Hillsborough Township is mourning the loss of Pete Biondi, a man who spent his time giving back to the town he loved.
Biondi disclosed a diagnosis of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma last month, stating that the disease was in remission prior to the election. He won his re-election bid to the State Assembly on Tuesday night, two days before his death from cancer.
He is survived by his wife, Joan; his son and daughter, Peter and Jennifer; and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been released.
“It’s shocking because you think that someone is going to recover. You always have that hope,” Hillsborough Mayor Gloria McCauley said. “He was such a great assemblyman and a leader for both parties throughout the county. He always though everyone ought to do good.”
“When you say, 'Peter Biondi' and community service, they are synonymous,” Hillsborough Deputy Mayor Carl Suraci said. “He worked tirelessly for his community.”
“It’s going to be very different going forward,” Suraci added. “He was a big part of Hillsborough.”
That attitude led Biondi to support many initiatives in Hillsborough, including the arts programs, veterans efforts and efforts for the town’s senior citizens. His most recent efforts include funding the township’s fireworks ceremony —an annual event he initiated in 1986— which had been canceled due to budget cuts and aid cuts.
“It’s whatever it costs, but, to me, it’s worth it,” he said in an interview with Hillsborough Patch. “I’m just happy that I’m able to do so.”
Despite the political battles of the late 1990s and early 2000s, when Democrats took control of the township, Biondi could be counted on to do what was best. When then-Township committeewoman Christine Jensen inquired if Biondi could help the ARC of Somerset County find funding to purchase a handicapped-accessible bus to transport the residents of the old Stirling Group Home, in Warren, he was quick to arrange the needed money.
"We wondered if he'd be able to get the help, but he put the needs of New Jersey's developmentally disabled residents, who can't help themselves, above other priorities," Jensen's husband, Christian, said. "In a time of need, it was nice to reach across the board, so to speak, and get the help an organization in need of assistance needed."
"His presence in the Assembly will be missed,” Christian Jensen added.
His abilities to transcend party lines, particularly with late Democratic Mayor John Guerrera, led to the pair’s legendary bets on election outcomes.
“What I remember of Pete was him coming into my father’s office and having a cup of espresso and a bit of sambuca and talking about the day,” Midge Guerrera, Guerrera’s daughter, said.
“It wasn’t about politics,” she added. “It was about the greater good. Even though my father was a Democrat and Pete was a Republican, their friendship transcended party lines. My father’s commitments to Hillsborough and Pete’s commitment to Hillsborough were very similar.”
His concern and connection to people differentiated him from many politicians, and extended his efforts to many groups and many citizens in Hillsborough and in Somerset County.
“I think that what makes Pete Biondi special was his ability to feel what you were feeling from his heart,” Guerrera said. “He had a sense of commitment to people. It was his ability to open his heart to people around him. He was absolutely accessible. He didn’t hide in his office."
“What makes a great politician is putting people first,” Anthony Ferrera, Hillsborough committeeman and former mayor, said. “It was the things he did behind the scenes that nobody knew about. Whether it was going over to a senior’s house or going over to that person’s house who had a traumatic loss of a family member, he never said no.”
Biondi served on the township committee from 1983 to 1993, having been selected to fill an open seat in August 1983. He ran for election that year, winning his first term in 1984. By 1986, he was appointed mayor—and began many of the township traditions seen today, according to Hillsborough township administrator Mike Merdinger.
The most visible of those efforts is the Hillsborough Municipal Complex, which Biondi was instrumental in pushing forward. The building incorporates the township library, Board of Education Offices and township offices—which the former location did not.
“It may seem like an innocuous effort,” Merdinger said. “In reality, he created the mechanism for everyone to work together.”
“He and I broke a bottle of champagne to dedicate it after a planning board meeting one night,” Merdinger recalled. “It’s not easy to break a bottle of champagne.”
Biondi’s passing comes just days after he won his re-election bid for the District 16 Assembly seat. The Republicans will now select a replacement to fill Biondi's seat until a special election is held next November.
"As a person, and as a legislator, he will be tremendously missed,” Denise Coyle, his longtime colleague on the assembly, said. "I think Pete's greatest legacy is that he cared deeply about our country and about serving the residents of the 16th district."
As a result, Coyle said, Biondi was a great advocate in Trenton.
"If Pete was on your side, you were going to be successful," she said.
Coyle said she and Biondi started working together when both were on the Somerset County Freeholders Board, starting in 1996. She said she is "very sad" about his passing.
As state representatives, the two also worked together in Trenton for the past four years, Coyle said.
"We were definitely a team in Trenton," she said. The two worked together on legislation and other projects, she said.
Biondi served in the United States Army, and had been employed as the president of Brewster Trucking Corporation, in Union, from 1975 to 1991. He then served as president of Pars, Inc., until his retirement in 1993.
In addition to his political career, Biondi was appointed an honorary member of the New Jersey State Policeman’s Benevolent Association, served as an associate member of the New Jersey Conference of Mayors, served on the Hillsborough/Millstone Municipal Alliance, volunteered with the Jewish Federation, American Cancer Society, American Heart Association and March of Dimes and served as a board member at the Resource Center of Somerset.
His achievements in Hillsborough include building Ann Van Middlesworth Park on Pleasant View Road, spearheading efforts to build the Hillsborough YMCA and introducing farmland and open space preservation to town.
“He was a person who could get things done,” Merdinger said. “He made Hillsborough the best place to live in America and made Hillsborough ‘The Good Life’.
“You need always need a mechanism to do things,” Merdinger added. “He didn’t stand up and say, ‘I’m in charge of this.’ He got the mechanism started. He was not one to pound his fist. He led by initiating, facilitating, coordinating, all the way through.”
Many of his efforts and policies are still used in the town today, and several committee members cited him as a mentor for entry into local politics. And, despite leaving local politics for county and state posts, his influence on the town remained constant, many said.
“I tried to think of a better word than ‘patriarch’,” Merdinger said. “But if you look up ‘patriarch’, it’s the leader of the family, and that was what he was. He led by example.”