Peter Shapiro, Political Groundbreaker in New Jersey, Dies at 71

Peter Shapiro, who as a 23-year-old insurgent was the youngest person ever elected to the New Jersey General Assembly and who later became the first Essex County executive, died on Thursday at his home in South Orange, N.J. He was 71.

The cause was respiratory failure after long being treated for lung disease, his wife, Bryna Linett, said.

As a young assemblyman, Mr. Shapiro helped streamline the way local government worked after successfully campaigning in 1977 for a charter change that coupled Essex County’s nine-member Board of Chosen Freeholders (now the Board of County Commissioners) with a strong county executive in what was the state’s most populous county, which includes Newark.

He ran for the newly created position the next year, defeating a Democratic organization candidate for the nomination and overpowering a Republican rival, Robert F. Notte, by a record margin. As county executive, he reformed the county’s welfare program, decentralized other services to make them more responsive to localities, refinanced the pension system and lowered the county property tax rate.

“Peter, what you did for Essex County is precisely what I am attempting at the state level,” Gov. Thomas H. Kean, a Republican, said at the time.

Seeking re-election in 1982, and after defeating two rivals in a Democratic primary, Mr. Shapiro said: “We were able to show that it’s possible to take an old urban government like Essex County’s, a government that a lot of people had given up on, and make it more responsive, more efficient, bring down the taxes and make it a model of what’s right with government.”

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