No political event was more significant in Hudson County in 2009 than the July 23 arrests of 44 public officials and religious leaders in a federal sting operation. The FBI was able to tape politicians allegedly accepting campaign donations from an informant in exchange for promises to help the donor with his purported development projects.
Among those arrested in connection with the sting were newly-elected Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano III; Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell; former Assemblyman and former Jersey City mayoral candidate Louis Manzo; Assemblyman, former Jersey City Councilman and former mayoral candidate L. Harvey Smith; Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini; Jersey City Council President Marianno Vega; Jersey City building inspector John Guarini; Deputy Director of the Jersey City Department of Health and Human Services Maher A. Khalil; Hudson County political consultant Jack M. Shaw (who was found dead a week later); County Affirmative Action Officer Edward Cheatam; unsuccessful council candidate and housing activist Lavern Webb-Washington; former Jersey City Housing Authority Chair Lori Serrano; and James P. “Jimmy” King, who was an unsuccessful candidate for Jersey City Council, former head of the Jersey City Parking Authority, former chairman of the Jersey City Incinerator Authority, and a former Hudson County undersheriff.
It wasn’t just the arrests that changed the political landscape of Hudson County.
Those charged were not necessarily collecting money for their own campaigns. Several said they were seeking donations for the (ultimately successful) re-election effort of Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy. Healy has not been charged with wrongdoing.
Even after that July day, there were more arrests and ramifications in connection with the investigation.
Within days of the arrests, former Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria, who was not charged with any crime, was asked to step down as commissioner of the state Department of Community Affairs, a serious blow to Hudson County’s political power – which was followed later in the year by an additional blow when state Democrats appointed Sen. Steve Sweeney as Senate president over Sen. Richard Codey. In Hudson County, the controversial move was backed by State Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack.
Last month, newly-elected Jersey City Councilman Phil Kenny was charged in connection with the sting July operation. He pleaded guilty and resigned.
Others who have pleaded guilty so far are Catrillo, Khalil, Cheatam, Jaslow, King, Webb-Washington, and Mike Manzo.
However, Louis Manzo, Ron Manzo, Lori Serrano, and Leona Beldini have pleaded not guilty.
Aftermath of the ‘sting’
The long-term impact of the July arrests likely contributed to Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine’s November defeat for re-election, making way for Republican Chris Christie to take over in January.
The more immediate impact resulted in a special November election in Hoboken to replace arrested Mayor Peter Cammarano. That race allowed Council President Dawn Zimmer to become the first elected female mayor of Hoboken.
Also in November, Secaucus Councilman Michael Gonnelli won the mayoralty in an uncontested election, as his opponent, Mayor Dennis Elwell, had dropped out. Gonnelli’s three council candidates also swept.
The only race that proved remotely predictable was in Guttenberg, where Gerald Drasheff – who had won a special election for mayor in 2008 – ran an unopposed ticket for a four-year term.
Almost forgotten by year’s end was the May re-election of Mayor Jerremiah Healy in Jersey City, who had handily fended off challenges from Louis Manzo, L. Harvey Smith, Dan Levin, and Phil Webb. Although untouched by the arrests, reports suggest that federal authorities were actively seeking to find a connection between Healy and those of his administration arrested.
Other political developments
Unrelated to the federal probe was the question of residency of newly-elected Jersey City Councilwoman Nidia Lopez, whose residency was called into question because she also owned a residence in Florida. A Superior Court ruling in her favor by year’s end allowed her to retain her seat though the decision is likely to be appealed.
In Bayonne, state Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone was reelected along with Charles Mainor. However, though the shadow of a state investigation hung over Chiappone. A week after Chiappone resigned from his City Council seat in Bayonne to run for Assembly, news emerged that he was the subject of a state Attorney General investigation. During the summer, Chiappone and his wife, Diane, were indicted for allegedly illegally transferring money given to aides into personal and campaign bank accounts. Both pleaded not guilty and enter the new year expecting to go to trial.
In November, Bayonne saw a hotly contested special election to fill the council set vacated by Chiappone, with Terrence Ruane the winner.
In West New York, Dr. Felix Roque managed to get more than 6,000 signatures to begin a recall election against Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega next year. However, many of them were disqualified, setting his cause back for now. Vega is up for election in 2011.
It wasn’t just the arrests that changed the political landscape of Hudson County. It also changed because of some clever moves by state Sen. Sandra Cunningham in Jersey City and state Sen. Brian Stack in Union City.
Cunningham, who has a close relationship with newly elected Gov. Christopher Christie, was named to his transition team, giving her significant clout to fend off a primary challenge next year.
Stack, who came out early in favor of Sweeney for state Senate president, will become the new conduit to the power brokers in the state Senate as a result.
Arrests mean new mayors
In July, newly elected Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano’s arrest and eventual resignation overturned one of the most dramatic comebacks of the year. Early in the year, Cammarano was seen as a longshot in a race in which Councilwoman Dawn Zimmer and Councilwoman Beth Mason were considered favorites. Poll numbers showed Mason in the lead. But apparent disorganization in the Mason campaign led to her finishing third and sent Zimmer and Cammarano into a close June runoff, which Cammarano won with absentee ballots.
His arrest set the stage for a November showdown between Mason and Zimmer, although Municipal Judge Kimberly Glatt, developer Frank Raia and others leaped into the race as well.
Zimmer won a decisive victory, and her 4th Ward council seat was filled by her close ally, former city CFO Michael Lenz.
The arrest of Mayor Dennis Elwell in Secaucus changed the political landscape there. In the June Democratic primary, Elwell showed momentum by beating off a primary challenge led by Secaucus Public Defender Peter Weiner, setting the stage for a general election showdown with Councilman Michael Gonnelli in the November mayoral election.
After his arrest in July, Elwell stepped down. Former Secaucus Councilman Richard Steffens was named interim mayor, and Gonnelli ran unopposed for mayor in November, also carrying his three council running mates to office and giving the Secaucus Independents control of the city council for the first time since 1994. – Al Sullivan