By far the biggest political story in Hudson County in 2011 was the victory of Dr. Felix Roque and his ticket in the West New York municipal election in May, a victory against the once insurmountable might of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.
Roque’s defeat of incumbent Mayor Sal Vega may be the biggest political defeat of the HCDO since the political maverick Bill O’Dea beat the once all-powerful Democratic boss Bob Janiszewski in a clash over O’Dea wanting to become a freeholder the late 1990s.
Roque’s ticket won despite being vastly out spent by Vega, by drawing on the outraged public who were frustrated by higher taxes and other issues. Roque managed to frustrate some of the most savvy political consultants in the county – including the legendary Paul Swibinki, who later expressed his admiration for Roque’s ability to draw on the public anger and use it to win. Roque’s ticket also over came the GOTV(get out the vote) efforts of Tom Bartoli, a behind-the-scenes guru for Jersey City Councilman Steve Fulop and Hoboken Councilman Michael Russo. (Roque probably got help from Union City Mayor and State Sen. Brian Stack, Rep. Albio Sires, and others.)
The Roque victory became a symbol of a decline in the fortunes of the HCDO, which has been suffering internal feuds for several years, including clashes between North Hudson’s political titans – Brian Stack and State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco.
Redistricting changed political landscape, too
Every decade following the federal census, political districts are realigned to reflect the current populations. This year, West New York was moved out of the 31st District, where Stack is senator, and put into the 32nd District, where Sacco is senator. Thus, Roque’s administration gives Stack a possible ally located in the heart of the Sacco camp.
Redistricting, however, was not kind to Stack either, who lost reliable votes in West New York and gained virgin political territory in Jersey City, where there is the potential for future opposition.
Redistricting also ended the Assembly career of Joan Quigley, who had served as Sacco’s loyal ally in the 32nd District since 1993. While Sacco retained Assemblyman Vincent Prieto of Secaucus, he inherited a potentially powerful new ally in Angelica M. Jimenez of West New York.
A divided HCDO
Sacco, however, emerged in 2011 as a front line political power. Prior to this, Sacco has always been content to work in the background. But this year, he openly dealt with state-level operatives to get Prieto a chairmanship on state Assembly budget committee, and backed Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver for speaker of the Assembly. The latter move caused a rift with southern Hudson County when Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell of Bayonne voted against Oliver – partly because Oliver and state Sen. Steve Sweeney brokered an anti-union deal with Gov. Christopher Christie earlier in the year.
This rift – if rumors are to be believed – could spell the end of Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith’s chairmanship of the HCDO in June 2012.
Stack, meanwhile, inherited a potential rival in Sean Connors of Jersey City as his Assembly running mate. While Stack retained Assemblyman Ruben Ramos of Hoboken, it is unclear what their relationship is, and whether Ramos will seek to run for Hoboken mayor against incumbent Dawn Zimmer in 2013. At that point, Stack could face another potential rival for his state Senate seat.
Christie gains support among some local Dems
Sacco may have expanded his political geography in order to counter the trend among some mayors such as Stack, Zimmer, and possibly Roque, who have become allies of Republican Gov. Christie.
At the heart of the HCDO’s troubles in 2011 has been Christie’s ability to divide Hudson County’s political leadership – threatening to undermine the HCDO’s ability to get out the vote going into a presidential election in 2012.
This division of Democrats in Hudson County could result in swinging New Jersey into supporting a Republican presidential candidate.
Zimmer’s victories in Hoboken
Rivaling Roque’s victory as the most significant political story of 2011 has been the ongoing guerilla warfare between Zimmer supporters and the various factions that make up the anti-Zimmer block.
The anti-Zimmer forces came into 2011 with high expectations after coming together to help Tim Occhipinti beat incumbent Michael Lenz in November 2010, hoping to retain control of the City Council after the May ward council races.
Although these factions managed to beat Zimmer in a citywide vote, the Zimmer camp was able to squeak out a victory in two wards that allowed Zimmer to retain a one-vote majority on the City Council.
Two political skirmishes highlighted the second half of 2011 in Hoboken: Battles over the alleged misuse of city e-mails and the sale of the Hoboken University Hospital to a private company.
Gov. Christie, the former U.S. attorney, appears to have played a significant role in helping Zimmer in both instances, but more importantly in pushing ahead with the sale of the hospital.
By year’s end, Zimmer appears to have won significant victories at a time when the rare unity of the opposition used to defeat Lenz has degenerated into petty divisions as each of the former anti-Zimmer allies gears up for a run for mayor in 2013.
Expect 2012 to see these divisions widen, allowing Zimmer to build on her successes.
Jersey City elections set the stage for 2013 elections
The third biggest political story in 2011 took place in Jersey City as powerbrokers tested the waters for a 2013 mayoral run, testing their political machines both in the battle over control of the Jersey City Democratic organization in June, and later in the special election to fill two at-large council seats in a November special election.
Fulop’s team outwitted supporters of incumbent Mayor Jerramiah Healy to take control of the city’s Democratic organization, and since this body will be in place prior to the 2013 municipal elections, its loss is a heavy blow to Healy – especially when it comes to raising money.
Healy suffered an additional blow in the November special election when his two candidates lost to successful bids by Viola Richardson and Rolando Lavarro Jr.
Fulop’s people appeared to have stayed out of this race, partly because to back any candidates risked alienating future allies in Fulop’s all important bid for mayor in 2013.
But the election left some unanswered questions such as whether or not state Sen. Sandra Cunningham will run for mayor in 2013 or whether Richardson’s success will allow Cunningham to back her instead.
In other news, the political world said goodbye this year to former Freeholder and Hoboken Democratic Party Chairman Maurice Fitzgibbons, and Hudson Reporter columnist and former Jersey City Democratic Party Zone Leader Matthew Amato.
To read more of the 2011 Year in review click HERE.