Second Ward Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli announced his candidacy for mayor Monday, ending three years of speculation about whether he would run for higher office.
Gonnelli, an Independent, will challenge the winner of the June 2 Democratic primary in the November general election.
Thus, he will face either incumbent Mayor Dennis Elwell or attorney Peter Weiner, who are competing to be the local Democratic nominee. Each man has put together a slate of candidates for Town Council.
No Republican candidates are running in this year’s Secaucus mayoral primary.
Primary contests are open only to partisan candidates. Independents do not participate in the primaries, only the fall general election.
Gonnelli also announced Monday that 2nd Ward Councilman John Bueckner, a former Elwell ally, will run for re-election on his Independent ticket. First Ward Councilman Gary Jeffas, who is aligned with Gonnelli and Bueckner and who is not up for re-election this year, will serve as campaign treasurer.
2006 platform returns
Gonnelli’s mayoral platform revives the campaign issues he and his allies ran on in 2006 when he and his cohorts first campaigned under the Take Back Secaucus banner.
That year Jeffas, Gonnelli, and Bob Berckes ran as Independents for council seats against Elwell candidates Michael Grecco, Robert Kickey, and John Shinnick. Jeffas and Gonnelli defeated Grecco and Kickey and joined the council in 2007. Since then, Bueckner, who was already a councilman, has aligned himself with Jeffas and Gonnelli, and the three men often form a voting bloc against the four Democrats on the council: Elwell, Shinnick, Dawn McAdam, and John Reilly.
In the minority
The council’s 4-3 split has kept the Independents from advancing their 2006 platform. They have touted their desire to cut the cost of professional service contracts, to televise council meetings, and to limit municipal contracts to political donors.
Gonnelli believes his “open government” platform will find traction among voters.
Although Elwell has previously stated that he thinks the economy will be the main election issue this year, Gonnelli believes his “open government” platform will find traction among voters.
“When I talk to people they understand there’s too much secrecy in [Elwell’s] Administration,” Gonnelli said. “Information isn’t shared with voters, and it isn’t shared with the three Independents on the council. We’ve frequently asked for more time to go over things like professional service contracts, the budget. We’ll get our [council meeting] agenda on Friday. Then, we show up for the caucus meeting the next Tuesday, and 10 more things will have been added to the agenda. That’s one of the ways they sneak through resolutions and get them passed without scrutiny.”
Despite his platform, Gonnelli said he doesn’t see his campaign as part of a larger “reform movement.”
“We’re just Democrats and Republicans who have come together as Independents to work for what’s best for the town,” he said.
The money race
Gonnelli acknowledged that Elwell, who enjoys broad support from the Hudson County Democratic machine, will have a bigger war chest than the Independents.
Last month Elwell held his annual Mayor’s Ball, which was attended by Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, State Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, and Assemblyman Vincent Prieto. A month earlier he attended a re-election launch party for Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, where Gov. Jon Corzine was a featured speaker. Such ties are likely to generate cash contributions for Elwell’s own re-election bid.
However, Gonnelli questions whether this support will translate into votes.
“Secaucus is still a small town, so I don’t know that money is that much of an advantage,” he said. “In 2006 the Democrats spent almost $250,000 on the election. We spent $80,000 and we took two out of three council seats.”
He added, “Campaign literature doesn’t necessarily make you win. It’s who you are and what you’re about, your reputation.”
His campaign has vowed not to solicit or accept money from county politicians. Gonnelli said money for the campaign would come from residents, family members, and friends.
Elwell and Weiner react
Gonnelli’s decision to run for mayor means Elwell now faces opposition on two fronts that will force him to campaign throughout much of the year. The mayor, currently serving his third term, had suspected that Gonnelli would challenge him, and he acknowledged that this could be the toughest fight of his political career.
“I welcome the challenge and I’m up to the challenge. I still feel confident that I can win,” Elwell said. “My intention is to run on my record. I think I have an excellent record as mayor. My goal has been to do good things for this community, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
Weiner, whose mayoral platform mirrors Gonnelli’s, also welcomed the 2nd Ward councilman into the race.
“In a democracy it’s a good thing when voters have more options,” Weiner commented. “Having said that, I’m focused on the June 2 primary race.”
Although much of the attention may focus on Elwell, Gonnelli, and Weiner, the battle for council seats will be no less fierce. Weiner, for example, is perceived as an underdog in his race against Elwell, but his council candidates could still win even if he loses.
Health care executive and 1st Ward candidate Joseph Morano is running on the Weiner ticket. Former school board member Susan Pirro is Weiner’s candidate for 3rd Ward. Weiner, a 2nd Ward resident, is not running a candidate in that ward because he supports Bueckner.
The Elwell slate includes McAdam, who is running for her first full term, school board member and 2nd Ward candidate Frank Trombetta, and Reilly.
Gonnelli and Bueckner have yet to release their full slate. The full ticket will be announced on May 5. However, it’s likely that Bob Constantino will be the 1st Ward candidate, while Bill McKeever will run for the 3rd Ward.
Should Elwell win his primary against Weiner, then defeat Gonnelli in the fall, he still faces the possibility of losing control of the council to Gonnelli’s Independents or Weiner-allied Democrats.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.