South Jersey voted to secede from NJ
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The non-binding referendum on Election Day 1980 was the culmination of a quirky, mostly sincere but sometimes tongue-in-cheek political movement that began in the mid-1970s to create South Jersey, the 51st state, below Interstate 195 and the Manasquan River.
The plebiscite appeared on the Nov. 4 ballot in Atlantic, Burlington, Cape May, Cumberland, Ocean and Salem counties. Camden and Gloucester counties opted not to put the question to their voters.
Leaving New Jersey was favored in every county where it was on the ballot, with the notable exception of Ocean, winning a total of 51 percent of the combined vote. Collectively, in the six counties, secession was approved 180,663 votes to 174,151 votes; while in Ocean County, 59 percent of voters rejected secession — with 67,912 against to 46,863 in favor of South Jersey statehood.
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The creation of a new state from land and water within the borders of an existing state had not been done since 1863, when West Virginia broke away from Virginia during the Civil War. Before then -- and the only other time it had happened -- was in 1820, when Maine was established as its own state after having been a non-contiguous part of Massachusetts.
In reality though, the movement was not destined to move beyond theatrics. An independent South Jersey would have needed the approval of a New Jersey Legislature willing to give up 15 percent of its population and 49 percent of its land area. Furthermore, an act of Congress would have been necessary to admit South Jersey to the union as its own state. Quite simply, the politics and legal hurdles of that feat meant it was never a plausible venture.
In Trenton, Democratic Gov. Brendan T. Byrne was unimpressed. In his State of the State speech to the Legislature, the governor dismissed the organizers as “rabble-rousers.”
The rabble-rousers — proto-Tea Partiers with a joie de vivre vibe — responded the next August by dressing up as 18th Century colonists and staging a mock trial of the governor outside Resorts International Casino Hotel in Atlantic City. There, Byrne was hosting a national conference of state governors.
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Secessionist leader Joel Jacovitz, chairman of the Committee to Free South Jersey, was a 35-year-old transplanted New Yorker from Egg Harbor Township.
"I think it's very clear that people want less government in their lives," Jacovitz told the Associated Press on election night. "It's a very clear message to our Trenton government and to our governor. We know that we'd probably be better off being our own state."
Jacovitz confidently predicted that American flags would need an additional star sometime around 1985.
What would a South Jersey state government have looked like? The Free South Jersey committee wanted a state constitution with a weak executive and a legislature in which its members would have been prohibited from sponsoring bills on matters outside their own districts. A California-like ballot proposition system was envisioned. However, there was no reporting at the time of where a South Jersey capital might have been located.
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“There’s no question the major purpose (of the vote) was protest,” then-Seaside Heights Mayor George Tompkins told the Associated Press two days after the election. “My God, we certainly have enough to be dissatisfied about.”
Tompkins had converted his borough clerk to the cause and although she was Bettsey Arnold — and not Betsy Ross — she sewed together a flag for the burgeoning would-be state that included an evergreen tree, a seagull, the sun and the words "South Jersey" emblazoned over a sky blue field.
The population of the proposed state of South Jersey was 1.7 million in 1980. An estimated 2.4 million live there in 2016. Had the dreams of South Jersey secessionists come to fruition, its population today would be larger than New Mexico's, the 36th most populous state.
The list of grievances against Trenton was long. About 18 months earlier, Byrne had signed the Pinelands Protection Act, which had the effect of taking about 1 million acres of South Jersey out of the reaches of developers and off future tax rolls.
The 1970s in South Jersey were a boom time for those in the business of building things. Many young couples and families had fled the state’s crumbling urban centers and expensive suburbs of North Jersey for the new sprawling subdivisions of split levels and ranch houses in the cleared woodlands and drained marshlands at the Shore. Jacovitz himself was a builder.
State Sen. Barry Parker, R-Burlington, then a 14-year-legislative veteran, entered the GOP primary for governor in 1981 after having spoken publicly about the anti-Trenton fervor that was being stoked by what he viewed as overregulation of the Pinelands.
“(The vote) was a strong protest showing the people of South Jersey feel very bitter,” Parker told a reporter.
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The argument that government overreach in the '70s was responsible for the secession movement is not the whole story. For others, it was about a lack of government reach. Many South Jerseyans were growing resentful of the state's economic investments in North Jersey. Most were convinced they were being shortchanged on the return in their taxes by a Legislature that was heavily represented by North Jersey members. Moreover, there were entire commissions, boards and authorities with statewide jurisdiction without a single South Jersey representative.
“We’re tired of paying taxes that end up in northern New Jersey,” complained Albert E. Freeman, the publisher of the weekly Burlington County Herald, who had helped ferment the resentment in columns calling for secession that he started writing in January 1976.
There were cultural differences too. For example, North Jersey is part of the New York metropolitan area, industrial, its residents cheer New York sports teams. South Jersey is part of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, agrarian and its residents cheer Philadelphia sports teams. Generally, North Jerseyans as a voting bloc were liberal in their politics and voted Democratic. Generally, South Jerseyans as a voting bloc were conservative in their politics and voted Republican.
“We want our destiny planned by ourselves and our neighbors,” Freeman told the Associated Press in April 1977. “Don’t worry, there won’t be any war. We’re peace-loving here in South Jersey.”