Some supporters of Bayonne mayoral candidate James Davis, who is challenging Mayor Mark Smith in the June 10 runoff, believe the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) sent out secret messages of support at the May 20 gala in Casino in the Park.
The event was billed as a tribute to North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, commemorating the 20th anniversary of his election to the state Senate and his distinguished career in public service over the last three and half decades.
But the event was really a rally to show support for candidates backed by the HCDO in the upcoming freeholder primary.
Sacco’s speech struck an odd note for many, since it did not take the usual path in totally celebrating the HCDO’s new-found unity, but gave the nearly 1,000 people in attendance a history lesson about party inclusion. Going back as far as Boss Frank Hague, Sacco talked about how people who once successfully opposed the HCDO eventually got accepted into its ranks, or took over control of the historic organization.
Sacco, who was honored by a host of state and local political dignitaries, is one of the moving forces behind the reunited HCDO after the organization suffered several years of internal strife. Sacco is credited with steering leadership to State Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto.
So, people in the audience, especially Davis people, hung on every word, reading into the tea leaves of Sacco’s speech, seeing secret support for Davis’ effort to unseat Smith.
Even more to the liking of the Davis crowd was the speech by Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and the joke he made from the podium saying that the HCDO had a new rule for the gala to keep the conflicting Bayonne factions apart.
“Smith people have to stay on this side of the room,” he said, waving his hands towards the left. “The Davis people have to stay on that side of the room.”
Fulop waved his hand to the right – a side of the room that, Davis people noted, not only contained the Sacco contingent, but most of the political elite from Hudson County.
This acknowledgement of two factions in Bayonne was highly unusual for a rally designed to show unified support for HCDO candidates in disputed freeholder races.
Mentioning Davis at all was highly unorthodox, but showed the deep divisions in the HCDO when it comes to Mayor Smith, who served as HCDO chairman until last June when he was replaced by Prieto.
Smith upset a number of political people throughout the county with some of his decisions. He backed Nia Gill for House of Representatives when Fulop, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, and others backed Donald Payne Jr.
Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, considered Smith’s right hand man, enraged Sacco a few years ago by casting his vote for Assemblyman Joe Cryan to become the Assembly speaker, when Sacco had promised Sheila Oliver all six Hudson County votes. Perhaps most egregious of all, Smith backed Jerramiah Healy for mayor of Jersey City against the eventually successful Fulop last year.
A fundamental lack of understanding as to who actually calls the shots in Hudson County led to Smith being dumped as chairman of the HCDO, and O’Donnell’s being denied the post as State Democratic chairman.
Prior to the May 13 municipal election in Bayonne, many in the HCDO were willing to overlook past slights for the sake of party unity. Fulop went as far as to endorse Smith’s reelection.
This was a bit self-serving for Fulop, who has his eye on the governorship and needs a united HCDO to get him elected.
All this changed after the polls closed on May 13 when Davis fought his way into a runoff, winning one council seat outright, and forcing a runoff in the remaining four as well as for mayor. This left HCDO people scrambling to cover all their bases in case Davis actually manages to pull off an upset victory in the June 10 runoff and becomes the mayor of Bayonne.
But no one dares to speak too openly for or against Smith or Davis. Instead, they create speeches full of innuendo that will allow these officials to later go back to either to say “See, we supported you all along,” if Davis wins, or if Smith wins, “We never spoke out against you.”
But this rally was very much about Fulop’s hopes to run for governor. Many of the same people who made up what was then called “the kitchen cabinet” that propelled James McGreevey into the statehouse are currently backing Fulop’s push. This group of people is doing all it can throughout Hudson County to get every political machine (municipal or county) lined up for Fulop. But no one in his move to get Fulop elected governor is willing to risk a misstep in Bayonne.
Fulop’s ambitions also play havoc with the freeholder primary elections, especially when it comes to the Jersey City, Hoboken, and West New York races.
Romano mounting challenge to Cohen
Freeholder Anthony Romano, who has had HCDO support in the past, has put together a viable challenge to Phil Cohen in Hoboken.
Cohen has the backing of both Fulop and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, but is not seen as a strong candidate on his own. Romano has strong support from both Jersey City Heights councilmen as well as most of the old school machine in Hoboken. This may be the reason that Fulop posed with Romano at a number of events over the last week, sending yet one more mixed message to cover his bases on the chance Romano pulls off a victory.
Freeholder Chairman Jose Munoz is a whole different story. Even as Fulop and Menendez restructure West New York’s political machine, these plans could unravel if Munoz wins – paving the way for a Munoz run for mayor next year.
This may explain some of the strange political rhetoric coming out against Munoz, such as false claims that he is a member of the Tea Party.
“I have never been a member of the Tea Party,” said Munoz last week, in a response to a press release by his opposition that says he was.
In Hudson County, even most Republicans shy away from the Tea Party designation since for the most part the Tea Party represents the most conservative element of the Republican Party.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.