The Reporter has compiled a list of the top 50 most influential movers and shakers of Hudson County, from top political officials to local bloggers and activists. Encompassing a breadth of categories from politics to the arts, the individuals yield tremendous influence in different ways. Some of those who hold high positions in local government actually failed to make the list if they have seen their influence wane.
Those at the top were selected due to their countywide influence. As the list progresses, however, the individuals selected have a far more localized power.
Like ’em or loathe ’em, here is our list of the 50 most influential players in Hudson County today. Do you agree or disagree? Who would be in your own top 10? Take our poll at hudsonreporter.com and leave comments at the end of this story.
1. State Sen. Nicholas Sacco
Also serves as: mayor of North Bergen, assistant superintendent of the North Bergen schools
Former educator Nicholas Sacco rose to political power in the early ’90s. Due to a grandfather clause in state legislation limiting dual taxpayer-funded jobs, Sacco is able to earn three public salaries. As mayor of North Bergen, Sacco runs a tight ship and has an influence that extends far beyond the boundaries of that town. He typically wins local elections by a landslide. Regarded as a Democratic Party boss in Hudson County, Sacco has been instrumental in getting others elected and his endorsement is sought by many seeking political office.
Sacco’s strong political connections – to Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, and South Jersey political boss George Norcross, among others – as well as his influence with the Hudson County Schools of Technology make him a notable Hudson County player. He is arguably the real power in the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), although the organization is officially headed by Sacco ally and Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith. Sacco continues to make waves in Hudson County, most recently by reaching out to Jersey City councilman and mayoral hopeful Steven Fulop.
2. State Sen. Brian P. Stack
Also serves as: mayor of Union City
A Democrat, Brian P. Stack has had his hand in politics since 1983, since he volunteered as a teenager and kept helping local residents with various problems. He has made his way through the ranks to become one of the most powerful elected officials in Hudson County, all while remaining a party renegade and something of an outsider among fellow Democrats. As an ally of Gov. Christopher Christie, Stack has secured millions of dollars in state funding for Union City. Last month, Union City was one of only 11 cities in the state – and the only city in Hudson County – to receive restored state aid. Stack’s longtime community involvement through his civic association has enabled him, as a non-Latino, to retain power in a heavily Latino town, where he has been mayor for 12 years. He has been a state senator for the 33rd legislative district for the last four years and served as assemblyman before that. He recently had to distance himself from apparent scandals among his ranks (which first implicated his ex-wife, then his police chief), and has been able to come through unscathed so far. Will he continue to separate himself from such problems and retain his strong political power? It will be something to watch in 2012.
3. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer
In the face of strong political opposition, Zimmer was able to defy the odds by selling a struggling city-owned hospital to relieve taxpayers of a potential $52 million tax burden if it failed. When the going got tough, her connections in Trenton helped the sale proceed, since Gov. Christie pledged $5 million in state money to help ease the sale. Zimmer also won back the City Council majority in 2011, negotiated two public safety contracts, and stood up to the HCDO and even to state Sen. Brian Stack by running her own (unsuccessful) candidate in the Assembly race.
4. Ward E Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop
As the most consistent voice of opposition to the administration of Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy on the City Council, Fulop has become the darling of residents who believe the administration is rife with waste and cronyism. Even residents who have reservations about Fulop’s 2013 run for mayor have applauded his efforts to strip political appointees of their municipal cars, health care, and other perks. And Fulop’s influence extends beyond the City Council. For two years in a row, Fulop-backed Board of Education candidates have swept the school board elections, and Fulop-allied candidates won a majority of seats on the Jersey City Democratic Committee.
5. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ)
With deep political roots in Hudson County, Menendez continues to influence politics in Hudson County behind the scenes. In Washington, D.C., as a top-ranked Democrat, he has helped move projects forward that influence municipalities throughout the region, such as promoting Amtrak’s Gateway Tunnel. While he took on a less-prominent role in the day-to-day political scene since becoming U.S. Senator, he has strong ties to state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack. Menendez is also closely associated with some of the key members of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.
