The status of each of Hudson County’s most influential people rises and falls from year to year. Influence can mean different things, not only political power. Artists, activists, and not-for-profits influence the lives of the public over the course of the year.
Each January, our editorial staff spends several meetings ranking the county’s most influential people. This is our fifth annual list. Last year saw dramatic changes in nearly every way – shifts in influence, scandals, and truces – setting the stage for events that are to unfold in 2017.
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1. State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco (3 last year) Nicholas Sacco returns to the top of this year’s list partly because, like Union City Mayor Brian Stack, he remains a consistently powerful force in a year when many up-and-coming powerbrokers have declined in influence. Both Sacco and Stack wield significant influence beyond the boundaries of their districts, such as delivering blocks of votes that will help determine the next governor of the state. Sacco’s most direct influence is on other north Hudson towns like Guttenberg and West New York. While Sacco’s influence statewide depends on the fortunes of Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, Sacco still has strong allies including Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, Rep. Albio Sires, and other mayors. Fulop’s decision not to run for governor this year reduces Sacco’s influence on the state level, however, where he was expected to name one or more of Fulop’s cabinet members.
2. State Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack (5 last year) Stack will be a force to be reckoned with in the upcoming year. Although celebrated for the 30,000 turkeys his civic association delivered during the holidays, Stack’s real power is his ability to deliver votes, including to the governor. Stack’s influence, too, will be felt heavily in Jersey City and Hoboken, both of which will see municipal elections this year. Also an ally of Fulop, Stack could help secure votes for Fulop’s candidates in Ward C and D, which are currently occupied by opposition council members.
3. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (1 last year) With his trial slated to start some time early this year, Robert Menendez’s immediate future looks uncertain, having been indicted by the federal Department of Justice for allegedly helping a political contributor in exchange for gifts. But unless convicted, Menendez remains one of the most powerful people in Hudson County, influencing nearly every municipality. His opposition to the Iran Nuclear deal last year and normalization of relations with Cuba gives him significant sway with the incoming president, since these were issues on which Donald Trump campaigned. Menendez could become a voice of reason on issues like women’s rights, healthcare, and LGBT rights. A Cuban-American, he is already a spokesperson for immigrant rights at a time when immigrants appear to be under attack. He continues to influence other Hudson County leaders, including Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, Sires, Rep. Donald Payne, and through his surrogate Donald Scarinci, Mayor Felix Roque.
4. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (2 last year) Although he lost some influence after his sudden decision not to run for governor, as mayor of the largest city in Hudson County and soon to be the largest city in the state, Steven Fulop remains hugely influential. Jersey City has become the center of ethnic diversity and has been rated one of the most welcoming cities in the nation for the LGBT community. With Jersey City leading the state in new development, Fulop oversees a lot of the state’s job creation. The city has become a tourist destination and a home for refugees from New York City’s escalating housing costs who are settling along the waterfront, in Journal Square, and The Heights. Up for reelection in 2017, Fulop will likely improve his relationships with various communities, including labor and the arts.
5. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (No. 4 last year) As speaker of the state Assembly, Vincent Prieto remains one of the most powerful people in the state. But conflicts in Trenton over expansion of casino gambling and other issues have caused a significant divide between north and south Jersey, reducing some of his previous strength. Regardless, as the chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, Prieto has significant say over Democratic support for candidates throughout the county, and he may be one of the leading proponents in the fight to protect immigrants from federal prosecution in the future.
6. Candidates for governor (new) Regardless of which candidate wins next year, as they forage for votes, their influence on population-rich Hudson County will be significant. Phil Murphy and Ray Lesniak already have roots and supporters in Hudson County, but they are not the only Democrats vying for Democratic votes for the June primary. Although Murphy is seen as the frontrunner, the Democratic primary will have a number of potential candidates, any of whom would need Hudson County as a springboard to the State House.
Republicans meanwhile may seek to ride the coattails of a successful GOP win in the national elections and may nominate Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno and state Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli as their candidates.
