The political landscape - who is on whose side in the upcoming primary battles - has never been so treacherous. Even discounting March's meeting of the mayors in which Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham disclosed private conversations in order to drum up support for his side, the shifting of alliances has rarely seemed so unstable.
While attorney Donald Scarinci called the March meeting of mayors "a defining moment in Hudson County history," it was also a confusing one for the general public since many politicians had to make decisions critical to their careers, and answer questions about their own priorities. Are you loyal to the Democratic Party, or just Jersey City? Can you be loyal to both?
Congressman Bob Menendez is pushing one candidate for county executive in the June primary, while Mayor Cunningham is pushing another, and the races for freeholder and congress have also forced politicos to choose sides.
Cunningham seems to have made the June 4 primary a litmus test for loyalty to Jersey City, while Menendez, who is also the Hudson County Democratic chairman, is claiming that the election changes how the Democratic Party will be run in the future, giving more voice to local mayors than ever before. He does not mention specifically the huge shift of power that will take place from Jersey City to other parts of the county, particularly North Hudson, if Cunningham's candidate for county executive loses.
The choices have created some strange alliances, particularly in Jersey City Heights, where incumbent Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon finds herself aligned once again with Menendez. But the situation has taken on an added twist with the sudden, unauthorized candidacy of former Mayor Gerry McCann for a three way race that includes Davila-Colon and Eliu Rivera. The race now threatens to eliminate Davila-Colon, who is the only Latino member of the freeholders. Edgar Martinez - Cunningham's choice to run against Menendez for a congressional seat, who this past Thursday was knocked off the ballot - met with Rivera and Cunningham after McCann entered the race, according to two sources. Martinez urged the Jersey City mayor to dump Rivera and support Davila-Colon. Cunningham asked McCann to withdraw from the race. McCann so far has refused.
McCann in the past had been a big Davila-Colon supporter, and claims responsibility for getting her elected in 1984. Davila-Colon, in turn, incurred Menendez' wrath by supporting McCann during a mid-1990s run for Jersey City mayor.
McCann thinks he can win anyway
McCann is convinced he can win the freeholder seat whether or not Rivera withdraws, but says Cunningham has no clout to win the other races. McCann claims Hudson County has only two viable political organizations: one run by State Senator and Mayor Nicholas Sacco in North Bergen and the other run by Freeholder and Mayor Brian Stack in Union City.
Cunningham, according to McCann, has no organization, but has won support from people by promising them future jobs. Freeholder Bill O'Dea, who has more ties with Menendez than with Cunningham, despite being one of the Jersey City freeholders, has been promised Cunningham's support for a four-year county executive race in 2003, according to sources.
Cunningham, according to several sources, may not be around to live up to that promise.
"Menendez doesn't forget easily," one source said. "As soon as this primary is over, you can rest assured that he's going to have us in Jersey City working on a Cunningham recall."
This is same strategy Menendez used on the last man who crossed him: former Union City Mayor Rudy Garcia (although Union City's budget woes and tax increase certainly helped the effort).
"The only problem would be finding another candidate to take [Mayor Cunningham's] place," this source said. By this reckoning, Tom DeGise, who came close to beating Cunningham in the 2001 mayoral election, would not be available. He would be county executive, because he's the one Menendez wants to beat current County Executive Bernard Hartnett for that seat this June.
This leaves Lou Manzo as a possible choice for mayor, although perhaps not a popular one.
Manzo has been an on-again, off-again supporter of Cunningham. Manzo ran against Cunningham in the 2001 election for mayor, then supported him for mayor in the 2001 runoff election, only to suffer a falling-out with the newly elected mayor after the election. Now, Manzo supports Cunningham again, as O'Dea's campaign manager.
Manzo, in favoring Jersey City, said he opposes people "from outside" Jersey City making decisions "for Jersey City," but agreed that some of Cunningham's statements about Menendez have been made foolishly.
"Both Glenn Cunningham and Bob Menendez have said things that should not have been said," Manzo said. "I think Bob deliberately provoked Glenn by selecting DeGise as a candidate for county executive. Had it been anyone else, Glenn might have been able to live with it."
Unlike attorney Donald Scarinci - who claims this year's primary will determine the future of the Democratic Party, Manzo says this primary will set up future primary battles and has created a climate of unrest that will not go away for years.
DeGise's candidacy against Hartnett is another political irony, since Hartnett served as DeGise's treasurer during the 2001 Jersey City mayoral race. - Al Sullivan