James Cavanaugh, a politician not afraid to fight town hall for his Morristown bars

James 'Jimmy' Cavanaugh


Services will be held this week for James “Jimmy” Cavanaugh, owner of the Iron Bar and Revolution in Morristown.

The former Essex County freeholder and construction company owner passed peacefully in his sleep at his Chester Township home, surrounded by family and friends, on Thursday after a long battle with liver disease, his obituary stated. He was 80.

Although known in Essex political circles for his three terms as a Democratic freeholder from 1987 to 1996, and around the state for projects built by his companies J.A. Cavanaugh Contractors and Phoenix Contractors and Developers starting in 1969, Cavanaugh was best known in Morristown as a restaurateur and bar owner who was not afraid to fight town hall.

Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, center, cuts ribbon at June 2012 grand opening of the Iron Bar. The Mayor is calling for 'creative cooperation' to ease friction between residents and bar owners. Photo by Berit Ollestad
HAPPIER TIMES: Morristown Mayor Tim Dougherty, center, cuts ribbon at June 2012 grand opening of the Iron Bar. Owner Jimmy Cavanaugh is to his left. Photo by Berit Ollestad

In 1979, on a South Street property now housing a bank, he invested in a nightspot variously known as The Wedgwood, Society Hill, South Street, Argyles, Phoebe’s, and Jimmy’s Haunt.

Fast forward to 2011, close to the historic Green at the other end of South Street, where Cavanaugh opened the Iron Bar. He added the Revolution Gastropub next door a few years later.

“He proudly designed, built, and decorated every detail of his restaurants himself,” according to his obituary.

Iron Bar and Revolution will continue, led by partner Darrell Remlinger, longtime Cavanaugh associate Mark Axelrod said on Monday. Remlinger had impressed Cavanaugh by working his way up from a doorman to manager of Jimmy’s Haunt.

“Darrell had an interest, he’s motivated, and he’s from the younger generation,” Cavanaugh said in 2011, when Remlinger was 35. Morristown Green has reached out to Remlinger for comment.

Jimmy Cavanaugh ang Darrell Remlinger, partners in new Morristown nightclub, the Iron Bar. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Jimmy Cavanaugh and Darrell Remlinger, partners in the Iron Bar, pictured in July 2011. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“The Iron Bar and Revolution will miss (Cavanaugh’s) valued contributions but will continue to host the Morristown community he loved,” said attorney Robert C. Williams, who represented Cavanaugh many times before town boards.

“Jimmy dedicated a large part of his life to helping others…he was a selfless person and a great friend to all that knew him,” Williams said.


An undercover investigator for the state Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control from 1967 to 1969, Cavanaugh proudly stated on many occasions that the Iron Bar/Revolution never had an ABC violation.

Those establishments have not been free from controversy, however.

Cavanaugh scoffed at the notion of a glut of taverns when he was opening the Iron Bar. “There’s enough for everybody,” he said. “We’ll just bring more people into the town. It’s becoming a mini-Manhattan.”

When residents packed council meetings in 2017 to protest his expansion plans, asserting bar patrons were damaging their neighborhoods, Cavanaugh was critical of officials for siding with them.

“Do they want vacant storefronts or successful businesses? They are absolutely singling us out,” he told Morristown Green. Public skepticism had been fueled by an earlier Cavanaugh pitch for a jazz bistro; a promotional video backfired when organizations claimed it falsely implied their support.

More recently, the council rejected the Iron Bar’s application for rooftop dining; the matter is in litigation.

Iron Bar owner Jimmy Cavanaugh and his lawyer, Robert C. Williams, confer after council decision. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Iron Bar owner Jimmy Cavanaugh and his lawyer, Robert C. Williams, confer after council decision. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

Cavanaugh won repeated legal victories to overturn council-imposed curfews at Revolution. But his intention to create a Mexican “Gran Cantina” next to Revolution was thwarted in 2017 by the council, which cited residents’ complaints about an over-saturation of bars downtown.

That same year, Cavanaugh sued the Morristown Parking Authority in a dispute over access to an alley behind the Iron Bar. He got a couple of garage parking spaces from that one.

He did much better in his next case — a 2019 federal racketeering suit against his former friend and protégé, Mayor Tim Dougherty, along with then-Council President Stefan Armington and the town.

Cavanaugh alleged Dougherty made things difficult for his establishments after Cavanaugh rebuffed the mayor’s attempt to invest in the Iron Bar under his son’s name. Dougherty denied the allegation as a “work of fiction.”

Bar owner James Cavanaugh at Gran Cantina hearing, Jan. 31, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Bar owner James Cavanaugh at Gran Cantina hearing, Jan. 31, 2017. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

The town settled with Cavanaugh last October for $345,000. The settlement admits no guilt by anyone; the town cited a wish to avoid a protracted and costly trial.

Cavanaugh and Remlinger agreed to delete all prior electronic communications with Dougherty, Armington and other town officials. All parties were barred from disclosing settlement details or disparaging the other side, under threat of $175,000 in penalties.

Asked to reflect on his former mentor, Dougherty responded: “Rest in peace, and may his memories be a blessing to all that loved him.”


Cavanaugh’s family owned Cucuzzella Bakery in Newark. After graduating from from Columbia High School in South Orange in 1961, Cavanaugh went to Vale School of Real Estate & Insurance, in Newark, and the New Jersey State Police Academy in Sea Girt.

