Ocean County officials were remembering a man who they said “poured over” proposed legislation and put his constituents first.
Leonard T. Connors served as an Ocean County freeholder, state senator and – for nearly a half century – mayor of Surf City. He won re-election in Surf City last year, but decided against serving into 2016, which have been his 50th year in office. Connors died Sunday at the age of 87.
Connors began serving as mayor of Surf City in 1966. He successfully ran for a seat on the Ocean County Board of Chosen Freeholder and began serving the first of two terms on the Board in 1977. He was elected a New Jersey State Senator in 1981.
“Sen. Connors passing is a great loss to Ocean County,” said Ocean County Freeholder Director John P. Kelly. “He was a man who cared about the people of this County. He would directly help people solve problems no matter how large or small. He did that on the County level, the state level and locally in Surf City as its Mayor for many decades.”
Kelly said Connors crafted state and county legislation that has had a lasting positive effect on Ocean County residents.
“In 1978 he was among the founders of Ocean County’s first Commission for Handicapped Persons. He also served on various County councils and Commissions,” Kelly said. “He will be remembered as a man who put Ocean County first no matter what elected position he held. Here in Ocean County is where he felt most comfortable and could do the most good.”
Freeholder Joseph H. Vicari said a number of Connors’ bills benefitted seniors and veterans.
“It was Sen. Connors that sponsored the Senior Citizen Property Tax Freeze,” said Vicari, who serves as chairman of Ocean County Senior Services. “Len knew Ocean County well and he made certain the legislation he supported was beneficial. If it negatively impacted Ocean County he didn’t support it. He was a gentleman and a man of great integrity.”
Freeholder Deputy Director Gerry P. Little, a fellow Surf City resident who served as Chief of Staff for Connors and the 9th Legislative District from 1984 until 2003.
“Len would get to his legislative office early each morning and spend the morning and afternoon with his constituents,” Little said. “He had an open door policy. Appointment or not, Len would spend time with everyone that came in and help them resolve whatever issue they may have had. He offered them a cup of coffee and give them the old ‘Connors charm.’
“He truly put people first and foremost,” Little said. “For Len, that’s what it was all about.”
Little recalled the standoff in the mid-1980s when then Gov. Thomas Kean and the state Department of Environmental Protection decided to place hundreds of barrels of radon contaminated soil in the Colliers Mills Wildlife Management Area in Jackson Township.
“Sen. Connors along with then Assemblymen Chris Connors and Jeff Moran, myself and the former Mayor of Jackson Township stood in the path of a convoy of trucks from North Jersey and turned them away,” Little said. “I remember the conversation he had with Gov. Kean. Len told him – ‘you do what you have to do and I’ll do what I have to do.'”
Little said that in Trenton, Connors was a respected maverick and voted on legislation based upon its impact on Ocean County.
“His favorite saying was if it’s not good for Ocean County, it’s not good for New Jersey and he would oppose any bills that would not meet that standard,” Little said.
Freeholder John C. Bartlett Jr. said Connors introduced him to Ocean County government and the two ran together for seats on the county freeholder board in 1979, the first time Bartlett ran for county office.
Bartlett called Connors “one of the most knowledgeable people” he has ever met.
“Len had a real knack for just knowing the issues. It was innate,” Bartlett said.
He said Connors “was a gentleman and a statesman.”
“He married his childhood sweetheart Lorraine and he was so very proud of his two sons,” Bartlett said. “Leonard T. Connors Jr. worked in law enforcement and his son Chris followed in his dad’s footsteps and is now state Senator in the 9th Legislative District.”
Little said that each Friday afternoon, Connors and his wife would enjoy a weekly food-shopping trip to the grocery store in Manahawkin.
“He was instantly recognizable and would hold court, if you will, with the citizens every week,” Little said. “People would go knowing Len would be there and he would keep them informed of what was going on around the state. That half hour trip would turn into a hour and half but he enjoyed it every time.”
Ocean County Freeholder Virginia E. Haines said Connors was known for reading proposed legislation front to back.
“It’s often a criticism of elected officials at federal and state levels that they don’t read proposed bills in their entirety,” Haines said. “Len poured over legislation. He analyzed what was prepared by the Senate staff. Sometimes the information was a half inch thick and he read it all.”
“While he cared about how he voted on matters, he cared most about how he could help resolve problems for people whether with state agencies like motor vehicles, the DEP, human services or locally,” she said. “Serving his constituents in Ocean County was his priority.”