Who started "negative campaigning" in Sussex County? No, it's not who you think. It goes back a lot further.
"Negative campaigning" is a complaint often made by the losers in an issues-based campaign, which creates contrasts between candidates based on their voting records or the public positions they hold on issues that are important to people. Issues like taxes, government spending, debt, social issues, and everything else that ordinary voters care about.
For years in Sussex County, most campaigning was of a tribal nature. People voted for candidates based on shared family or community connections and because it benefitted them or a family member financially. This kind of "transactional politics" often resulted in low-turnout, "insider" elections. Negative campaigning confined itself to whisper campaigns about a candidate's personal life -- sexual orientation or marital infidelities. Though often nasty, these whisper campaigns didn't make it into the campaign literature, generally because they couldn't be documented.
Then along came Wallace Richard Wirths. Known throughout Sussex County as simply "Wally" Wirths, he was the father of issues-based campaigning in Sussex County.
Wirths had been a supporter of then Assemblyman Bob Littell, when Littell sided with a Democrat Governor to institute the state income tax. That, and the election of Ronald Reagan as President, convinced Wirths to put issues ahead of personalities in his efforts to change politics in Sussex County.
While unsuccessful as a candidate for state office -- Wirths lost to Littell in the 1989 primary for Assembly -- he did do much to launch the careers of several issues-based conservatives from Sussex County, including Congressman Scott Garrett and his son, Labor Commissioner Hal Wirths.
Wirths' attacks on opposition candidates were legendary. Old timers around the county remember how he held a campaign rally to burn an effigy of Bob Littell. He also wrote books. Our favorite is "The Human Race Stinks: Perspectives of an Iconoclast". Here is the copy from the back cover:
"Author Wallace R. Wirths takes no prisoners as he builds a powerful, indisputable case against the human race.
Wirths is not concerned with the infamous villains of history. Rather he describes the misdeeds of millions of faceless humans who, from the time of the caveman until this very moment, have committed every horror the mind can conceive.
Typically, one begins reading this volume with the skeptical reaction, "Sure there are a lot of fiends in the world, but what about all the nameless, admirable individuals?" But inevitably, as the reader advances from one vignette to another, the incontrovertible truth takes hold like a tightening vice. Finally, even the most optimistic, cheerful, trustful soul discovers that his rose-colored glasses have been ripped off and ground into bits."
Wirths wrote these words late in life, after working for years in Sussex County politics. The book's front cover features a painting by Goya and shows a god devouring his own child. Was it meant to illustrate what often happens to the loyal followers of elected politicians in Sussex County?
Wally Wirths will long be remembered as one of Sussex County's great characters. He moved to Sussex County from Pennsylvania in 1957. A public relations executive with the Westinghouse Corporation, he wrote an opinion column for the New Jersey Herald and was an early conservative radio commentator on WSUS. He was a philanthropist who helped provide for the expansion of Upsala College.
Wally Wirths' vision took Sussex County politics into the Age of Reagan -- eschewing corrupt transactional politics for principled and issues-based. He lived long enough to see his son, Hal, capture a Freeholder seat by defeating the party nominee -- a lifelong Democrat who switched to Republican to run.
A great man and the father of issues-based campaigning in Sussex County.