Between the lines Any enemy of an enemy is a friend?
Mar 15, 2002 | 356 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Unleashing the dogs of war, Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham lambasted Congressman Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.) from the steps of Jersey City City Hall in a press conference Thursday afternoon, saying the congressman should resign from the post of Hudson County Democratic Chairman.

"He has used that position to grab power for himself like a modern Boss Hague," Cunningham said, referring to the former Jersey City mayor who dominated political power in New Jersey from 1917 to 1947. "He has created havoc in Hudson County. He is interfering with the operation of government for his political benefactor, Donald Scarinci."

The press conference spread the Democrat's previously behind-closed-doors fights into the public, although rumors had hinted at an all-out war between the local Democrats. When asked why no other mayors were there to support his accusations, Cunningham said he hadn't asked any to come. But reports around the county suggest he has been actively seeking support among politicians he might use as soldiers.

The battle erupted over differences of opinion on who should run for county executive in the Democratic primary this June. Cunningham wants current exec Bernard Hartnett to keep his position. Menendez, believing that Jersey City is getting too strong, is seeking a worthy opponent to Hartnett. The two also will be pushing candidates in the freeholder races.

Cunningham has been seeking supporters for his cause among local politicos. Backed by the prestigious Union County State Sen. Ray Lesniak, Cunningham appears to be operating on a very simply ideology: do you Menendez and would you run for office against anyone Menendez supports?

A key captain in this battle for the hearts of Hudson County's politically disenfranchised is Cunningham's deputy mayor, Gene Drayton, whose career as a narcotics officer makes him nearly perfect for the undercover work necessary in rooting out needed candidates in the upcoming freeholder primary challenge. Drayton's mission may also be to protect political figures deemed sympathetic to the Cunningham cause.

For the Cunningham camp, any former enemy of Menendez is a potential friend. In an attempt to recruit candidates that might challenge Menendez supporters on the freeholder board, Cunningham has even sought to revive the Thursday Night Dinner Club, an informal gathering that helped hatch former Mayor Rudy Garcia's failed coup against Menendez in 1999. During those Thursday night sessions, former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo reportedly urged Garcia to rid the county of Menendez's followers.

When asked whether he's been talking to Garcia and Russo Thursday at his press conference, Cunningham stared for a moment, and then quickly said he had not personally been on the phone with either of them. "But there are a lot people with the last name of Garcia who want to join me," he said.

During the days of the Dinner Club, Menendez eventually struck back at the crew by backing counter-coups that drove Garcia from his seat as mayor and as assemblyman, and unseated Russo. Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, also a member of this elite club, apparently escaped Menendez's wrath by seeking protection from North Bergen Mayor and state Senator Nicholas Sacco. Since then, Sacco and Elwell have moved towards the Menendez camp.

While Cunningham can't lure Elwell or Sacco back, the Jersey City mayor has been attempting to seduce Elwell's former campaign manager and current Secaucus 2nd Ward Councilman Robert Kickey into his camp.

Cunningham - backed by Lesniak money - has even offered to support a Garcia run for Freeholder in the 6th District against current incumbent freeholder and current Mayor of Union City Brian Stack. Stack, who is developing his own grass roots rivalry with former Union City Mayor Menendez, hasn't yet made up his mind about seeking reelection to the Freeholder seat, saying he has to think about his reelection to mayor first.

"I'm concentrating on the mayor election first," he said. "But I'll know by the April [8] deadline for filing for freeholder."

Reacting to reports that he might challenge incumbent Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons in the 5th District Freeholder race, Russo said: "For now it is just a rumor, but rumors have a way of becoming true." Fitzgibbons, in response, said: "I have no comment for now. But if he chooses to run, I'll have plenty to say."

Cunningham's strategy - according to one source - is not to unseat incumbent freeholders, but to draw votes away from Menendez's candidate for county executive.

While Cunningham is backing Hartnett, Menendez appears to be leaning towards former Jersey City Council President Tom DeGise - who ran a close second against Cunningham for mayor last year.

"If there is no one in a district to challenge a freeholder, then all those votes will swing away from Hartnett," this source said. "If someone runs against the freeholder, then some votes will go to Hartnett. Cunningham is hoping enough side with Jersey City to have Hartnett win."

Loyalty among incumbent freeholders appears to fall along county geographic lines: the three freeholders in Jersey City will likely back Hartnett, and the remaining six from around the county will support Menendez's choice.

Bill O'Dea, one of the three Jersey City freeholders, said he is not certain how much of a full-scale war there is between Cunningham and Menendez.

"It's more of a cold war," he said. "I think the challengers will get dumped from the line and that Cunningham and Menendez will likely sit down and negotiate a compromise. Most likely, they'll settle on Hartnett for another year with the guarantee that Hartnett will not run next year." - Al Sullivan
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