Election Day and Halloween come so close together each year that it’s sometimes hard to tell them apart. While politicians do not dress up as Spiderman or Wonder Woman, they often hide behind masks that paint them as superheroes. Behind the scenes, their campaigns often desperately try to dress up their opponents as Darth Vader, or worse.
This year – with so much at stake in places like Hoboken and Jersey City – the rhetoric has reached new lows as campaigns dig deep for mud to sling. The last week before the polls open, the negativity is extreme, and dirty tricks more typical of Mischief Night seem to become prevalent.
Mischief Night is not a national event. People in the Northwest and Deep South eye you with great suspicion when you use the term or when you describe the antics young people (and some adults) engage in as the pretense of having good fun. The same can be said for Hudson County politics, where yanking down campaign signs and other such silliness often takes place in the waning days of campaigns. Sometimes these are acts of frustration. Sometimes, as in the events often referred to as “the October Surprise,” they are calculated strategies thought out in advance in an effort to sway the general public last-minute into the open arms of another candidate.
To quote Yankees great Yogi Berra, “You can learn a lot just by watching.”
While the Hoboken election is rapidly sinking into the quicksand of negative campaigning, Jersey City and (shockingly) Secaucus have unveiled October surprises ahead of this year’s election.
The Secaucus October Surprise was one of opportunity, as the details become clear regarding to incumbent Robert Costantino, the only councilman in Secaucus to face opposition this year. An incident involving a car crash two months ago, in which he was later charged with giving false information to police, could become a political tool for his opponent Steven Kilawattie to unseat him.
For Mayor Michael Gonnelli, the situation is not dire since the rest of the council already supports his agenda.
“Mayor Gonnelli supported him [Kilawattie] for school board last year,” said Tom Troyer, who lost last year for school board and is running again this year.
What a mess in Jersey City
The Jersey City October Surprise is a whole different animal. It appears to have been a calculated plan of action by those who oppose the reelection of Mayor Steven Fulop.
A voice mail allegedly showing that two top city employees had conspired to steer an energy consultant contract to a particular vendor surfaced during depositions to an unrelated lawsuit against the city.
Coupled with other testimony given by the head of the contract selection committee and the city’s business administrator, the recording has become something of a smoking gun in a campaign previous devoid of anything but tall talk.
Those supporting Bill Matsikoudis for mayor appear to be resting hopes that this recording will become the undoing of Fulop.
Earlier this month, someone leaked the depositions to the press in which Muhammad Akil and Shawn Thomas, who at the time were key members of the Fulop Administration, discussed the upcoming contract in a conversation accidentally recorded as part of a voicemail message.
After much ado about forcing the city to release the recording to the public, and a failed resolution by Councilman Michael Yun to require the release, someone finally leaked the profanity-laced recording to the media less than a week before voters go to the polls.
Akil, who has been Fulop’s Achilles heel for some time, was driven out of City Hall as Fulop’s chief of staff when someone leaked to the local press a radical, racially-tainted speech he had made in college.
The college statement leak, however, was part of an internal power struggle designed by someone in the Fulop administration to drive Akil out. There has been a significant jockeying for power since Fulop took office in 2013, with many of those who helped him get elected either forced out or leaving with some dissatisfaction with the mayor over this or that issue.
The current leaks involving the recording are clearly political, designed to feed the campaign against Fulop.
While the recording may have seemed like an October Surprise to the general public, those once close to Fulop say they were aware of the testimony and the tape well in advance of their being leaked. “This is supposed to bring down Fulop,” said a former insider, who is skeptical of its impact on the election.
This insider and others say the release of the information in the midst of the election made it stink of politics, even though eventually law enforcement agencies will have to look into it.
“Had this come out six months ago, things might have been different,” the observer said. “Now it just looks like dirty politics.”
This is very similar to the events that led up to Watergate when the break-in of the Democratic headquarters seemed trivial leading into the 1972 election that saw President Richard Nixon elected, but led eventually to his resignation two years later. The question remains the same for Fulop today as it did for Nixon in the 1970s: what did he know and when did he know it?
Since at least one city official said he had alerted Fulop to the situation back in 2014 when it all transpired, and Fulop has Tweeted that he altered the proper authorities as result, the October Surprise in November 2017 may well become something much stickier if Fulop is reelected and retakes office in 2018.
The situation may well become a centerpiece for a new administration if Matsikoudis is elected mayor instead, or if Fulop loses control of the City Council and the council decides to mount a full inquiry.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.