Brian Stack wasn’t surprised when he saw the SUV with tinted windows pull out behind him into traffic three weeks ago.
Stack’s routine as mayor of Union City and state senator is hardly a state secret. He usually drives around to check things out, and often goes down into Hoboken for a morning bagel or even to walk around the waterfront.
He’s also gotten used to people trailing him, part of the political cold war that has been going on for several years – people, he believes, who are paid for by his opponents in North Bergen, and perhaps the Hudson County Democratic Organization.
The hostility shocks him, he says. They’re trying to dig up dirt that, he says, simply doesn’t exist.
But that hasn’t stopped people from following him, and trying to find anything that can damage him.
“Brian Stack isn’t stupid,” said one North Hudson political operative. “He doesn’t do anything that he hasn’t gotten permission for.”
For example, the much-ballyhooed health benefits that he now acknowledges he and his commissioners received thanks to approval from the state Department of Community Affairs. Union City receives specific funding other towns do not, so health and other benefits must be approved by the DCA, because of abuses found in Paterson a few years ago by the governor’s office.
This doesn’t stop opponents from seeking to find things that they can trip him up on. Often, someone is sticking a TV camera in his face or showing up unannounced at commissioner meetings to film him, meant to build a case against him.
On this day in October, the SUV followed him into Hoboken, but Stack didn’t see where it parked. He parked on 14th Street, went into a coffee shop for the paper and coffee intending to cross the street for his usual bagel, when a Fox News TV cameraman and reporter Arnold Diaz stopped him. Diaz asked him about shuttle bus service Union City supplied for one of the more remotely-located condominium complexes, a service similar to what other North Hudson communities provide to residents to get them to and from the ferry terminal in Weehawken.
Diaz apparently believed the driver was being paid overtime, and that this was yet one more alleged abuse of taxpayer funds. This was the second time Diaz paid Stack a visit. The last time Diaz came in, it was to highlight the fact that Stack’s ex-wife apparently used a municipal vehicle and fuel for her personal errands. She has since reimbursed the cost.
Although the shuttle bus story has yet to be aired – the last time, Fox took six months to air the segment – Stack supporters are convinced that this is being generated out of the political camp of State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, part of an ongoing cold war to keep Stack from running a full slate next spring against the Hudson County Democratic Organization’s candidates, similar to what he did in 2007. As of Tuesday, prior to the FBI arrival at the CDBG office, Stack said he intended to put a slate together to oppose the HCDO in the spring Democratic primary.
The FBI raid
This week’s raid of Union City City Hall by FBI agents, who apparently were looking into the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) offices, seemed to increase political tensions. This has been simmering for a while, according to several sources.
Stack supporters claim the Sacco camp is behind numerous plots inside Union City, stoking up bad feelings in what are already problematic union negotiations, setting up phony citizens groups to create the illusion of internal turmoil, and raise questions about what would otherwise be routine public affairs.
The FBI investigation into the CDBG office may distract public attention from recent allegations raised by former North Bergen DPW Supervisor James Wiley, who claimed he’d been ordered to do campaign work elsewhere in Hudson County while still on the municipal time clock, as well as other abuses.
Some Sacco supporters claim Stack, for his part, has made a number of moves inside North Bergen, including creating concerned citizens groups and other activities.
Stack flatly denied this. But as one source divorced from either side said, “Each one mirrors the other.”
Insiders speculate that a March indictment of a contractor in Union City led to a Stack aide turning against the senator, and that this person pointed the FBI toward a mid-level worker in the CDBG office.
While the FBI would not come in to support a political agenda, the dynamics of the investigations must be taken into account: the FBI currently operates under a federal Democratic administration, while a Republican state administration is currently involved in looking into the Wiley allegations. Republican Gov. Chris Christie has been seen as an ally of Stack.
Neither side can afford another civil war
This, of course, puts people like Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith – who is chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization – in an uncomfortable position, because the HCDO doesn’t have the resources to fight another civil war, and the last thing a sitting chairman wants is a Democratic civil war in a year when state Democrats will need Hudson County united to support a Democratic challenger against Christie, whose alliances with Stack and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer have already put a wedge in the once formidable Democratic stronghold.
New Jersey has relatively weak political parties statewide. As pointed out in several studies, most power is situated in political fiefdoms such as Sacco’s and Stack’s, and candidates must rely on cooperation among these party bosses to get statewide candidates elected. Usually, bosses are brought into line by promises of aid from the state if their candidate gets elected, but since Stack already has a good relationship with Christie and gets so much aid, he really has no incentive to support the party line which Sacco and other Democrats need to get a Democratic governor elected in order to start the aid rolling back into their communities.
Behind the Democrats also are various unions, who gain significant influence over state government when there is a Democratic governor. This may explain why unions may be turning against Stack in Union City, stirred up by agitators who point out Stack’s close ties to Christie, who has not been union-friendly.
While the mostly impoverished HCDO lacks money for a Democratic civil war, recent election reports show Stack has very little capital and owes a lot already, hardly enough to run a statewide slate. Stack may get help from the Republicans, but some observers say Stack can raise money when he needs to. He might also be able to tie his campaign into the Jersey City municipal election, and may explain why he may be behind a movement encouraging state Senator Sandra Cunningham to run for mayor in May – something she apparently is considering, but not convinced of yet. What the HCDO and Sacco camp fear is that Cunningham might run for reelection as a state senator on a Stack-rebellion ticket – which would spell the end of the HCDO.
“The HCDO needs to muddy up Stack’s name to discourage people like [Jersey City Councilman] Steve Fulop and Cunningham from running with him,” said one source in Jersey City.
One big difference between the 2013 primary civil war and the 2007 are the number of countywide seats up for grabs. The last time, Stack didn’t merely have to find candidates for three state legislative districts – a senator and two assembly members for each – but also candidates to challenge county executive, county clerk, county registrar and county sheriff.
Next year, the only county seat up is that of sheriff. Last time, Stack went with Richard Rivera of West New York as his candidate for sheriff, which may explain Rivera’s recent reemergence into the political scene. He was reportedly running for mayor of West New York, but has since been hired on in a newly-created mayoral aide post. He could be the Stack candidate for sheriff, although some sources suggest that Stack might mend fences with former Sheriff Juan Perez, who has already started raising money to run.