Not since 2007 have county Democrats been as divided as they were in 2012. Democrat went after fellow Democrat, leaving county Republicans to make advances not seen since the era of Republican Gov. Tom Kean in the 1980s.
Republican Gov. Christopher Christie had his fingers deep in the political pie and pulled out a number of plums in anticipation of his reelection bid in 2013, strengthening his ties with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (also up for re-election next November) while also keeping alive the political prospects of state Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack.
Stack and North Bergen Mayor/State Sen. Nicholas Sacco, the latter of whom is allied with the Hudson County Democratic Organization, continued their war against each other.
Pascrell vs. Rothman
Redistricting played havoc with congressional districts, and resulted in one of the most bitter political conflicts in recent memory, when Rep. Steven Rothman decided not to risk facing off against power Tea Party Republican Scott Garrett. He moved back into the 9th District and went after fellow liberal Democrat Bill Pascrell in the primary.
Rothman engaged Hudson County’s premier political firm Vision Media, which ran its typical campaign of endorsements and attack ads. But as with its previous efforts against Mayor Stack and more recently, West New York Mayor Felix Roque, the campaign could not overcome the team Pascrell put together, many of whom have since come into Hudson County to work for Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s 2013 reelection bid. Pascrell emerged as the victor and won again in November against a Republican.
Nia Gill vs. Tom Payne Jr.
Perhaps more divisive for the Hudson County Democratic Organization was the race in the expanded 10th District that included larger portions of Jersey City and Bayonne. The death of Rep. Tom Payne Sr. in February created a void that a number of prominent political figures tried to fill.
In Hudson County, U.S. Senator Robert Menendez and Jersey City Councilman Steven Fulop supported Tom Payne Jr. for the seat, only to have HCDO Chairman Mark Smith, the mayor of Bayonne, support Nia Gill. This created a fissure that would only widen later as the Jersey City mayoral race came into focus and Smith endorsed Healy, while Menendez loyalists such as former HCDO Chairman Bernard Kenny and his law partner (Ed Florio, legal counsel to the Hudson County freeholders) endorsed Fulop.
Roque’s arrest and indictment
Menendez became fuel for further speculation when his one-time ally, Roque, endorsed Republican Joe Kyrillos against Menendez early in the year, fracturing Democrats in North Hudson by forcing many former Roque supporters such as Rep. Albio Sires and Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner to step away from Roque. Then, in May, Roque – along with his son – was charged and eventually indicted for allegedly hacking into the website of an anti-Roque group.
Some prominent political figures speculated about the coincidence, noting how frequently people who opposed Menendez found themselves probed by federal authorities.
Roque’s indictment will play out early in 2013 when he and his son go to trial. Many expect him to step down, making way for a special election. Commissioner Count Wiley has already declared his candidacy for mayor, and others are expected to leap into the race.
Stack vs. Sacco
Roque’s problems have a greater impact on his neighbor and ally, Mayor Stack, robbing him of the countywide clout he needs in his ongoing feud with Sacco.
The Sacco and Stack feud is so nasty many of those caught in the middle want to duck for cover and wait until one or the other falls. Sacco’s people have desperately tried to isolate Stack in order to keep him from getting power outside Union City. Sires, Turner, and other one time allies are now sitting on the sidelines as Sacco’s armies make moves to keep Stack from aligning with powerful people like Fulop, partly by provoking Stack with internet advertisements and citizen gadflies, while Stack conducts similar campaigns against Sacco in North Bergen.
But the guilty plea from James Wiley, a former supervisor for the North Bergen Department of Public works, and rumored impending indictments of other people in the Sacco camp may well weaken some of Sacco’s clout in a war for control of Hudson County.
Until this year, Sacco was seen as the most powerful political boss in the county, but he could be hurt by the loss of key people. And much of the attack on Stack may be an effort to deflect attention away from his own trouble, or to drive away Stack supporters and thus leave both North Hudson political bosses significantly weakened.
