, with beach badges in place, the beaches pay for themselves, and then some.
Whether acting as a freeholder, state senator or mayor, Connors took great pride in ensuring people paid their fair share to make sure Surf City stayed great. “How can you do any better that the best?” Connors said of Surf City, at a past council meeting.
“He’s a straight shooter,” Hartney said. “He was able to work with people, listen to people and engage in discussion.”
He appeared to never take matters or himself too serious, unless necessary.
At an August 2014 council meeting, a resolution was passed that allows “the sale and disposal of surplus property” using GovDeals.com. “Boy, that sounds ominous, doesn’t it?” Connors joked.
If he wanted something, he’d also let people know. “I think we ought to have the John Gutbrod Day,” Connors said in May, wanting to commemorate the World War II service of the veteran.
If he didn’t know something, he’d let people know. “What the devil is this?” he asked of a 2014 storm re-entry plan during a council meeting.
Little saw Connors as a man who was a true advocate as a politician, standing up for his beliefs – even if it meant doing so in defiance of his own Republican party. He added that Connors would read every bill – something that not even presidential candidates do. For all of this, Connors was rewarded by his constituents with enough votes to win seven state elections in a 26-year senate career.
Connors and Little would spend at least six days every week together, traveling across the state. “He was almost like a father to me for a lot of years, and that is a friendship I can’t replace,” Little said. “I am fond of Len Connors, and always will be.”
Little tells people that while he may have a degree in education, he received ‘a doctorate in politics’ from Connors and then-Assemblymen Jeff Moran (now Ocean County surrogate), and Chris Connors, who later advanced to his father’s state Senate seat in 2008.
“It was a magnificent legislative team that stood up for Ocean County,” Little said.
Even with all of the learning and fierce politics swirling around, Little said, Connors kept things fun with his sharp sense of wit.
“There were a lot of good jokes between him and (Surf City Council President) Franny Hodgson,” Little recalled. “It was a good time.”
“We have all been blessed with Mayor Len Connors, Sen. Len Connors, Freeholder Len Connors,” Little said.
Surf City Councilman Hartney has served beside Connors for over seven years. For him, being able to witness Connors’ leadership was “marvelous.” The biggest accomplishment in those seven years, Hartney said, was the borough’s preparation, response and recovery from Superstorm Sandy.
Spodofora speculated that Connors is the longest-serving mayor in the 165-year history of Ocean County. That appears to be a fine guess because the longest serving mayor in the state’s history, the late Gerald Calabrese of Cliffside Park, served just two more years than Connors. More importantly, though, Spodofora considers Connors to be the best mayor to ever serve in Ocean County, justifying the point by saying he was a caring, community-first leader. Spodofora added that Connors would do “the right thing” regardless of party values.
“Len is very special,” Spodofora said. “He was great in his business career. He was highly respected. He was great in his political career. He was certainly a great friend, neighbor, and father to his family. He is just one of those special people. He’s a very rare person.”
Surf City will now hope to have another “very rare person” as its next mayor. “It’s a bittersweet time,” Little said. “We see the passing of the torch of a great town.”
That torch will be handed off to Council President Francis Hodgson. Little noted that Hodgson has served more years on Surf City’s council than Connors did as mayor. Little said this should translate to continuity and strong, maintained leadership. Little has firsthand knowledge of this, serving beside Connors and Hodgson as a Surf City councilman from 1995 until 2003, when he became a freeholder. Like Connors, as the longest-serving mayor in the county, Little believes Hodgson is among the longest-serving councilmen in the country.
“They’ve shared a lot together,” Hartney said. He predicts Hodgson will continue to run the borough in a “fiscally responsible way.”
“From having no bonded indebtedness, to providing good services, I think it’s going to be seamless,” Hartney said.
Chris Connors says this is even more impressive in 2015 with an increased demand for services, state and federal mandates and losing resources like state aid. That, he said, is a testament to Surf City’s government as a whole.
“It’s built a culture in that municipality that’s shared by the members of the governing body that are there now,” Chris said. “If there’s anything close to being a family, I would have to say (it’s) the governing body and administrative staff in Surf City.”
He sees a borough that will continue to spend the taxpayer’s money in a frugal manner. “There’s nothing fancy, but everything gets done,” Chris said.
Asked if he had any advice for Hodgson, Leonard Connors replied, “No, Franny’s a good man.”
“The two of them, they’re about as frugal as you’ll ever get,” Chris said. “They’re both ultra-conservatives, in many respects.
“It’s going to be difficult for Franny, too, because they’ve served for so long together. I know there’s going to be a certain part of Franny that’s going to feel a certain sense of emptiness in not having his buddy there.”
Chris Connors added that his father likely is noting the changing times. Leonard has seen the birth of two grandchildren in a matter of months. But Chris looked farther back: the passing of his father’s friend and former Long Beach Township Mayor James Mancini in 2003, had a huge impact on his father.
“It said things aren’t the way they used to be. Time is passing us by,” Chris said.
However, the long-time mayor has his town on a positive course.
“If you’re going to live in New Jersey, if you’re going to live in Ocean County, you can’t beat Surf City,” Little said. “That’s the best legacy we can leave, as public officials. We are all caretakers.”
“I think the governance of Surf City has been fair and up-to-date, and I’m rather proud of the service I rendered to the borough,” said Mayor Connors.
Little finished by sharing a story. He was once told that Mayor Connors and his wife, Lorraine, would drive around the borough before calling it a night.
“He’d make sure he put the town to bed safely, and then he would rest his head on the pillow and sleep peacefully,” Little said. “That’s a small town mayor doing a great job.”
The Mayor said that story is somewhat accurate. Now, Surf City’s car is parked elsewhere, and in January, Hodgson will have the keys.
For the last 49 years, though, Surf City has been able to rest peacefully every night.
– Reposted from The Sandpaper