Longtime State Senator Matthew Feldman Dies
"Always wanted to do what was right"
By Pat R. Gilbert and David Gibson, Staff Writers
(From: The Record, April 12. 1994)
For four decades, Matthew Feldman brought wit, high purpose, and a love of the art of politics to a storied public career divided between Teaneck and Trenton, giving it up reluctantly when his health gave out.
Feldman died Monday morning at his Teaneck home. He was 75.
"Matty the Mensch" -- as he touted himself during one of his many electoral campaigns -- was a master of legislative diplomacy and finesse who made his mark as a civic and religious leader, a councilman and mayor of Teaneck, and later as the longtime senator from central Bergen's 37th District, a Democratic stronghold.
Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, served with him in the Legislature, where both men, despite their partisan differences, championed the cause of education.
"Matty was one of nature's gentlemen. His bottom line was never really politics", said Kean, who knew Feldman for 25 years. "He always wanted to do what was right."
Feldman was last seen in Trenton on Thursday, when he attended a State House ceremony at which Governor Whitman signed a bill requiring schools to teach about the Holocaust and other genocides.
"The passing of Senator Feldman is a very sad occasion," Whitman said Monday. "He served the people of New Jersey with compassion and intelligence ... His contributions in the field of public education will stand as a tribute to his distinguished service."
A silver-haired grandfather who helped to shape state policy on education, the environment, and civil rights, Feldman had attended his son-in-law's 50th birthday party on Sunday night in North Brunswick, where his closest friends described him as being in good spirits and "rare form."
On Monday at 7 a.m., he arrived at the Jewish Center of Teaneck, a Conservative synagogue where he regularly attended services. An hour after he arrived home, he sat down and collapsed, said Leon Sokol, a close friend and counsel to the Senate Democrats.
Feldman was not breathing when an ambulance crew arrived to try to revive him. He was taken to Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck, where he was pronounced dead.
Feldman was ailing in recent years, and declining health had forced him to retire in January. But his friends said that even after his wife, Muriel, died in November, he had been looking well and was talking about starting new projects.
Elected mayor of Teaneck in 1958, Feldman was instrumental in advancing the politically volatile integration of the township's schools in 1964. A year later, he won election to the state Senate for the first time, only to be turned out in the Republican landslide in 1967.
He returned to the upper house in 1973, and, as Senate president, helped overcome strong opposition to pass the state's first income tax in a battle that highlighted his qualities as an arm-twister and respected deal-maker. During that time, the burden of passing the income tax fell largely to him because former Gov. Brendan T. Byrne had very little influence left after two years of fighting tax battles with the Legislature.
Byrne fondly recalled the man everyone knew as "Matty."
"I'll miss his sense of humor," Byrne said, adding that the state will also miss his "absolute commitment to education."
Feldman stood 5 feet 9 inches tall, but to many he loomed larger than life. He was born in Jersey City to immigrant parents on March 22, 1919. He was a captain in the Army Air Corps during World War II, where he gained renown as a scrappy and successful middleweight boxer. The war interrupted his studies at Panzer College, now a part of Montclair State College. He also attended the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, but did not graduate.
As a lawmaker, Feldman was legendary in his pursuit of education issues, and was the father of the 1966 law that created the state Department of Higher Education. He supported the controversial Quality Education Act of 1991, and last April, former Gov. Jim Florio appoin ted him to the Education Commission of the States, a Denver-based group committed to improving education.
"There are few individuals who have so selflessly dedicated their lives to the betterment of society - particularly our young people," Florio said.
During Kean's administration, the former Republican governor recalled, Feldman would sometimes vote with his fellow Democrats, then come into Kean's office and apologize. "He would say, 'You know, my leadership wanted me to vote that way. But I wanted to tell you that I wasn't sure that was right'", Kean said. "Nobody else does that. . . . It was an endearing quality."
An unbashed liberal, Feldman defended abortion rights, attacked the death penalty, and fought Republicans who tried to lift the assault weapons ban. He was known for tackling and sticking by unpopular causes and was resolute in his opposition to racial and ethnic discrimination.
Sokol recalled a hot day in 1946 when Feldman was driving along Route 17 on the way to the Catskills with his family when he noticed a sign advertising new housing in Ridgewood that said, "Restricted Development."
"That was the code for no Jews or blacks," Sokol said. "Matty was so incensed, he got out of the car, called his veteran friends, and threw a picket line up around the place with Muriel and the kids screaming in the car."
Feldman was heir to the multimillion-dollar liquor business his father created and always resisted declaring his net worth. In 1976 he pleaded guilty to a charge that grew out of a payment made to a restaurant to guarantee a liquor supply contract for the family business. Many believed that blemish thwarted his gubernatorial ambitions.
When Feldman's grandson was killed in a traffic accident in 1986, he took a week off at the height of what would prove to be an unsuccessful campaign for county executive to mourn in the traditional Jewish manner. It was a personal blow to Feldman, who always seemed to bounce back from any loss.
"A little piece of Matty died when the boy died," said Mahwah's John J. McCarthy, a former secretary of the Senate and a close friend to Feldman.
The dogged Feldman had pledged after his 1991 reelection that he was "making my comeback now ... I'll be here until I'm 80." But failing health prevented that.
In February 1993, he announced his retirement, and in November, Byron M. Baer, an Englewood Democrat and assemblyman who served with Feldman in the Legislature for 20 years, won Feldman's seat.
The political infighting of recent years appeared to diminish Feldman's appetite for the legislative arena. "I think the public and I myself were tired of the constant confrontation between the governor's office and the Republican majority," Feldman said in an interview last April. "It takes the idealism out of politics."
Funeral services will be today at noon at the Jewish Center of Teaneck. Feldman will be buried at Cedar Park Cemetery in Emerson.
He is survived by his daughters, Beth Metzger of Englewood and Rachel Silverstein of North Brunswick; a son, Daniel of Maplewood, and a brother, Melvin of Margate.
The family has asked that any donations be made to the Matthew Feldman Memorial Fund, 714 Carroll Place, Teaneck, N.J. 07666.
Citizen's for Feldman (campaign brochure, dated 1973)
Naming of the Feldman Nature Preserve (Suburbanite article, dated 1990)