John K. Rafferty will forever be known as the first full-time mayor of Hamilton Township.

Rafferty was elected to the township committee for the first time in 1969, at the age of 31. In 1975, after Hamilton had changed from the committee form of government to the mayor-council format, Rafferty became the first person to win an election for that position.

Jack Rafferty cuts the ribbon for the opening of the Hamilton Area YMCA building, which today bears his name. (Photo courtesy of the Hamilton Area YMCA.)

He went on to win five more times, serving for a total of 24 years. In 1999, he decided not to run again.

Four others have been mayor since Rafferty— Glen D. Gilmore, John Bencivengo, Kelly Yaede and Jeff Martin—but together they have yet to serve as many years as “Mayor Jack.”

Rafferty died on Feb. 17, at the age of 82. As word of his passing spread, Republicans and Democrats alike were gracious in their remembrance of their predecessor, colleague, mentor, political opponent and friend.

“As mayor of Hamilton Township and on behalf of our entire community, I wish to express my deepest sympathies and condolences to his wife Doris and the entire Rafferty family during this very difficult time,” Jeff Martin said in a statement. “I trust his family, friends, and loved ones will find solace in knowing Jack’s many years of dedicated service to our community will live on in Hamilton Township, Mercer County and New Jersey for eternity.”

Kelly Yaede, who began her political career as an intern in Rafferty’s office, and who served as mayor of Hamilton from 2012 to 2019, said Hamilton “lost a truly good man, a dedicated public servant who loved his family and his community.

“He led a growing town into a thriving community during his tenure. He was beloved by residents regardless of party affiliation; a true leader who put the needs of residents first. The collective sadness realized in Hamilton with the passing of Mayor Jack is palpable,” she said in a statement.

Glen Gilmore, a Democrat, succeeded Rafferty as mayor in 2000. In a statement, he said that Rafferty’s legacy of leadership “will forever loom large over Hamilton.

“He always cared about people more than politics — which is what we could use more of now,” Gilmore said. “He was always a friend to me, and I will miss his smile.”

John Bencivengo was mayor of Hamilton from 2008 to 2012. He remembers Rafferty as a “shining star, a friend to all, a great public servant, a family man, and our mayor for more than two generations.

“Once a mayor, always a mayor. To me, he was my mentor, friend, and a blessing in my life. Hamilton will forever be in his debt,” Bencivengo said. “He turned a place into a township, a township into a strong community of families, parks, schools, and thriving businesses — ‘Safe, Clean and Beautiful.’ We shall miss him; I will miss him. My thoughts and prayers are with his family.”

* * *

Hamilton Township saw a huge population boom between the 1940’s and the 1960’s, growing from just over 30,000 residents in 1940 to nearly 80,000 by the time Rafferty first joined the committee. Hamilton continued to grow, though at a slower rate, during Rafferty’s time in office, to a peak of 87,109 in the 2000 U.S. Census.

Hamilton grew until it was as large, and eventually, larger than Trenton, the city it was supposed to be a suburb of. During those years, the township welcomed improvements such as Hamilton Hospital (now RWJ Hamilton—opened in 1971), Veterans Park (dedicated in 1977, but in the works prior to Rafferty’s mayorship), Kuser Park and Sayen Gardens.

Then there is the Hamilton Train Station, which Rafferty first proposed in 1976, and which opened in the last year of his tenure, as mayor, in 1999.

After retiring from his position as mayor, Rafferty served as the executive director of the Hamilton Partnership, and remained active in the New Jersey Republican Party, where he served on the New Jersey Republican State Committee.

While he was mayor, Rafferty worked to get the U.S. Postal Service to recognize Hamilton, NJ as an official postal address, which it finally did in 1992. The post office on U.S. 130 in Hamilton today bears his name.

