State Senator Richard Codey (D-27) has been in the State Legislature for a long time. Richard Nixon was president, music was different and no one had heard of either Bruce Springsteen or Bon Jovi, and Governor Chris Christie was only in middle school. That is how long state Senator Codey has been in office. On January 8, 1974, a 27 year old mortician was sworn in as an assemblyman from Essex County.
Over the course of 40 years, he has transitioned from Assemblyman to state Senator including eight years as the Senate President and spent over 400 days as governor. After all this time, a major milestone awaits him this week: when he is sworn in for another term as state Senator he will become the longest serving legislator New Jersey has ever seen.
Codey would comment on this special occasion,
To me, it’s incredible. I never would have envisioned back in January of 1974 that I’d be there for 40 years.
Codey during his 40 years, which includes 8 in the Assembly and 32 in the state Senate, in the Statehouse has experienced highs and lows. He has seen himself go from one of many in the State Legislature to the most powerful person as Senate President to back to being one of many. Over his time in office, Codey has generated enemies in the Republican Party but also some in his own party.
As Codey would describe,
I’m a survivor in Essex County politics and a survivor at the state level. I think the rapport I have with voters enables me to do that. I’m somebody who really works a district hand by hand and one by one, and people like that.
He would add,
I’m obviously the most proud of the 14 months that I served as governor. I get people today every day, walking up to me and thanking me. It’s something myself and my family are very proud of and cherish.
Beyond the year plus term as acting governor, he would serve a little more than a year in the same role while other governors were away or not able to do their day to day operations. Those couple years plus of serving as the top executive came before 2009 when the position of lieutenant governor was created for the state.
Over his 40 year time in the State Legislature, more than 300 of his bills have been signed into law. Those bills include banning smoking in public places, increasing the age to purchase tobacco to 19 years old, banning assault weapons, and strengthen the ban on cell phone use while driving.
To be able to do those things on a regular basis, it’s fulfilling, and it’s hard to find anything in life where you get that kind of joy out of helping people.
Four years ago Codey was ousted from his role as Senate President by the powerful South Jersey Democratic machine. Despite that and criticisms by Republicans who have tried to oust him, he fights on.
His longevity has drawn the attention of some whom he has clashed with like state Senator Kevin O'Toole (R-40).
O'Toole would utter,
I think there’s a certain shelf life you have as a legislator. If you told me 12 years in the Assembly, 12 years in the Senate, that’s a reasonable amount of time. But we don’t have those limits, so it is what it is. As much as people may not like him, they have to admire his fierce and ferocious advocacy for mental health. He’s a real crusader.
Once his oath is complete this week and he begins another term representing Essex County, he will officially past state Senator Robert Littell from Sussex County. Littell represented the area in the Assembly from 1968 to 1990 and the state Senate from 1990 to 2008 after he announced his retirement in 2007.
Littell's wife, Ginny, would voice;
If anybody is going to dethrone my husband, I couldn’t be more pleased about it being my friend Dick.
It will be a double whammy for Codey this week because he will also break the record for longest serving federal lawmaker in the state set by Congressman Peter Rodino (D-NJ10), who served in the U.S. Congress from 1949 to 1989.
Codey is currently 67 and would need to win reelection and stay in elected office for at least another 17 years to at least tie the current national record. Wisconsin Democratic state Senator Fred Risser has been in office since 1957.
While Codey is not certain when he will walk away and retire, that record might be something far from Codey's mind or desires.
As Codey would exclaim,
Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to be in the legislature in my 80s or 90s or even close to that. But every day, somebody’s life has changed in a good way because they called our office.
It has been an interesting journey for Codey with many victories and losses during his 40 years in the State Legislature. While not much will be different when a new legislative term begins this week, Codey's milestone will stand out and add to his legacy in the state.