7. Suez Water (new) With development around the county moving at an unprecedented pace, Suez – formerly United Water – is faced with maintaining water lines that have not been replaced or rebuilt in nearly a century. Hoboken and Jersey City have suffered significant water main breaks. In the coming year, Suez will begin to replace the water mains in Hoboken and elsewhere, beginning with the most critical. This will affect residents and commuters all over Hoboken and Jersey City throughout the year as traffic is disrupted for the construction.
Suez also serves as water provider for a number of North Hudson municipalities and several years ago took over operations in Bayonne as well.
8. Anthony Vanieri (17 last year) Within two years’ time, Anthony Vanieri went from very powerful District 8 Freeholder from North Bergen in 2015 to the chairperson of the Hudson County Board of Freeholders earlier this month. That amazing ascension doesn’t even begin to touch Vanieri’s already strong blueprint in the county. He comes from a family tradition of public service. He’s been in North Bergen politics since the 1980s, when he worked alongside Sacco. He led efforts to revitalize James Braddock Park, install farmers’ markets and an arts festival and carnival; his father was a state assemblyman and commissioner in NB, his sister is part of the District 37 assembly.
9. Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise (14 last year) Tom DeGise’s lobbying efforts to restore the state’s Transportation Trust Fund are expected to reap significant benefits as the state moves ahead to expand the Hudson Bergen Light Rail line to Route 440 in Jersey City. This will result in massive residential and commercial development that could create a new Gold Coast along the west side of Hudson County. DeGise has also been instrumental in overseeing construction of a new Schools of Technology campus in Secaucus and the first steps for a new courthouse complex on Newark Avenue.
10. Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli (same) Springing back from a massive stroke that left him in a coma last summer, Michael Gonnelli is an independent politician who’s continued to win in arguably the most conservative city in Hudson. Gov. Chris Christie appointed him to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority last year, giving him a central voice in the regulation of the Meadowlands. He’s played a crucial role in expanding and funding the Police Department, in response to the town’s population growth.
11. Rep. Albio Sires (11 last year) Albio Sires remains one of the principle voices for immigrant rights in the U.S. House of Representatives. Behind the scenes, he and Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner oversee the rapid redevelopment of the waterfront, which in many ways rivals that of Hoboken and Jersey City. With their ally Freeholder Caridad Rodriguez slated to eventually become the chair of the freeholder board in two years, their influence can only grow. This year, Sires was named ranking member of the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere. This has jurisdiction over issues pertaining to the countries in South America, North America, Central America, and the Caribbean, and Sires is expected to play a key role in the immigration debate that will hugely affect people in Hudson County and elsewhere.
12. Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner (also 11 last year) Richard Turner has been Weehawken’s mayor for the better part of the last quarter-century, and he’s been crucial in boosting the township’s development over the last decade, one recent example being last year’s ribbon cutting at 1200 Port Imperial for developer Lennar, one of the nation’s largest home builders. He also launched a $2 billion water revitalization project for 1200 Port Imperial and River House 11. This year, he received the first place award in New Jersey’s Society of Municipal Engineers for helping design the Weehawken Recreational Pier. Not to mention that Turner got a $17, 500-per-year consulting gig with West New York, established last summer, to work on special projects in the township.
13. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (15 last year) Her early endorsement of Phil Murphy for governor might bring needed state resources to Hoboken much like Stack did for his town with his close relationship with Gov. Christopher Christie. Zimmer has overseen the Rebuild by Design flood protection plan for the coastline, made steps toward creating three flood-mitigating parks, launched a bike share program, and named an official car sharing operator. With the force of a wealthy economy helping, Zimmer has the potential to influence county spending and the impact of county tax burdens on municipalities. Serious opposition to her 2017 reelection bid has yet to materialize.