And he is literally synonymous with the Hamilton Area YMCA, for which he was a tireless advocate both during and after his time as mayor. He served for many years on the YMCA board and as its board chair, and in recognition of his efforts, the YMCA facility on Whitehorse-Mercerville Road is also named after him.

Diana Zita, CEO of the Hamilton Area YMCA, remembered Rafferty Rafferty as a the Y’s greatest advocate.

“We are forever grateful for his passion, support and leadership in our Y and in our community. Hamilton has lost a true champion,” she said.

Joe Bocchini is also a long-time YMCA board member. The former Democratic assemblyman and county prosecutor says if not for Jack Rafferty, there would be no Hamilton Area YMCA.

“I remember when he was mayor and he started the drive for the Y, he reached out to the business community, to the community in general and was the spearhead of the fundraising. Without money, you don’t build the Y,” he said. “I don’t think people initially realized how significant a contribution the Y was going to be in the community until it was actually built and it started to operate.”

It is said that Rafferty performed more than 3,500 weddings during his time as mayor. He was proud of his Irish-American heritage, and was known to stop into an Irish bar or two on St. Patrick’s Day.

Bocchini said anyone who ever lived in Hamilton has probably run into Jack Rafferty at some point. “He was excellent with youth groups, with senior groups, with veterans groups, with everybody,” Bocchini said. “He was a great roaster. He roasted me a couple times.”

Bocchini has a story about a time in the 1980’s, when he was running for Assembly and Rafferty was a powerful figure in Republican state politics.

“It was a rough and tumble political battle, and I’ll never forget they ran a negative ad about me. The theme was ‘Joe Bo Pinocchio,’ and they had this Pinocchio character and allegedly every time I said something, the nose would get bigger, you know, calling me a liar,” he said.

“A few years back, we had 75th birthday party for Jack over at Stone Terrace, and one of my friends had given me a Pinocchio doll. So I wrapped up the Pinocchio doll in a box and gave it to Jack for his 75th birthday present,” he laughed. “And you know, he got it.

“Jack and I go back 50 years. If you ever saw the movie, Twins, with Ardnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito — we were sort of like that. Jack’s six-feet-something and I’m five-feet-nothing. We enjoyed each other’s company. He danced at my wedding, God bless him. He and his wife (Doris) were inseparable, and I miss him.”

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Born in Trenton, Jack Rafferty graduated from Trenton Catholic High School. After graduating, he enlisted in the Navy, serving from 1957 to 1959. He went on to attend Trenton Junior College, LaSalle University, and the University of Kentucky Law School before returning to Hamilton.

Jack Rafferty at Blend Bar and Bistro with Frank Lucchesi of PSE&G and Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo at a 2018 fundraiser for the Hamilton Area YMCA.

In 1968, he ran for a seat on the Mercer County Board of Chosen Freeholders and lost. In 1969, he ran again, this time for township committee, and won, the first Republican to win a spot on the committee in 20 years.

In 1971, he and running mate Peter Rossi lost to Democrats S. Howard Woodson and Francis “Franny” McManimon — Hamilton’s long-time head of recreation.

When he won the full-time mayor’s job in 1976, he with four fellow Republicans, the “Rafferty Team,” who won election to the new township council. From then until the end of the 80’s, Hamilton was a Republican stronghold in largely Democratic Mercer County.

In 1980, his star rising in state politics, Rafferty served as co-chair of Ronald Reagan’s New Jersey presidential campaign. He was offered a chance to replace Chris Smith as the Republican candidate for New Jersey’s 4th Congressional District, but he declined. (Smith won, and has been in office ever since.)

He did throw his hat in the ring for the Republican gubernatorial nomination in 1981, but finished seventh.

In 1985, Rafferty ran again for Assembly, this time winning a two-year term. Rafferty considered running against McManimon, then in the state Senate, in 1987, but that was also a mayoral election year, and Rafferty opted to focus all his attention on one race.

