J. Garfield DeMarco, 80, a longtime Burlington County Republican Party chairman and cranberry magnate, died in his sleep Monday morning at the Mount Holly Samaritan Hospice.
Mr. DeMarco, a colorful political boss from 1974 to 1990, said in a recent interview that he was a “lefty Republican” who later declared himself an independent and voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
His cousin is Kellyanne Conway, an adviser to President Donald Trump, who also grew up in and around Hammonton, Atlantic County, home to cranberry bogs and blueberry farms. In a December interview, Mr. DeMarco called her a “very skilled political operative” but said he disliked Trump and questioned how she could reconcile his “behavior with her deep religious belief.”
Mr. DeMarco, whose nickname was “Gar,” came out as gay publicly in 2015 after marrying his longtime partner, William Wilson, whom he met at a 1995 AIDS fundraiser in Center City. Mr. DeMarco said that it was hard “to pretend” for so long and that he knew other gay people who had committed suicide because they had to hide their personal life.
Glenn Paulsen, who took over as the leader of the Burlington County GOP when Mr. DeMarco stepped down, said Monday that he had fond memories of him.
“He was a big man with a big personality and a big laugh, and most of all a big heart,” Paulsen said.
Former Gov. Thomas H. Kean once called Mr. DeMarco the “chairman of the chairmen.”
Until recently, Mr. DeMarco lived in Hammonton, where he grew up in a family that owned nearly 10,000 acres of land used for cranberry farming in the Pinelands for six decades. At the time, A.R. DeMarco Enterprises was the third-largest cranberry operation in the country.
When his father died in a car crash in 1964, he took over the family businesses. His father was a founding member of the Ocean Spray cooperative and Mr. DeMarco replaced him on the board of directors.
In 2004, Mr. DeMarco sold 9,400 acres to the New Jersey Conservation Foundation at half the appraised $24 million value. He called that decision "one of my proudest achievements.”
But there were detractors who noted that Mr. DeMarco had already received $7.2 million for restricting the deed through the Pinelands Development Credits program. The land was already protected because the property could not be developed due to Pinelands zoning.
Environmentalists, however, were mostly supportive of the sale of the land, which includes lakes and forests. Called the Franklin Parker Preserve, it is open to the public for hiking.
Robert Shinn, a former freeholder director and commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection, said that early on, Mr. DeMarco was concerned about the property rights of those who owned land in the Pinelands, but that he later embraced conservation.
“I told him, the more conservation easements we could buy in the Pinelands by purchasing development rights, the less arbitrary and mandatory this would be,” Shinn said. The land Mr. DeMarco sold was home to a variety of protected species, he said.
Shinn said his first meeting with Mr. DeMarco was on a high school football field, when Shinn accused Mr. DeMarco of “being a ringer because he showed up as a tackle and was 6-foot, 3 inches, and 240 pounds” when he played for Hammonton High.
Mr. DeMarco was a star player and scholar who was recruited by top universities. He graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College in 1959, was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study medieval history at the University of Naples, and earned a law degree from Yale in 1964.
In 1976, when Shinn was the mayor of Hainesport, a small Burlington County town, he said he learned from a news article that he was running for freeholder. Mr. DeMarco later explained that he had submitted Shinn’s name to the Republican committee because he wanted him to run. Mr. DeMarco also had a consultant come in from Washington each week and meet with Shinn at his house to prepare him for a “tight race,” Shinn said.
“He was a chairman for the right reasons, and totally acted on what was best for the county in the long run,” Shinn said. “Because he was a lawyer, he would cross-examine me when I brought an issue to him, and he would take up issue after issue this way, and listen to everything that was said. That’s why I have respect for him to this day.”
Paulsen said that he, too, greatly admired Mr. DeMarco and learned from him.
Mr. DeMarco was "one of the greatest influences on my life,” Paulsen said. “He recruited me to replace him after he built up the Republican Party in Burlington. ... So when I took over, it was an ideal time, and he provided me with a war chest, and we worked together. ... He was always there when I needed advice.”
Bill Layton, who succeeded Paulsen, said he, too, looked up to Mr. DeMarco. “Garfield was an icon in New Jersey and Burlington County politics. He was a one-of-a-kind class act who was way ahead of his time. His success and the people he helped are part of a legacy of public service that will be remembered in Burlington County for years to come,” Layton said in an email.
In his younger days, Mr. DeMarco was a Democrat, and said he had voted for John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. But he switched parties in the ’70s, he said, influenced after a meeting with Edwin Forsythe, the Republican congressman and conservationist from Moorestown.
When Mr. DeMarco led the county GOP committee, he said, he selected conservative candidates who won year after year but did not lean “too far right.” None of his incumbents ever lost a reelection bid.
But in January, after 40 years of control over Burlington County government, the Republicans lost their majority to Democrats in the mid-term elections. Under Mr. DeMarco’s tenure, the GOP’s four-decade reign began, when Republicans took control from the Democrats in 1976.
In addition to his husband, he is survived by a niece and nephew, who said in a statement, “Anyone who knew Garfield found him to be brilliant, engaging, and welcoming. He was larger than life. He will be missed.”
Visitation will be from 10 a.m. to noon Monday, May 20, at St. Mary of Mount Carmel Parish-St. Joseph Church, 226 French St., Hammonton, followed by a Funeral Mass. Burial services will be private.