14. Local health care companies and hospitals (7 last year) Closely tied to potential changes to the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will be the future of hospitals and other healthcare providers in Hudson County. CarePoint – which owns Bayonne Medical Center, Hoboken University Medical Center, and Christ Hospital of Jersey City – and Jersey City Medical Center-Barnabas have expanded to take over the practices of many local physicians and labs. Hospitals like Palisades Medical Center and Meadowlands Medical Center continue to provide services to their portions of the county. But they face a precarious balancing act, especially with recently-enacted state legislation that will change some of the rules for not-for profit hospitals. This profit vs. non-profit distinction could pose serious choice for people in the post ACA era.
15. Hudson County development companies (and development activists) (8 last year) Although the Hudson County waterfront is undergoing an historic building boom that includes Guttenberg, West New York, Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City and Bayonne, Jersey City remains the mecca for new construction, with development in Journal Square and other sections of the city. Bayonne, long seen as the untapped part of the Gold Coast, has finally started to attract serious attention. For the first time in almost a decade, developers are once again looking to construct condo projects, a significantly positive economic sign for real estate.
Of local developers, Jared Kushner, who has been named senior advisor to President Donald Trump, has a huge say in Jersey City and Hudson County. Along with his father, Charles Kushner and his uncle, Murray Kushner, Jared projects include One Journal Square, 30 Journal Square, 255 Grand Street, Trump Morgan Street, Liberty Harbor North, Gove Point Street, Trump Bay Street and has partnered with other projects along the Hudson County Gold Coast.
But activists are still acting as watchdogs over development. This year the Fund for a Better Waterfront, instrumental in shaping the waterfront of Hoboken to ensure access to its residents, has an ongoing battle with Shipyard Associates over the proposed Monarch building and has so far successfully prevented its development. It has worked with developers in the area including KMS development over the proposed Hilton Hotel to protect the waterfront.
16. School boards (No. 16 last year) Elected school boards in Secaucus, Bayonne, West New York, Jersey City and Hoboken will be faced with great challenges this year, partly due to expected changes on the federal level, but also because they must provide new and innovative ways to bolster public school programs against the ever-increasing challenge of charter schools. In Secaucus and Bayonne, the board must decide on new school superintendents. But the real challenge will remain how to manage their districts under the threat of reduced funding.
17. Vision Media and Axiom Communications (last year No. 19) In a year when Jersey City, Secaucus, and Hoboken face municipal elections, political consultants will have an ever increasing influence. Some players such as Pablo Fonseca, who orchestrated successful wins in municipal and school elections in West New York, will stretch out into new campaigns in Hoboken and elsewhere. These companies and the political players who run them help shape the public view of government and elected officials. In many case, they work to shape the view of development in the county.
18. Local colleges (last year No. 20) Expansion plans for New Jersey City University, St. Peter’s University, and Hudson County Community College will change the educational landscape at a time when college education faces serious challenges.
NJCU’s western campus expansion comes with a promise that needy students entering as freshmen this year will leave debt free in four years. This is a result of a private public partnership that will help offset the costs to the college. St. Peter’s University is moving ahead with expansion plans of its own for the McGinley Square area. HCCC, meanwhile, has plans to provide programming at the new Hudson County Schools of Technology campus in Secaucus when it opens in September. Hoboken’s Steven’s Institute of Technology is also undergoing massive expansion, a key player in the new era of technology educational programming.
19. Local community organizations (23 last year) With the potential elimination of The Affordable Care Act, local organizations such as the North Hudson Community Action Corporation and the Bayonne Economic Opportunity Foundation will become vital substitutes providing sliding scale services to the poor. The NHCAC, with ties into nearly every aspect of people’s lives in Hoboken, Jersey City, West New York, Union City, North Bergen and other towns, will play an increasing role in determining the health and well-being of the population. This is an organization that, like its counterpart the BEOF in Bayonne, serves people who need low-cost health services. Local officials throughout Hudson County rely on this organization’s resources. Also included in this would be Metropolitan Health Family Health Network, federally qualified health centers in Jersey City and West New York.
