Political coup in council presidency

Some people wondered why Councilman Rolando Lavarro met with newly-elected Ward E Councilman James Solomon in the Central Avenue office of Ward D Councilman Michael Yun just after Christmas. After all, Lavarro won reelection on a ticket headed by Mayor Steven Fulop, but Yun and Solomon are considered anti-Fulop council members.
The mystery ended on Jan. 1, when Solomon nominated Lavarro to serve another four years as council president.
Lavarro appears to have made a deal with Solomon, Boggiano and Yun to guarantee his reappointment as council president. Lavarro was also able to secure four votes from four of the other councilmembers who also ran on the Fulop ticket, with only Councilman Daniel Rivera and Joyce Watterman voting against him.
Many assumed that Watterman would get the position because she was top vote-getter in the last election and that she would get the majority of other Fulop candidates.
Yun, who reportedly promised to vote for Watterman, apparently changed his mind and also voted for Lavarro in what may be a political coup against Fulop.
Yun and Boggiano have been outspoken critics of Fulop, and their support along with anti-Fulop Solomon suggests that a new coalition is forming inside the City Council that could pose problems for Fulop getting his agenda passed – especially on bonding, which requires a super majority on the council. If Lavarro votes with Yun, Boggiano, and Solomon, he could have the power to hold hostage city spending and make demands on the mayor to promote his own agenda.
Lavarro tried to hold hostage the appointment of John Hallahan as councilman in order to force Fulop and Fulop allies to support his legislation. This won him the wrath of a number of council members, who vowed to oppose his reappointment as council president. Two of these, Councilwoman Candace Osborne and Frank Gajewski, did not run for reelection. The other newly elected Fulop council members apparently are unaware of this internal conflict and supported Lavarro over the objections of Watterman and Rivera.
Lavarro’s siding with three clearly anti-Fulop councilmembers to secure his selection as council president has alarmed a number of political observers since it clearly sets an unexpected tone. Most had assumed that Fulop would retain complete control of the council if six of his council running mates won, giving him the same majority of votes as he had prior to the election.
But selection of Lavarro over Watterman may well point to a shift in power on the council in which Lavarro – now indebted to the anti-Fulop candidates – can possibly become a key vote against Fulop, and possibly make demands behind the scenes from Fulop to sercure his vote.
Lavarro’s appointment as council president in 2013 was also controversial. Historically, the top vote getter in an election is awarded the council presidency, but in both 2013 and again in 2017, Watterman got the most votes of all council candidates.
The vote for Lavarro over Watterman also creates a split in the pro-Fulop council vote, and is expected to create anamosity between Watterman and Lavarro at a time when Fulop will need to make sure his council people are on the same page with him.
The coalition of Lavarro with the anti-Fulop council members could become a more serious problem for Fulop if these anti-Fulop councilmembers can convince any one of the remaining council members to flip on one or more Fulop proposals.
More conspiracy-minded political observers believe that Fulop allowed this to happen – a far stretch for the imagination since this move bodes ill for his second term as mayor
The council presidency is seen as a powerful position in the city comparable to being mayor. In fact, many view the seat as a possible steppingstone to becoming mayor later on.
Both Lavarro and Watterman are seen as possible mayoral candidates in the 2021 election. And if Fulop moves onto higher office before 2021, the council president would most likely fill his seat until a special election.

DeGise is running for reelection

As if to dispel doubts about his future intentions, County Executive Tom DeGise’s 2019 campaign has already started. Campaign signs have started to appear throughout Hudson County.
At a recent event, DeGise announced that he will run again, and seems to have a lot of support.
Vision Media is spearheading his campaign and apparently decided an early show of force – expensive light pole posters and other advertising – will discourage others from seeking to unseat him.
This comes at a time when a power shift is expected in Hudson County. State Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack is expected to become the next chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization. And Stack’s ally, Jersey City Freeholder Bill O’Dea, has expressed interest in becoming county executive.
While Stack and DeGise apparently get along well, DeGise has been supported in the past by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, and has served largely because DeGise is a peacemaker and does not pose a serious political threat to any of the 12 Hudson County mayors.
DeGise, a former councilman in Jersey City, was part of a political power struggle in 2002 in the aftermath of bribery charges and the subsequent resignation of Robert Janiszewski as county executive. Janiszewski was head of the HCDO and built alliances with other powerful political leaders in Hudson County such as former Union City Mayor Bruce Walters.
But it was a plot by Janiszewski and Walter’s heir, Rudy Garcia – to steer legal contracts in the county and in a number of municipalities to a favored legal firm, and away from a firm that was aligned with Menendez – that apparently brought his empire down.
Coincidentally, both Janiszewski and Garcia found themselves enmeshed with legal troubles. (This should serve as fair warning to those who thought to take advantage of Menendez’s legal troubles late last year, and to the Jersey City Board of Education, which voted to terminate the same firm this year.)
To fill the political vacuum left by Janiszewski’s guilty plea and exit from the political stage years ago, then Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham sought to take control of the county in order to provide jobs for his political supporters. Menendez supported DeGise for the vacant county executive’s seat, thus securing control of county jobs and contracts.
DeGise has since managed to keep Hudson County for the most part out of additional accusations of corruption, and has managed to create a legacy that includes establishing new digs for county offices, the construction of a new county schools of technology, a golf course, and soon, a new courthouse complex.
“Tom has done a wonderful job as county executive,” said Paul Swibinski, founder of Vision Media. His son, Phil, now runs the prestigious public relations firm.
“DeGise” has become a brand name, as proven by his daughter’s ability to become top votegetter in the recent Jersey City Board of Education election.
“We’re fully in campaign mode,” Phil Swibinski said. “We’re raising money.”
The still-very powerful Menendez is a key ally and DeGise apparently also has a close relationship with Governor-Elect Phil Murphy.

Bayonne race expected to be competitive

Vision Media has also taken on campaign duties for Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis, an ironic twist since the firm previously represented Mayor Mark Smith against Davis in the 2014 election, which Davis won.
What’s different now is that Vision Media will be in control of the campaign instead of doing only media as they did with Smith.
Behind the scenes in 2014 there was a lot of confusion because different groups were in charge of different part the campaign, and often the message from one part of the campaign conflicted with other parts. Nobody appeared to be charge.
Also ironically, Davis is being challenged by former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, who was a key Smith political advisor and ally.
Both Paul and Phil believe Davis will prevail in May and see the Davis ticket as continuing to be strong.
Other political observers predict Bayonne will become the most hotly contested election in Hudson County in 2018.

Al Sullivan may be reached at asullivan@hudsonreporter.com.