Longtime Margate mayor and Atlantic County Republican Chairman William H. Ross III died Sunday at age 88.
The current county Republican chairman, Keith Davis, announced Ross’s death in a news release.
Ross, one of the most influential local Republicans during the past 30 years, served on the Margate Commission for 44 years, including 27 years as mayor. He also served as Atlantic County Republican chairman for all but three years between 1979 and 2001.
Ross was director of the Atlantic County Consumer Affairs Division, clerk of the Atlantic County Freeholder Board, assistant county purchasing agent, an auditor in the state Beverage Tax Bureau and an executive with Ritz Associates.
“He was somebody who always put his ambition aside for the party, for Margate, for country, for family,” former state Sen. William Gormley said. “He was that way.”
Davis credited Ross with encouraging him to become involved in politics when Davis was just 16.
“I appreciate his help and friendship through the years,” Davis said. “Respected by all with his warm personality, he left his mark on our party and region. His years of dedicated service to his country and community will not be forgotten. We offer our sincere condolences to his wonderful wife, June, and their family.”
Gormley spoke of a story Ross would tell that always choked him up, of when Ross served in the military in World War II.
“It was right around the end of World War II, when (he was) assigned to the area around the death camps,” Gormley said. “He was always quite emotional talking about that. If you talk about a moment in life that affected him the most, it was his experience in the military.”
After the war, Ross joined the Republican organization run by state Sen. Frank S. Farley, considered one of the most powerful politicians in state history. He became a campaign worker and a county committeeman.
Ross first took his seat on the City Commission in 1959. The Republicans have had a political monopoly with few contested elections in Margate, a small, wealthy downbeach community.
“I was fortunate in having the people I had behind me, and being in the right place at the right time,” Ross said in a 1996 interview.
Ross became mayor in 1975 and was proud of the city’s strict code enforcement and zoning laws and low tax rate. He said in a 1995 interview that he worked to keep the city generally the same during his tenure.
“I think our record over the years has been damn good,” Ross said. “We have maintained the values and the quality of life in Margate.”
Maintaining the city’s values included strict parking laws and attempts to get rid of rowdy visitors. There have also been tough laws restricting where vendors can operate and a brief ban on commercial development.
The City Commission encountered some criticism, including being found by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office in 1987 to have violated the state Sunshine Law. Commissioners changed their practices to advertise all their meetings.
Ross won the Republican Party’s first-ever election for Atlantic County chairman in 1979. The Republicans had fared badly during the 1970s and suffered from deep internal divisions.
The Republican Party that Ross took over was split between the Farley generation and the newer Republicans, including a then-Assemblyman Gormley.
Under Ross’s leadership, the Republicans erased a financial deficit and reclaimed many seats it had lost.
However, Ross’ tenure saw several leadership fights. He successfully defeated four challengers in four straight years before losing to Kenneth LeFevre in 1983.
The anti-Ross forces were led by Gormley. They split when Ross didn’t back candidate Thomas Kean in the 1981 party primary for governor.
Ross became chairman again in 1983 when LeFevre resigned from the seat.
He and Gormley made peace and became close political allies.
“We did have our disagreements about the party a little bit, but the day after he called to ask, ‘What can I do to help the party?’” Gormley said. “An oath meant something to Bill Ross. ‘Pledge,’ ‘commitment,’ those weren’t just idle words to Bill Ross. Those were touchstones to how he guided himself in life.”
The William H. Ross III School in Margate was named in his honor in 2001. Shortly before his 78th birthday in 2002, Ross announced he was not seeking another term as Margate mayor.
“God willing, I’ll fill out my term, and that will be it,” Ross said at the time.
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