6. State Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham
Elected to office following the 2004 death of her husband – Glenn D. Cunningham, Jersey City’s first black mayor – political observers initially believed that Sandra Cunningham rode his coattails into office. Since being elected in 2007, however, she has become a political force to be reckoned with. In the state Senate she has served as majority whip, helping Democrats in Trenton shepherd their agenda through the legislature. Broad speculation that she is considering a run for Jersey City mayor in 2013 has been welcome news to residents seeking an alternative to declared candidate Steve Fulop. Even if she doesn’t run, her influence with key voting blocs in Jersey City will make her a player in the 2013 race.
7. Craig Guy and Harold “Bud” Demellier
Craig Guy and Harold E. Demellier Jr. are the Batman and Robin of Hudson County’s inner circles, both employees in Hudson County government who work their political magic behind the scenes. These two are the real power behind Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, who often lends out their services to political allies. Guy, for instance, once worked as campaign manager for Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, while Demellier was once lent to West New York after Sal Vega first became mayor. Guy, who sits on several county boards and is deputy chief of staff for DeGise, and Demellier, director of the county Department of Roads & Public Property, are in the brain trusts of several other key political figures, such as Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith.
8. Hudson County Prosecutor Edward DeFazio
As chief prosecutor, Ed DeFazio, a Democrat, serves as Hudson County’s top cop. He oversees high-profile arrests and court cases, and sometimes makes the decision to refer low-scale political corruption cases to the state.
9. Hudson County’s developers
Toll Brothers, Ironstate Development, Roseland Properties, Hartz Mountain, the Kaplan Group, Silverman Building, and others continue to wield significant power throughout Hudson County, where high-priced rentals and condos continue to rise both on the waterfront and inland even in a down economy. While politicians change over the years, and community activists fight any perceived “overdevelopment” and tax breaks, the powerful developers push onward. Many of the companies in this group either announced or continued building projects in the past year. Ironstate and Mack-Cali announced at the end of 2011 that they’ll build 1,000 new units in Jersey City’s financial district over the next three years.
10. State Commissioner of Health Mary O’Dowd
The makeup of Hudson County health care institutions continued to evolve with the 2011 sale of Hoboken University Medical Center and the pending sale of Christ Hospital in Jersey City – both to for-profit companies, in what has been a trend across the country. Hudson County could soon be the home to four for-profit hospitals – the most of any county in New Jersey. Only two non-profit hospitals will remain (Palisades and Jersey City Medical Center). These changes have been controversial, as some fear the for-profit hospitals may drop needed services or certain insurance providers, while others say the companies will add needed improvements. O’Dowd reviews and decides on every hospital sale, and thus, affects the health care of every resident using local hospitals. (Photo courtesy NJ.gov.)
11. Gov. Christopher Christie
Gov. Christie has made waves – both hated and loved – all across Hudson County, as well as the state and nation this past year. Observers have speculated on his “will he or won’t he” presidential dalliance, his snowstorm failure and hurricane win, and his ability to take on powerful unions and entities in his statewide campaign for civil service and sick pay reform. He’s managed to curry the favor of three of Hudson County’s more influential Democratic politicians (Hoboken’s Dawn Zimmer, West New York’s Felix Roque, and Union City’s Brian Stack), made the 2013 Weehawken/West New York Formula One road race a certainty, and restored state aid to Union City.
12. Outgoing Freeholder Chairman William O’Dea
Bill O’Dea has always been something of a political maverick, although his role as chairman has placed him on equal footing with Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise in some ways and forced him to work more closely with the political machine he often criticized. But his real power comes from strong support inside Jersey City – and from powerful Democratic State Sen. Ray Lesniak and the trade unions. Although his reign as chairman ended early in 2012, O’Dea remains one of the most vocal freeholders.