In 1992, Rafferty offered an internship to a Stockton State College senior named Kelly Yaede. Yaede grew up in the same White City Lake neighborhood as Rafferty. Her father worked with Rafferty for many years as Hamilton’s construction official.

She says when Rafferty offered the internship, she was deciding whether to work for him or go to law school.

“After seeing Jack Rafferty lead and make a difference on the local level, I knew that public service was what I wanted to go into,” she said. “When you’re an intern for Jack Rafferty, you learn the impact that one individual can have on their community and particularly the residents. He became mayor when Hamilton was a growing community, and he led Hamilton Township into the thriving township that it has become.”

Jack Rafferty, sixth from left, was at the Hamilton Township Municipal Building in 2019 when then-mayor Kelly Yaede presented a special proclamation to retired Hamilton Township inspector Matthew Midura, third from left, a retired Hamilton Township Inspector and World War II veteran. Midura died in February 2020.

Yaede says Rafferty was a “vital” part of her political campaigns for council and mayor.

“From discussions of whether or not to run, to the positives and the negatives of decisions I had to make, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick up the phone and ask him if he had ever been in a situation,” she said. “Whether it was a health crisis or weather incidents, he was always there.”

Yaede was council vice president in November 2012, when John Bencivengo was found guilty of corruption in federal court. After Bencivengo resigned, the all-Republican council had the job of naming his replacement.

Two weeks later, Yaede was voted into office by a count of 4-0. Rafferty was there.

“Mayor Rafferty sat on a bench in the hallway, waiting for me to be appointed just so he could walk me, his former intern, the first female mayor of Hamilton Township, into the office,” she said. “To be walked into the mayor’s office by the mayor that I used to work for, who I so highly regarded and who had such an impact on my life, was a surreal moment for me.”

Yaede remembered a time when she was returning to the municipal building from a meeting outside the office, and a young staffer came up to her to tell her that someone was parked in her spot.

“I looked out the window and there was Mayor Rafferty’s Crown Victoria,” she said. “I said to the staffer, ‘That is Mayor Rafferty’s car, and he can park in that spot any time he likes. He has earned it.”

Yaede said there were times as mayor when she was walking the halls of the municipal building with Rafferty, and residents or employees would come up and say, “Hi Mayor.”

“You’d have to know that they were talking to the mayor of Hamilton, which was Jack Rafferty,” she said.

At her annual mayor’s golf outing in 2019, Yaede sat down with Rafferty for an impromptu interview, which was recorded. She asked him the then-80-year-old Rafferty, “What was the best part of the job of being mayor?”

“Well, when you’re mayor you have opportunities to do something for a lot of people,” he said. “And I had a good team with me, and I think we did do a lot for the people, and being the first elected mayor in Hamilton history, I had the experience of sitting on the committee for six years before I became mayor, and I always got along with my Democrat friends. I just liked dealing with people. One of my best ones (favorite things) was to go to the schools…This fella came up to me just the other day, I was at the Fame Diner, and he came up to me he said, ‘Mayor how you doing?’ ‘Fine.’ He says, I remember you as mayor, however, I also remember —” here in the video Rafferty re-enacts the man re-enacting a childhood memory of a time Rafferty had put on a performance during a visit his school. “—This guy was great! I said, ‘You weren’t kidding.’ ‘Oh yeah, you drove the bus and sang the song too!’”

Rafferty is survived by his wife Doris D. (Tramontana) Rafferty; his daughter and son-in-law, Megan and William Bernstein; his son, Daniel Rafferty and grandchildren, Francis D. and Joseph D. Rafferty; his niece, Sally Acquaviva and her husband, Drew, and their son, Miles; his nephew, Joseph Tramontana and his wife, Cathy Tramontana; his sister-in-law, Ann Tramontana; nephew, Josh Horner and his wife, Michelle, and nephew, Christopher Semansky; and his great-nephew and great-nieces, Molly, Claire, Abigail and Jake.

{This story has been updated to correct an error.}