“He built an empire despite never going to college,” his obituary said.

Of Irish and Italian descent, he was feted in 1996 as Grand Marshal in the Nutley St. Patrick’s Day Parade and as the Italian Tribune’s Man of the Year.

Jimmy Cavanaugh, right, chats with (L-R) then-Acting Police Chief Darnell Richardson, Fire Chief Robert Flanagan and Public Safety Director Michael Corcoran Jr. at Morristown council, June 11, 2019. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

A member of numerous civic groups and trade associations, Cavanaugh also supported charities for children’s cancer research, veterans, and Boys Town. He founded Crack Down Inc., a nonprofit anti-drug awareness organization, his obituary said.

It added that Cavanaugh had a penchant for “crazy suits and ties,” wicked humor, and collecting classic cars. He loved Elvis and doo-wop, dancing and singing, and playing boardwalk arcade games with his family during summers at Lavallette.

His late dog Izaboo was special to him. He had a weakness for ice cream, and loved making gravy and meatballs from his mother’s recipe, according to the obituary.

He was described as having a way with people, an ability to talk with just about anyone.

“He never seemed to lose his temper…in the end, I’d say he was a gentleman,” said former Morristown Mayor Donald Cresitello.

They had a falling out, Cresitello said, when he opposed Cavanaugh’s plans to build townhouses on the Speedwell Avenue site of Willow Hall, circa 2007. Although the zoning board okayed those plans, residents mounted a successful campaign to stop the project.

CREATIVE COOPERATION? Iron Bar owner Jim Cavanaugh shares word with Christine Conti-Collins, a resident who has been critical of downtown bars. Photo by Kevin Coughlin
Iron Bar owner Jim Cavanaugh shares word in 2012 with Christine Conti-Collins, a resident critical of downtown bars. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

As Cresitello tells it, Cavanaugh switched his political support to Dougherty — who has gone on to serve four terms as mayor. Cavanaugh later “apologized,” and hired Cresitello’s contracting company for assorted jobs, Cresitello said.

“That’s the way it goes in politics,” the former mayor said.

Former Council President Michelle Dupree Harris, a Democrat who unsuccessfully challenged Dougherty in a mayoral primary, cast the lone vote for Cavanaugh’s Gran Cantina in 2017.

“No matter the political atmosphere, he always forgave, and still considered you a friend. That’s my greatest memory of Jimmy,” Harris said.

Esperanza Porras-Field, founder of the Morris County Hispanic American Chamber of Commerce, mounted a 2021 primary bid for mayor. The Colombian immigrant called Cavanaugh “a fantastic role model and community leader” who was a friend of the chamber.

Rhea, Emily and Jimmy Cavanaugh at Murder Mystery Night at the Morristown Deli. Photo by Mary Dougherty
Rhea, Emily and Jimmy Cavanaugh at Murder Mystery Night at the Morristown Deli in 2012. Photo by Mary Dougherty

“Thank you for your unconditional support and generosity. You opened the door for us without hesitation. This helped us tremendously. Your vision and community
involvement was tremendous,” Porras-Field said.

James A. Cavanaugh is survived by his wife Rhea (Zelinski) and his children: Danielle Miller, and her husband Mike Miller; Joseph Cavanaugh, and his wife Jen Cavanaugh; Emily Cavanaugh, and Diana Christian; and his grandchildren: Olivia, Camille and Natalie Miller; and Daniel and Holden Cavanaugh.

A visitation will be held on Tuesday, June 11, 2024, from 4 pm to 8 pm at Tuttle Funeral Home, 272 State Rt. 10, Randolph. A funeral Mass is set for Wednesday, June 12, 2024, at 11 am at St. Lawrence Martyr RC Church, Chester. Interment will follow at Holy Cross Cemetery, North Arlington.

This story has been updated with additional details about a dispute with the parking authority.

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  1. Interesting choice to run such a distasteful article just a few days after his passing. Have some respect. Prayers to his family.

  2. Thank for the nice story about a very good man . I got to know Jimmy very well when I listed the Willow Hall property for sale
    On Speedwell Ave . It was under contract for almost 6 years. He lead a group that put it under contract . He did display much patience with everyone through the whole process. (Too long of a story to tell here. )
    Can honestly only say positive things about Jimmy. Words like, caring , honest, real, sincere , wise, knowledge, and “down to earth “ come to mind. He could talk to anybody. Always made others feel welcomed and listened too. He had a gift for listening and showing care.
    He loved his family, his country , his friends , and the community , which of course included Morristown. He was one of the first people to work with people like Michel Fabrizio , Jay Delaney and Donald Cresitello to revive and to help Morristown. So many went to him for advice. He invested in Morristown when it was over almost $150 million dollars in debt. He believed in Morristown and it’s good people. He knew it could be turned around. He took a chance on the town when others were laughing at it or had deep doubts.
    I will miss him deeply. His door was always open, he would give me a good word, and always told me “like it was . “The world is the better place because Jimmy was here with us for a while. Just ask anybody who really knew him. He was also a man of his word! And he was honest . If you told you something was the truth you could bank on it! He was about helping people never hurting people. That is what I will miss the most , his love of his family and his friends ,but most of all his honesty. The world needs honesty and the way he lived his life! I am honored to have known this man.