13. Richard Rivera, chairman of Civil Rights Protection for Latino Leadership Alliance of NJ; founder, Richard Rivera LLC
While Richard Rivera may be best known for his initiation of and participation in the 1994 West New York police sting operation that resulted in the arrest and conviction of 30 officers (including the chief) on racketeering charges, he has since turned advocacy and accountability into a career. He volunteers over 30 hours a week as chairman of Civil Rights Protection at the LLANJ (New Jersey’s largest Latino advocacy group), runs a personal community advocacy, investigative and consulting group called Richard Rivera L.L.C., works with attorney generals and county prosecutors to deal with complaints against police, and started and maintains the largest state database on internal affairs in New Jersey with over 100,000 complaints filed against police departments. He is also trying to get his job back as an officer in West New York.
14. Mayor Dr. Felix Roque, West New York After a surprise defeat of former Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega in May, Roque, who had virtually no political experience, has implemented many controversial changes in West New York in considerably little time. He rooted out several of Vega’s Board of Education members, instituted an investigation into corruption in the Recreation Department, brought in an entirely new panel of town commissioners, replaced both the town and school board attorneys, and will co-host the Formula One race coming to West New York and Weehawken in 2013.
15. Joseph F. Scott, CEO, LibertyHealth System
Also serves as: Executive director, Hudson County Chamber of Commerce
With Jersey City Medical Center, Joe Scott and his staff at LibertyHealth have managed to keep a nonprofit hospital around and make it economically viable without selling to a for-profit company. Under Scott’s leadership, the hospital has improved patient care, added services, and attracted top talent.
16. Norman Guerra, executive director, Hudson County Improvement Authority
Norman M. Guerra can be seen as a banker for local governments, providing loans for crucial projects or even rescue packages for municipalities and other government entities. Under his leadership, the HCIA has provided critical funding for development projects throughout Hudson County, from the redevelopment of the Harrison waterfront on the west side of the county to numerous projects, from Weehawken to Bayonne.
17. Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, District Director for U.S. Rep. Albio Sires
Not only has Richard Turner been mayor for 21 years, he has served as chairman of the North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue for 11 years, he was business administrator of West New York under former Mayor Albio Sires, he acts as a consultant for West New York Mayor Felix Roque, and is currently district director to U.S. Representative Albio Sires. In a close alliance with state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, he continues to initiate many open space preservation initiatives and has encouraged sizeable residential growth on the waterfront. He also is one of the few longtime county politicians who has somehow managed to avoid any scandals or even hints of scandals in his administration.
18. Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith
Also serves as:chairman, Hudson County Democratic Organization
Mark Smith took over chairmanship of a largely crippled Hudson County Democratic Organization two years ago. This position, largely a thankless job, put him at the center of every petty Democratic feud and often leaves him as mediator between rival Democratic interests, north, south, east, and west. Closely associated with former West New York Mayor Sal Vega, whose loss made the HCDO seem even weaker, Smith may soon find his chairmanship challenged.
19. Union City Commissioner Christopher Irizarry
Also serves as: CEO, North Hudson Community Action Corporation
As head of NHCAC, a publicly funded low-income health organization, Chris Irizarry has bolstered the community with several high-profile charity fundraisers and the opening of many new centers and facilities this year, including the Women, Infants and Children Center, a state-of-the-art 1,400 sq. ft. dental suite, and a new Head Start facility. He is also Brian Stack’s commissioner of parks and public property.
20. Paul Swibinski, Vision Media Marketing Inc.
For over 25 years, political consultant Paul Swibinski has represented various different powerful political officials and organizations, including the Hudson County Democratic Organization, Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, North Bergen Township, and more. Although some of his workload has been transferred to his son, Phil, Paul continues to establish himself as an influential force in Hudson County through effective advertising, campaigning, and of course, damage control. He is widely regarded as one of the most powerful publicists in the county.
