T. James Tumulty: The First Fat Activist in Congress?

The journey of Thomas James Tumulty (1913-1981) through politics was, well, a tumultuous one. He was the nephew of Joseph Tumulty, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary (now known as chief of staff) and a key advisor. However, the younger Tumulty was more independent-minded. Although he started in the party of his uncle, he in the early 1940s was a Republican attorney who would attend City Council meetings and vocally oppose Mayor Frank Hague’s budget. Hague was essentially the dictator of Jersey City from 1917 to 1949, and one of its city commissioners. The four other city commissioners technically had equal power but would always vote with what Hague wanted. As Tumulty called them, “The Four Horsemen of the Affirmative” (Sullivan).

Hague attempts to shut him up in numerous ways, including getting a woman to claim that she had been Tumulty’s nursemaid and that he had been dropped on his head his child (Sullivan). Finally, Mayor Hague calls him into his office and wants to know what was wrong with his budget. Tumulty is said to have replied, “Just one thing, Your Honor. I’m not in it” (Sullivan). Hague got him a position in Jersey City’s Law Department, and he became a Democrat again and a Hague ally.

From 1943 to 1944, Tumulty served his country and in the process gained a lot of weight. He would continue to do so throughout his career and his obesity became the subject of humor from himself and others. As Tumulty himself said, the T in his name stood for Thomas, “or, as my friends suggest, for Tummy” (Time, 1955). Republican Jim Fulton of Pennsylvania once in a rather humorous debate said to him that “The gap between the front and the back of this Democratic Party is just big enough for you to fill” (Time, 1956).

In 1944, Tumulty was elected to the New Jersey state legislature and would serve until 1952. He was known as jolly orator who was talented at turning a phrase. In 1951, Tumulty was selected by his fellow Democrats to be the legislature’s minority leader and like with Hague, he formed an alliance with Jersey City Mayor John V. Kenny, who was corrupt like Hague. Tumulty through his advice and testimony saved him from probable jailtime.

In 1954, he was elected to Congress representing the northern wards of Jersey City and Hoboken with a healthy 62.4% to Republican Vincent J. Dellay’s 34.9%. He proved a bit of an independent-minded figure, as he had been in state politics. While favoring the internationalism of his party, he supported higher tariffs. While he favored public housing, strong water pollution legislation, and oil deregulation, Tumulty opposed public power. While Tumulty favored the admission of the states of Hawaii and Alaska, he opposed civil rights legislation.

Fat Activist?

His stance on civil rights likely caused him problems as New Jersey’s Democrats were solidly otherwise for civil rights legislation. During debate on the measure, Tumulty, who was of a build of between 320 and 350 lbs., proposed an amendment adding to the list of protected classes against voting discrimination “size”. This amendment was quickly shouted down by Congress. Did this make Tumulty a “fat” activist? Not really, given his sense of humor about his weight and he would be the only representative from New Jersey to vote against the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1956. He did, however, vote for the Powell Amendment to block funds to schools that disobeyed Brown v. Board of Education.

Overall Ideology and Defeat

On overall ideology, Tumulty’s ADA scores were 80% and 57% in 1955 and 1956 respectively, and he didn’t have much use for doctrinaire liberals, stating that they “love man in the abstract and hate him in the particular” (Sullivan). That election year, President Eisenhower won the normally Democratic Hudson County, and there he had coattails. Democrat Al Sieminski, the representative for the southern wards of Jersey City, had only won reelection by 57 votes. This time, Dellay won 52.3% to Tumulty’s 45.6%, with his vote against civil rights legislation perhaps being the clincher to his defeat. The last Republican to have won the district was Archibald Olpp in the 1920 GOP landslide. However, the level of Democratic power in the area remained and has remained…by 1958 Dellay was a Democrat and he tried to run for reelection as an Independent after the local Democrats didn’t want him. Tumulty himself went on to be deputy mayor of Jersey City from 1958 to 1960, and then served as a judge on the Superior Court from 1967 to 1972.


Lone Critic Fights Jersey City Budget; Record Figure Adopted After a Noisy Public Hearing. (1942, February 28). The New York Times.

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National Affairs: Spitballs in the House. (1956, July 30). Time.

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Saxon, W. (1981, November 26). T. James Tumulty, Ex-Official. The New York Times.

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Sullivan, J.F. (1981, December 6). Politics; When ‘T. James’ Died, An Era Died With Him. The New York Times.

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The Congress: Tails of Jersey City. (1955, January 24). Time.

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