Although pontificators about politics like to claim each December that politics changed dramatically, 2017 was different. It really was a year on which the foreseeable future hinges.
Politicians in Hudson County like to think they are immune to national trends, but last year proved differently. The inauguration of President Donald Trump forced officials in places like Jersey City and Union City to take a stand for immigrant rights, putting them at risk of losing significant federal aid for public safety.
In some ways, Hudson County lost political clout, as southern New Jersey power brokers seized on political victories made over the last year, in particular when it came to the expansion of casino gambling beyond Atlantic City.
In a standoff with southern legislators, Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto of Secaucus lost, and this — plus other less-dramatic confrontations — forced him out of one of the most powerful positions in the state.
Hudson County did its part to help get Democrat Phil Murphy elected governor. This came about with significant infighting, and strongarm tactics behind the scenes forced Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop to withdraw.
The biggest beneficiary of Murphy’s win was state Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack. His early endorsement and well-attended rallies showed the new governor what old-fashioned Hudson County power politics is all about.
Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer was also an early supporter of Murphy. But her surprising withdrawal from the re-election race over the summer cast her future in doubt. Many believe she will get a post on Murphy’s staff. That has yet to be determined.
Tale of two cities
Zimmer’s decision to not run for mayor of Hoboken and Fulop’s decision to run for re-election as mayor in Jersey City set the stage for the most interesting political races of the year. In both cities, the elections were a test of old guard vs. new, and in both cases, the new emerging populations of each city showed their clout.
While the six-way race for mayor in Hoboken would have resulted in a runoff election in other years, the elimination of the runoff by Zimmer in 2012 allowed Ravi Bhalla to practically inherit the office, as Zimmer voters responded to her endorsement of him. But the victory will come with some costs, as the council is now severely divided and it will require all of Bhalla’s leadership skills for him to push ahead his agenda.
Although Fulop’s victory in Jersey City seems like more of the same, since he will continue to have an overwhelming advantage on the City Council, he will be faced with serious challenges that include the impact of the soon-to-be complete reevaluation and the gun violence still plaguing parts of the city.
The big question for Fulop is whether he will seek higher office this year or wait two years and attempt to seek a seat in the House of Representatives.
Much of Fulop’s political future is in the hands of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, whose mistrial put a halt to speculation about Fulop’s inheriting Menendez’s seat.
While Fulop was quick to endorse Menendez for re-election in 2018, Menendez has issued a veiled threat against those like Fulop who appeared to want to take advantage of his legal problems.
Menendez’s trial for corruption ended up with a hung jury, allowing him to remain a powerful force in Hudson County, the state, and on the federal level. The big question that lingers at the end of 2017 is whether he will once again take a leading role on the local political stage.
Stack’s influence could be big in 2018
Stack, who has been seen as a political maverick over the last decade, is emerging as one of the most powerful people in Hudson County, strongly supporting powerful mayors such as Fulop in Jersey City as well as those in Weehawken and West New York. He appears to be the front runner to become the next chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization to replace Prieto.
This could have a huge impact on the upcoming election in Bayonne. Mayor Jimmy Davis is being challenged by former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell. Stack’s influence could reshape the whole political landscape, eventually resulting in Freeholder Bill O’Dea taking over as county executive, giving both men huge power over patronage jobs.
This could also result in the unseating of state Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, although most people believe Sacco will seek only one more term as mayor and senator before finally retiring.
In Guttenberg, Councilman Wayne D. Zitt Jr. was elected mayor after running unopposed. Zitt takes over for outgoing Mayor Gerald R. Drasheff, who announced in March he would not seek a third term.
In Secaucus, Mayor Michael Gonnelli was reelected, also unopposed, carrying in his slate of councilmembers even though one had opposition. Gonnelli, like his mentor former Mayor Paul Amico, may well be mayor for life if he chooses. Amico passed away at the ripe old age of 103 this year, outliving by far all of his political opponents. Secaucus will have another council election in 2018, but will be missing one of Gonnelli’s strongest allies, Sue Pirro, who stepped down from her council seat just prior to the end of 2017.
There were shifts in county government this year as well. Freeholder Junior Maldonado was elected county clerk to replace Barbara Netchert. Jersey City Board of Education Trustee Joel Torres was elected freeholder to fill Maldonado’s seat. Freeholder Anthony Romano, who lost his bid to become Hoboken’s mayor, successfully won re-election as freeholder after appearing on the ballot seeking two offices at once.
One of the most contengeous elections of the year was in the June primary when Nicholas Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight fended off a strong challenge, and then faced Republican challengers that included Michael Alonso, who ran for both Assembly and the Bayonne Board of Education. While Alonso got trounced in the Assembly race, he was elected as a board member.
Chiaravalloti is a strong supporter of Mayor Davis in the upcoming Bayonne mayoral race, which is expected to be hotly contested, as powerful players from around Hudson County and the state take sides.
Although West New York Mayor Felix Roque does not face re-election until 2019, this year was a good year for his organization. His Board of Education candidates managed to sweep. Rogue, who successfully survived two separate criminal trials and numerous political once since first being elected mayor in 2011 appears to be the cat with nine lives, and seems more alive than ever.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.