21. Elizabeth Spinelli, director, Hudson County Economic Development Corp.
Bette Spinelli, director of Hudson County’s office of Economic Development, is recognized nationally and through the state for her expertise in redevelopment. She is often overlooked as a powerful force in upgrading the many sites in Hudson County left contaminated by industry. Working quietly, she has been instrumental in cleanup and redevelopment of many sites throughout the county.
22. Assemblyman Vincent Prieto
Prieto has served New Jersey’s 32nd legislative district since 2004 and recently ascended into a powerful position in November after being chosen to serve as the chairman of the Budget Committee for the 2012-13 legislative session.
23. Howard Boswell, CEO, Boswell Engineering
The municipal engineers for both North Bergen and Hoboken, the company was a large contributor to Nicholas Sacco’s last mayoral campaign. The company is behind nearly every proposed construction project in both towns.
24. Weiner Lesniak, law firm
With multiple contracts throughout Hudson County, state Sen. Ray Lesniak’s (D – Union) major Democratic firm continues to rake in taxpayer money for services in cities like Hoboken and North Bergen.
25. Chasan Leyner Lamparello, law firm
Attorneys for this powerful, politically connected Secaucus-based firm regularly get lucrative contracts from municipalities and school boards throughout Hudson County.
26. Uta Brauser, Christine Goodman, and Maryanne Kelleher
In Jersey City, few cultural events take place without the involvement of these women. The city’s cultural trio is, collectively, responsible for Creative Grove, Groove on Grove, and all of the ongoing events co-sponsored by Art House Productions. The trio is responsible, again, collectively, for giving musicians, artists, and craftspeople opportunities to showcase their work throughout the year.
27. Jeff Chiesa
As Gov. Christie’s newly-appointed state attorney general, Chiesa will be one of only a handful of people privy to the logistics and details of the pending sale of Christ Hospital in Jersey City. Acting on the recommendations of his staff in the AG’s office, Chiesa is one of the individuals who must approve the hospital sale if it is to be finalized. As a key decision-maker for this deal, Chiesa is sure to be lobbied by the nurses’ union, community groups, the Christ Hospital Board, and the buyer to either approve, reject, or modify the terms of the sale.
28. Ron Simoncini, Axiom Communications
Simoncini’s efforts helped convince voters in Hoboken, a city full of renters, to vote for changes to the city’s rent control law that a tenant advocacy group vehemently opposed. Simoncini also locked up contracts with major developers, including Hartz Mountain.
29. James Kirkos, CEO, Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce
Kirkos is a voice for business growth and tourism in the Meadowlands Region as chief executive of the Meadowlands Regional Chamber of Commerce, which represents 856 member businesses. He advocated to bring the 2014 Super Bowl to New Jersey.
30. Bill Sheehan, Hackensack Riverkeeper
Sheehan has a long history of being at the forefront of environmental issues in Hudson County and in protecting the Hackensack watershed by holding municipalities accountable and going after corporate polluters.
31. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8th Dist.)
Rep. Albio Sires, with recent redistricting, actually gains power in Hudson County. A former mayor of West New York and former speaker of the state Assembly, Sires inherits more of Jersey City although will lose some territory in Bayonne. He is strongly connected to Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, West New York Mayor Dr. Felix Roque, and state Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, and is popular in North Hudson among residents.
32. Marcia Karrow, executive director, New Jersey Meadowlands Commission
As executive director for the NJMC, Karrow makes zoning and planning decisions that impact the environment, economic growth, and development in the Hudson County municipalities bordering the Meadowlands, including Secaucus, Jersey City, and North Bergen.
33. Scarinci & Hollenbeck, law firm
The powerful Democratic law firm has connections all the way to Sen. Robert Menendez and its influence spreads throughout Hudson County. Records show that the Lyndhurst-based firm pulled in close to $1 million in Hoboken alone over the past four years. Donald Scarinci’s public questioning of the Hoboken hospital deal, after he resigned as general counsel for the facility, made headlines.
34. Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli
After stepping in to take over a town that was rocked by its former mayor’s corruption scandal, Gonnelli pushed a full slate of independent candidates that were elected to the council and has helped recast the town’s image in a positive light. He has brought back a number of community events and is trying to revive the town center.
35. Robert Cotter, director, Jersey City Division of City Planning, and Robert Antonicello, director, Jersey City Redevelopment Agency
Cotter, Antonicello, and their staffs at Division of City Planning and the Redevelopment Agency are collectively responsible for mapping out and approving every development project in Jersey City. Their departments have, for example, recently approved plans for a new Goya Foods facility in Jersey City, the development of new affordable housing units, and several redevelopment plans throughout the city.
36. Frank Gargiulo, superintendent, Hudson County Schools of Technology
Also serves as: A North Bergen town commissioner.
With jurisdiction over schools scattered throughout the county, Superintendent of Hudson County Schools of Technology Gargiulo commands a lot of influence. The North Bergen Commissioner has also held a seat in the state Assembly, and is a former Hudson County Republican chairman.
37. Patrick Foye, executive director, Port Authority of New York and New Jersey
The new executive director of the Port Authority is charged with altering an often-challenged public image of the enormous bi-state agency that oversees bridges, tunnels, airports, and of course, sets tolls and PATH fares, which will see continued increases over the next few years.
38. Bob Hurley, St. Anthony High School basketball coach
The legendary longtime coach at St. Anthony in Jersey City is often asked for advice on several different matters, not just about basketball.
39. Neil Rubenstein and Steven Rubenstein
As the co-owners of Realty Appraisal Co., the company selected to conduct the current property revaluation in Jersey City, brothers Neil and Steven Rubenstein are at the center of one of the hottest issues facing taxpayers in that city.
40. Hudson County’s internet community
The Hudson County internet community is host to a plethora of bloggers and writers. While some of the authors wield widely-read websites, others launch angry anonymous attacks on political opponents via message boards. Some of the popular websites around the county include eSecaucus, JCList, and Galaxyfacts.com (of Guttenberg’s Galaxy Towers). Hoboken boasts several prominent blogs and sites, with each one tending to run in a political direction – either generally favoring or criticizing the current mayoral administration. In Jersey City, several specific activist groups have taken to sending out mass e-mails, which have influenced discussions in council meetings.
41. Beth Mason, Hoboken councilwoman
Mason is the most vocal critic of Mayor Zimmer in Hoboken and served as the City Council president for half of 2011. She rose to local prominence years ago by filing lawsuits against city agencies to get public information, and was once allied with Zimmer, but broke with her and her supporters over several issues. Now she leads the loyal opposition, and has allied herself with longtime politicos like Councilman Michael Russo, who delivers votes from born-and-raised Hoboken. With her seemingly limitless ability to spend money, she is a rumored future Assembly candidate.
42. Sean Hollingsworth
Hollingsworth took the helm of ProArts Jersey City, the organization that co-sponsors the annual Artists’ Studio Tour in Jersey City, last fall. The tour, now in its 22nd year, continues to add new attractions annually, with new artists and events being added to the three-day arts event each year.
43. Geri Fallo, director of cultural affairs, Hoboken
Fallo, a longtime staple of the Hoboken arts community, organizes the wildly popular Hoboken arts and music festivals, as well as other entertainment events like Movies Under the Stars.
44. Dr. Jorge Verea, medical director, North Hudson Community Action Corp., co-founder of the Rebeka Verea Foundation
Dr. Jorge Verea makes preventative medical care, education, and community outreach a second career throughout northern Hudson County, both via the NHCAC, his own private medical practice, and the Rebeka Verea Foundation, dedicated to promoting responsible driving to teens. He began the non-profit group after his daughter was killed in a car accident after her high school graduation.
45. Theresa Ferraro, chairwoman, North Bergen Housing Authority
Besides serving as the North Bergen Housing Authority chairperson since 1973, Theresa Ferraro, a particularly influential figure in the senior citizen community, is also the town public safety commissioner and chief financial officer of an insurance agency in North Bergen.
