Plenty of people are talking about the last political war in Hudson County in 2007 when Union City Mayor Brian Stack tried to overthrow the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO).
But the new war better resembles a previous conflict in 2002 when Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham tried to seize control of the county executive position.
Ironically, that battle between then-Rep. Robert Menendez, who was chair of the HCDO, and Cunningham resulted in Tom DeGise becoming county executive, a position he has held since.
Earlier this month, the mayors of Union City, West New York, Union City, and Hoboken put DeGise on notice that they want someone else to serve as county executive – although they have yet to say whom.
Unfortunately, DeGise may not be able to rely on Menendez to rescue him, since Menendez cannot afford to lose the votes in those four towns in the Democratic primary in June. And if he wins the primary, he will also need to fend off a Republican challenge in November.
Menendez is reportedly fuming over the war, because it will distract from his reelection effort, stealing funds and workers he will need to get reelected in the fall.
Two high profile appointments forced the move
While state Sen. Brian Stack, who is leading the charge, claims the move to unseat DeGise is about a need for change, other insiders claim the fight was brought on by two high-profile political appointments: Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti to a position as the Hudson County Community College, and the appointment of former Assemblyman Vincent Prieto to head the Sports and Exposition Authority.
Some of the mayors against DeGise have felt shortchanged when it comes to the fair distribution of county jobs, and these two appointments were the last straw. One source claims that Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop wants his fair share of the patronage and is pressing Stack to help him push DeGise out.
This is almost a repeat of the 2002 war in which Cunningham, then mayor of Jersey City, wanted to control the county patronage – seeing himself as the legitimate leader of the Democratic Party after a scandal brought down County Executive Robert Janiszewski.
Cunningham eventually lost, but largely because Menendez lined up all the other mayors in Hudson County against him.
This time, two of the three most powerful mayors in Hudson County are opposed to DeGise, and without Menendez, DeGise could lose in the 2019 primary against a still-undisclosed opponent backed by Stack and Fulop.
New Jersey, and Hudson County in particular, often operates under a patronage system of politics. Supporters of a winning candidate expect to get governmental jobs, contracts, and other fringe benefits as reward for their efforts. At best, a good leader will offer high quality service. At worst, it can lead to corruption, with jobs, contracts, and such going to family members and personal friends.
In the past, Jersey City was always the center of patronage for the county, with the mayor as the person to whom most people had to go. Until 1974, even county officials had to kowtow to the mayor in order to assure their people got jobs. Jersey City until then controlled five of the nine freeholder seats.
This changed in 1974 with the passage of a public referendum altering the county’s charter, which created a powerful county executive position and provided people seeking political favors an alternative source of jobs and contracts.
Even the chairman of the Democratic Party – usually the mayor of Jersey City in those years –
had to barter with the county for political patronage. This was made worse in 1991, when Republican Bret Schundler became mayor of Jersey City, and traditional Democrats had to turn more and more to the county. Janiszewski along with then-Union City Mayor Bruce Walters and others controlled the party until 2002 when Janiszewski was convicted on corruption, leaving a vacancy at the top.
Although DeGise became county executive, Menendez along with North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco largely controlled county patronage.
With Stack scheduled to become the new chair of the HCDO in June, Democratic leaders agreed to allow him to name the new county sheriff (who is also up for election next year) and control that gold mine of patronage. But apparently this was not enough, and now Stack may have to lead a primary fight for sheriff next year as well. DeGise said everything is off the table.
DeGise has framed the fight as a generational one, young Turks such as Fulop and Stack against an “older and wiser” generation.
“I’m the last of the old guard,” DeGise said. “I’m not going to let them push me out without a fight.”
A family feud
DeGise claims the war is a power grab and that Fulop is seeking to become a political boss. The new Democratic war in Hudson County will divide political families, forcing one-time allies to choose sides. This is already evident in Hoboken and West New York where mayors Ravi Bhalla and Felix Roque have joined Stack and Fulop, but members of their council or commission may choose to support DeGise.
Sacco in North Bergen remains a force to reckon with, but may also find himself under attack, since he also must run for reelection as mayor in 2019. If the war continues into next year as expected, then an opposition ticket may rise against Sacco as well.
This year, with Bayonne municipal elections coming up in May, DeGise has already vowed to support Jimmy Davis’ reelection bid. This would allow Davis to return the favor and support DeGise in next year’s primary. It is unclear if Davis’ challenger, Jason O’Donnell, will get help from the Stack-Fulop fellowship. But an upset in Bayonne allowing O’Donnell to become mayor could shift the precarious balance of power in the county.
Some believe Stack and company hoped to intimidate DeGise into resigning this year and allowing a caretaker county executive to take over until the 2019 election.
DeGise, however, said he is not leaving without a fight, and this will test the loyalties of a number of people who are still caught in the middle, such as Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, aide to Rep. Albio Sires.
Sires is listed as a DeGise supporter, and could also be a target in the war, since Fulop may want to take his seat or name the person who does. But Fulop needs to tread softly here. If he and Stack go after Sires, this will bring Menendez into the fight to protect him and give DeGise a very powerful ally.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.