Menendez’s reelection victory may well explain why former Menendez people such as Kenny are reappearing on the scene – and could lead to a play to take back the HCDO from Mayor Smith, whose support of Gill in the primary earlier this year put him at odds with Menendez. Many believe that who ever gets elected as mayor of Jersey City next May will also inherit the mantle of HCDO chairman.
This is something of a quandary to Democrats who already see former Democratic dominance waning with the rise of people like Hoboken Mayor Zimmer, Union City Mayor Stack, and West New York Mayor Roque, who are willing to support some Republican agendas. The election of Fulop as mayor of Jersey City could expand on this erosion, although this would also increase the power of the office of Hudson County executive, which flourished during the time when Republican Bret Schundler was mayor of Jersey City.
Fulop vs. Healy
Early in 2012, the mayoral race in Jersey City seemed a little like shadow boxing, with Fulop taking a lot of swings at a nearly invisible and presumably politically impotent Mayor Healy. Fulop was seen as the overwhelming favorite who with his large political war chest seemed unstoppable.
But some believe Fulop – after a stunning string of victories in school board elections and committee fights – stumbled when he failed to introduce a full ticket of candidates earlier this year in what some are calling his “no name ticket,” while Healy began to regain strength and began building a ticket of council candidates that might allow him to steal the election next May.
By year’s end, Fulop finds himself in a serious race that some believe may well be a tossup, a far cry from shadow boxing, especially when the shadow can now hit back.
Dawn Zimmer’s power grows
Even before the disastrous impact Hurricane Sandy had on Hoboken, Zimmer had been consolidating her power and becoming someone who will be very difficult to beat when she runs again in November 2013. Once seen as someone who could not win a citywide election, Zimmer not only managed to get a school board ticket elected, but two key referendums that allowed for November municipal election and did away with runoff elections. Her access to key state and national leaders during Sandy also boosted her status, and combined with her close association with Gov. Christie, who will be running for reelection when she does in 2013, she has positioned herself to possibly even keep control of the City Council.
Zimmer’s main adversary, Councilwoman Beth Mason, has been working hard to position herself for higher office, meeting with officials throughout the county for a possible rumored run for state Assembly on a ticket led by Senator Stack or possibly for county executive – since rumors are rampant that County Executive Tom DeGise might retire early. But others such as Jersey City Freeholder Bill O’Dea are also positioning themselves for that seat if DeGise should indeed step down.
For Hudson County, the reelection of Democratic President Barack Obama this year is great news – even if Democrats are fractured. With strong national Democrats such as U.S. Sen. Menendez and Reps. Albio Sires, Bill Pascrell, and Tom Payne Jr. representing the county, federal dollars are likely to follow more freely into the local economy over the next four years – including significant dollars to repair the county’s road and other infrastructure as a result of age or Hurricane Sandy.
The rise and stumble of the blogging community
Although the internet community in Hoboken ran into some legal issues during 2012, elsewhere in the county, the internet has become a viable political tool, especially in Jersey City, where bloggers are getting up on their soap boxes more often. In North Hudson, the internet has become a new battleground for various political factions, especially those supporting North Bergen’s political machine. This growing powerful voice may lead to Roque’s downfall, as internet savvy political figures use on-line venues to bolster their already ample bag of political tricks. The fact that this internet community may be responsible for bringing down one mayor (Roque) has already bolstered efforts to go after other perceived political enemies on a level that would have made former President Richard Nixon envious.
Gonnelli grows stronger in Secaucus
The last year has been very kind to Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli, whose political clout grew both locally and in the county. He took out his rival Tom Troyer in the school board races, and faced off against powerful Freeholder O’Dea in a political fight over parking revenues near the county park. Going into an election next year, Gonnelli – regardless of his often expressed fears – has no serious political opposition, and barring any serious blunders, might well carry his ticket into reelection next fall.
Restructuring of Hudson Republicans
As pointed out, Republicans have made advances in places like Hoboken, but also in Jersey City, where transplants from Republican rich suburbs are beginning to challenge old guard Republicans. This new wave became evident in 2012, where Republicans began to emerge as a viable party. If they help Christie get reelected next year, they might well develop into something that will rival the dominance of the shattered Hudson County Democratic Organization.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.