Mercer County Leadership

Rich McClellan

Chair, Mercer County Democratic Committee

Mercer County political mastermind Rich McClellan dies

By Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman, The Trentonian

HAMILTON >> Rich McClellan, a power player in Mercer County politics for the Democratic Party, died unexpectedly Tuesday morning, apparently of natural causes, The Trentonian has learned.

McClellan lived in Hamilton Township and was the mastermind behind the scenes who had helped Democrats gain and retain full control of county government since the November 2003 election of Brian Hughes to his first term as county executive.

“Rich played a big role in electing Democrats throughout the county. I probably wouldn’t be county executive if it wasn’t for the support of Rich McClellan,” Hughes told The Trentonian in a somber interview Tuesday afternoon. “He knew how to get people elected.”

“It came as quite a shock to me earlier today,” Hughes said of the news of McClellan being found dead Tuesday at his township home. “He was a good friend, a good employee of Mercer County, but a true blue Democrat through and through.”

The Hughes administration hired McClellan last year as director of community affairs, a job that placed him as county liaison to the 12 municipalities within Mercer County.

He was also the Mercer County Democratic Party chairman and previously served as campaign manager for numerous county Democrats, confidential aide to former Hamilton mayor Glen Gilmore and former chief of staff to New Jersey State Sen. Shirley Turner.

Former Hamilton councilwoman Eileen Thornton, a Democrat who served on Hamilton Council from January 2002 to 2006, on Tuesday had difficulty processing the loss of her good friend McClellan.

“I can’t get over it. In fact, when I got the call, I said, ‘Say that again.’ I couldn’t believe it,” Thornton said. “This is such a sad day. You never expected this.”

McClellan was 62 and had no children, according to Thornton, who said, “Rich’s sport was truly politics. It was really his life.”

McClellan was not feeling well last weekend, but “nobody gave any emphasis to that, because there is the cold season going around,” Thornton said.

But when McClellan did not show up for a “big meeting” that he was supposed to attend Tuesday morning, people got worried and Mercer County Sheriff’s officers were dispatched to his home, according to Thornton, who said the sheriff’s officers found McClellan dead inside the house.

People close to McClellan said he was on kidney dialysis and was diabetic, but the exact manner and cause of his death was not known as of Tuesday evening.

The legacy of McClellan’s impact in Mercer County politics can be seen in the many Democratic officeholders throughout the county, including the female officeholders.

“He was very interested in always giving women the opportunity to participate in Democratic politics,” Thornton said of McClellan. “Also, he was supportive of women in seeking office, whether it be the municipal, county or state levels.”

New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney on Tuesday issued a statement calling the unexpected death of McClellan “a terribly tragic loss.”

“Rich McClellan was a selfless and hard-working man who made enormous contributions to Mercer County, to the Democratic Party, to elected officials and to rank-and-file Democrats in the county and throughout the state,” Sweeney added. “He helped to make the Mercer County Democratic Party stronger, more active and more influential.”

Vinnie Capodanno, a Hamilton Democrat who has sometimes clashed with his party’s establishment as a maverick, on Tuesday spoke very highly of McClellan.

“Me and McClellan had our battles, but I always thought he was very astute in politics,” Capodanno said. “The Democratic Party is really going to miss him. He was basically the brains behind a lot of their campaigns, especially at the county level. I had the utmost respect for him. He really knew what he was doing. He knew politics very well.”

Both of the New Jersey Assembly members who represent Hamilton Township on Tuesday attributed their political success to McClellan’s genius.

“Rich definitely played a strong role in the success of my political career,” Assemblyman Wayne DeAngelo said. “Rich McClellan was one of the few individuals who gave the committee people the respect that position deserves.”

McClellan was not the stereotypical party boss who made backroom deals in smoke-filled rooms to select political candidates, according to DeAngelo. “Rich did not do that,” he said. “He always had a fair and open process. He always respected the process.”

Assemblyman Dan Benson, who represents parts of Mercer and Middlesex counties alongside DeAngelo in New Jersey’s 14th Legislative District, said McClellan “just really believed in the power of people to get involved and make a difference. He was the reason why so many Democrats have the jobs they do.”

“He was just an amazing guy, and he was unique,” Benson added. “It is a huge shock, and it is a terrible loss to our community. He was someone who was always a supporter of having an open democratic process.”

McClellan played a key role in the production and dissemination of campaign literature and rallied the Democratic Party in get-out-the-vote efforts.

“There is nobody who knows more about elections and strategy than Rich did,” Benson said. “He understood that it was the basic level of politics and elections and getting people to the polls. That’s how you got change. … You got people involved, and you got people out to the polls.”

Mercer County Republican Committee Chair Lisa Richford, who has often been critical of Mercer’s Democratic-controlled county government, on Tuesday expressed sadness at the news of McClellan’s death.

“My deepest condolences and sympathies to the family, friends and colleagues of Richard McClellan,” Richford said in a statement. “May he rest in peace.”

Trenton North Ward Councilwoman Marge Caldwell-Wilson on Tuesday issued a statement praising McClellan and saying he will be missed. “I have known Rich for many years and had the pleasure of serving under him as vice chair of the Democratic Party for numerous elections,” she said. “Throughout the years, Rich McClellan worked tirelessly to help many candidates as they ran for elections. His contributions to the Democratic Party were always performed with the highest integrity. When Rich was asked to contribute to a campaign or project, it was always with a ‘can do’ attitude. His extensive knowledge was invaluable.”

Mercer County Sheriff Jack Kemler, a Democrat, on Tuesday issued a statement remembering McClellan.

“I have known Rich McClellan for many years,” Kemler said. “In addition to being a party leader, he was always an outstanding public servant and a brilliant individual. His passing saddens me, and he will be dearly missed.”

Trenton Mayor Eric Jackson, New Jersey Assemblywoman Liz Muoio (D-Mercer/Hunterdon) and Monmouth County resident Phil Murphy, a 2017 Democratic candidate for governor, were among the many dignitaries throughout the region and state Tuesday who have expressed their condolences to McClellan’s family and friends.

“We are certainly going to wait for arrangements to be made on his behalf before we talk about replacing him, but I have a lot of confidence in the Democratic Party of Mercer County,” Hughes said, “and I am sure we are going to do great things in the future.”

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