Some years are significant without any of the hoopla.
We all know that a presidential election year when two new candidates are vying for a vacated seat will bring significant change. This is also true for gubernatorial races, and to a lesser degree, municipal seats.
But some years change happens all at once without a significant change at the top.
When Robert Janiszewski ran for county executive in 1987, the area was ripe for change, partly because he brought a whole new era of electioneering to Hudson County, and partly because of the powerful struggle for control of the county coffers that was underway.
That was a period of time when the county would see a significant shift in political power, and even pitted friend against former friend for control of Jersey City when Jerry McCann and Anthony Cucci fought.
When McCann was criminally charged (which he claims was politically motivated) in 1991, he was in the throes of a battle for political control of the county with Janiszewski. McCann had just won the political war, but was undone by the charges that forced him to step down as mayor of Jersey City, and shifted political control of the county to a handful of people that included Janiszewski.
Although not as dramatic a change, the election of Steven Fulop as mayor of Jersey City last year began a similarly significant change that, like falling dominos, is altering the political reality of Hudson County.
Since Janiszewski’s demise in 2001, the county’s political reality has largely been a balancing act between equal and opposing forces. Union City Mayor Brian Stack rose out of that turmoil to become the counterbalance against a fractured Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO). While the mayors of the 12 towns have always been the movable pieces on this strange chess board, in the past a few key players such as Janiszewski, former Union City Mayor Bruce Walters, and then-Rep. Robert Menendez manipulated those pieces.
Over the years, people like former Union City Mayor Rudy Garcia tried to edge into that inner circle only to get driven out again.
Had state Sen. and Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham lived past June 2004, the political world might have looked a lot different today. But his death denied the county a prominent leader, and created a cold war among political princes such as state Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco and Stack.
For a time, state Sen. Bernard Kenny kept the peace by balancing power against power. But Stack’s bid for power drove him out. Although Stack tried to unseat the hegemony of the HCDO in 2008, his effort failed, and returned the county to a stalemate.
Enter Steve Fulop
Fulop’s election changed the tone of political discourse. For the first time in a long time a third powerful political organization is emerging in Hudson County. While some of the old guard have made peace with the young Turk, not everybody is comfortable with him. But the impact of his arrival on the scene is already being felt in north and south Hudson County as if people sense that this is a time of fundamental change.
For a short time after his swearing-in as mayor of Jersey City last July, Fulop seemed destined to repeat Stack’s errors and attempted to unseat political foes outside his city. Now, however, Fulop is playing his chess game less aggressively, working behind the scenes to increase his strength. His alliance with Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer gives him a solid waterfront base. He has even supported the reelection effort of Rep. Albio Sires, and appears to be on good terms with Menendez – having supported Donald Payne Jr.’s election to the House of Representatives.
Fulop also appears to have backed off political vengeance against some former opponents outside Jersey City such as Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith. Whereas Fulop once was poised to take a side against Smith in this year’s municipal election, he appears to have adopted a hands-off approach. This includes his onetime threat to support a freeholder candidate in District 1. This will leave mostly Bayonne voters to choose between Smith-backed Ken Kopacz or Rafael Augusto, who is supported by Smith’s mayoral challenger, James Davis.
Although the Fulop team at one time sought to gain control of the freeholder board, they appear to be staying out of North Hudson races between Henry Marrero and Anthony Vainieri and Jose Munoz and Caridad Rodriguez.
Marrero has spiced up his campaign by proposing to bring back support to Hudson County Schools of Technology, driving a wedge between some of his opponents who are split on the issue.
Inside Jersey City, however, is a whole different story, as Fulop tightens control on those votes considered Jersey City votes.
Fulop has already announced his support for Phil Cohen, who is trying to unseat Freeholder Anthony Romano. Perry Belfiore and Adela Rohena Santiago are also running in that primary fight for a district that includes all of Hoboken, a part of Jersey City Heights, and a small portion of downtown Jersey City.
Cohen, who is Zimmer’s pick, would not likely beat Romano if not for Fulop’s support, since Romano has a strong following in the Heights as well as among labor unions.
In backing candidate Gerard Balmir Jr., Fulop is also flexing his muscles against Freeholder Jeffrey Dublin. Although Dublin is a close friend of Fulop ally Freeholder Bill O’Dea, Dublin chose the wrong side in last year’s mayoral battle between Fulop and then Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, and was a very vocal critic of Fulop.
This is not an easy race by any means, since Arnold Williams and Esmeralda Trinidad are also running, and Trinidad has not been shy in her criticism of her opponents.
Fulop’s influence will likely grow over the next year. At some point, the old guard that includes Sacco and Stack will wake up to discover just how powerful Fulop has become as he quietly acquires new allies and new seats. At some point in the next two years, Fulop is going to want to have his say on who sits in the state Assembly, in both districts that split the city in half. At that point, the political fighting will not be done quietly, but with a roar.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.