46. Pat DeFerrari and Joan Kashuba These two Secaucus residents rallied performance artists, musicians, and dancers to revive the community theater group CAST, which has served as an artistic springboard for many young performers and has helped launch careers.
47. Nivia Rojas, director of Union City’s School-Based Youth Services Since Nivia Rojas began as director of Union City’s School-Based Youth Services in 1998, she has obtained state funding to expand the program, which now encompasses all but one of the city’s schools, and is determined to complete the task this coming year.
48. Frank Licato, artistic director, Park Performing Arts Center’s Hudson Theatre Works
Frank Licato, along with Gregory Erbach and Karen Brady, started Hudson Theatre Works in 2011, the county’s newest Equity, professional non-profit theatre company within Union City’s larger Park Performing Arts Center.
49. Karen DeSoto, attorney
Karen DeSoto has become one of the leading forces in Hudson County for civil rights, often taking cases that highlight racial issues in the county. Most recently, she was instrumental in bringing together civil rights activists to deal with questions in the Jersey City/Bayonne area of the county. By partnering with other civil rights leaders in and out of Hudson County, she has become a force to be reckoned with.
50. Ravi Varma
A mayoral candidate in the North Bergen municipal election last May, Varma is a diamond manufacturer, real estate investor, and entrepreneur who most recently launched a charity on Kennedy Boulevard in August.
Vince Ascolese, retiring North Bergen football coach. He’s also an assistant superintendent of schools, and is a mentor to many who rely on his expertise.
Slava Lerner, President of the Galaxy Towers Board of Directors. Oversees the board of an entity that houses a large portion of Guttenberg’s population.
Win Powers, a director of North Bergen’s Woodcliff Community Church for over 20 years, and one of the community service leaders in the township.
Jason O’Donnell, assemblyman and chairman of the Democratic Party in Bayonne. He gained visibility by voting against his party’s choice for Assembly speaker despite heavy pressure from local Democrats, and may become chair of the Hudson County Democratic Organization in the future.
Brandy Forbes, serves as Hoboken’s director of community development. Her department holds the keys to planning the west side of Hoboken – the final frontier of development in Hoboken. Forbes and Zimmer’s careful (and sometimes slow) approach to development will not be rushed.
Rich Hansen, St. Peter’s Prep football coach – Every major college coach has his cell phone number on speed dial. If you want a top New Jersey high school player, Hansen gets a call.
Cynthia Randina, Secaucus superintendent of schools. A controversial figure locally, Randina secured a spot for the Secaucus school district among 10 schools selected statewide in the governor’s educator evaluation pilot program that is being tested as part of an effort to overhaul the state’s education system.
Buddy Valastro, reality TV personality and head of the expanding “Cake Boss” empire. His business on Hoboken’s Washington Street has brought long lines of tourists to the mile-square city, made the town even more famous than it was, and helped him expand his family business into Jersey City. He also does charitable work.
Hoboken Moms, newsgroup. Heated discussions on this group, said to boast thousands of members, have led to media coverage, including the recent controversy over photos with Santa at a local elementary school.
Viola Richardson, at-large Jersey City councilwoman. Despite all the attention paid to Ward E City Councilman Steven Fulop, Richardson could be a viable mayoral candidate in 2013.
John Fauta, West New York Superintendent of Schools – Has served the school district for 18 years, is a close ally of Mayor Felix Roque, and is at the forefront of the fight to purchase St. Joseph’s school to accommodate Memorial High School’s overcrowding.
Bruce Sherman, Hudson Riverfront Performing Arts Center Chair – Heads the nonprofit organization that has brought free quality entertainment to the Weehawken waterfront and to Hudson County.
Jane Lovascio, anti-bullying campaigner and writer. West New York-based author of the anti-bully children’s book series “Casey and Bella,” volunteers her time and travels all over Hudson County promoting her anti-bullying message and boosting children’s confidence by making them co-authors of her books.
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