20. Hudson County arts community (18 last year) The arts community – including Elizabeth Cain, Christine Goodman, Silverman, Mana, White Eagle Hall, North Hudson arts programs, and some county arts and other programs that originate in Bayonne – has expanded into new areas throughout the county, including Jersey City Heights. As with most cultural organizations, the change of administration on the federal level will likely generate a much more politically active arts community over the next year. With Art House Productions slated to move to new digs in the former Horseshoe section of Jersey City near Hoboken, programming will likely bring together diverse elements from both cities, and add to the already rich arts culture that both cities enjoy through their artist studio tours. Theater groups in Union City, Jersey City and Hoboken are providing high quality programming that will soon make Hudson County an arts destination.
21. Homeless activists and shelters (new) Although Hudson County has made significant improvements in reducing homelessness over the last year, especially among veterans, the issue still remains one of the most challenging for the three shelters dealing with the most vulnerable populations in the county. Along with the new Hudson County warming facility in Kearny, they remain the last refuge for many. Some of these activists include Garden State Episcopal Community Development Corporation, and individuals such as Riaz Wahid and Esther Wintner, Carol Saint Hilaire, and Jaclyn Cherubini, executive director of The Hoboken Shelter.
22. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (same) With improvements made to the Hudson tubes over the last year and reconstruction of bridges and tunnels leading in and out of Hudson County, The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey will continue to have an impact on the day-to-day life of commuters.
23. Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti — (Honorable Mention last year) Annette Chaparro has introduced several bills for Hudson County residents which, if passed, will affect many people. They include “Zachary’s Law,” which would help law enforcement in pursuit of a hit-and-run driver; a bill that would prohibit automobile insurance companies from rating drivers based on a gap in car insurance; and an update to drivers’ education which would include lessons on sharing the road with pedestrians and cyclists.
Chiaravalloti brings a background of experience in education, politics and business. A former director of community engagement and vice president for international outreach at Saint Peter’s University, Chiaravalloti once served as state director for Senator Menendez and director general for police in Bayonne. He is an attorney with the politically powerful law firm of Weiner-Lesniak. He also works for several political and policy think tanks, and has been instrumental in help develop policy in the state Assembly.
24. LGBTQ community (new) Recent events, such as the shootings in an Orlando nightclub and the shift in policy away from LBGTQ rights by a newly-elected GOP administration in Washington, have galvanized this community to action. With Hudson County considered a gay-friendly county in the state, this community will have a significant voice in opposing anti-gay legislation. It has already made its impact felt in Jersey City and will likely become a much more significant voice in the upcoming year.
25. Women’s rights activists (new) Hudson County sent a large contingent of women to protests in Washington D.C. to stand up for women’s rights in a direct challenge of a new administration that seems set to reverse the Supreme Court ruling Roe vs. Wade, which legalized abortion in the United States. This may well be the defining issue of this generation, and local women’s organizations appear to be on the cusp of the battle to maintain women’s rights and the rights of the most vulnerable in society.
Bayonne Mayor James Davis, Sen. Ray Lesniak, West New York Mayor Felix Roque, Fulop chief of staff Mark Albiez, Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff, Hoboken Councilman Michael DeFusco, head of the JC Redevelopment Agency David Donnelly, former Gov. Jim McGreevey, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, Republican Matthew Kopko, State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, Freeholder Bill O’Dea, Freeholder Anthony Romano, Hoboken Councilman Ravi Bhalla, Hoboken Councilman Michael Russo, Jersey City Schools Superintendent Marcia Lyles, North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group founder Larry Wainstein, reform West New York school board member Matthew Cheng, Richard Mackiewicz, president of the Hoboken Chamber of Commerce, The Hoboken Museum; Joe DeMarco, Bayonne business administration; Hoboken Schools Superintendent Dr. Christine Johnson.