Very bitter about politics at the end of his life, Mark Twain said, “If we would learn what the human race really is at bottom, we need only observe it in election times.”
This was never more relevant than in the ongoing dispute to collect committee votes in order to select the next chair of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), the countywide political organization.
Arms are being twisted; loyalties tested, and friendships severed so that one group of mayors can get their share of the county patronage. The jobs in question have been under control of another faction for years.
Recent reports suggest that two of the orchestrators of the revived political war in Hudson County – State Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop – may be at each other’s throats in an attempt to blame each other for why the chairmanship of the party is slipping away.
Stack, Fulop, and other politicos like Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla and West New York Mayor Felix Roque are hoping to wrest control of the party, and would like to replace the official at the head of county government, County Executive Tom DeGise.
Fulop and Stack’s troubles, of course, recall an anonymous quote that says, “The most dangerous irony is, people are angry with others because of their own incompetence.” Fulop and Stack are providing future political leaders with a real lesson on how not to take control of county patronage, something of a throwback to an old novel about the gang who could not shoot straight.
It is not DeGise who actually controls the patronage, but State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco. And Sacco clearly isn’t willing to give it up without a fight.
The mayors’ move to unseat DeGise seems too much like betrayal. This is partly due to the fact that DeGise played a key role in brokering peace between Stack and Sacco in the past.
But Fulop, Stack, and others are looking beyond DeGise to the hefty number of political jobs that Sacco has controlled for more than a decade. This war is and always has been about getting their share of county patronage – very similar to the war that led to DeGise become county executive in the first place. Back in 2003, then Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham wanted those jobs, and found himself facing the same uphill battle.
For some, this move by Stack may be the last straw. The aftermath of this may be a political Hudson County united against him in the future. While Stack has a lot of clout, he still needs support from others. Some may actually see this as a sign that Stack may have to be stopped in the future, and the start of a whole new guerrilla war against him.
In fact, an attempt to undermine the four mayors may have already started. While U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and Gov. Phil Murphy appear not to be taking sides in the battle, Rep. Albio Sires apparently is working behind the scenes to eventually bring down Roque in West New York.
Seen as one of their many miscalculations, the Stack contingent threatened to run a candidate against Sires in the Democratic primary on June 12 as part of a power grab, but backed out at the last minute.
This failure to keep Sires occupied has allowed Sires to work against Stack’s ally Roque and will likely result in Roque being unseated next year when his reelection comes up.
Commissioners in West New York have already begun their campaign to undermine Roque, not merely absconding with the committee votes Stack needs, but also apparently raising money for an eventual mayoral challenge.
The biggest blunder of all
Until April, Stack had the support of nearly all 12 Hudson County mayors to be selected as the next HCDO chair.
But when he and his errant mayors launched their attack on the county executive two months ago, the whole game changed.
In an example of incredibly foolish and bad timing, Stack and Fulop met with DeGise at the Coach House Diner in North Bergen to tell him that they wanted someone new for county executive in 2019 – most likely Jersey City-based Freeholder Bill O’Dea.
Stack and company mistakenly presumed that DeGise would shake in his boots when two of the more powerful mayors in Hudson County issued their decree.
But DeGise decided to play hardball, and launched a counter attack to keep Stack from inheriting the chair of the politically powerful HCDO.
The sad part for Stack is that all he had to do to avoid this confrontation was to wait until after June 12 when the committee was expected to give him the chair.
Amy DeGise could win the chair instead of Stack
Now most political observers believe Stack will not get the seat – even though some DeGise supporters are upset by the person DeGise decided to back for the seat instead: his own daughter, Amy DeGise.
Stack has called Amy DeGise’s selection “a joke,” but if anything, the joke may be on Stack. Her personal political base, combined with her father’s, may become the deciding factor in winning her the chair over Stack.
Stack’s camp has been attacking Tom DeGise as a closet Republican, saying that he worked closely with former GOP Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler. But this is thin ice because of Stack’s own relationship in the past to GOP Gov. Christopher Christie, from whom Stack got a lot of political and financial favors in the past.
Both Tom and Amy DeGise have deep roots in Jersey City. That is a problem for Stack. Fulop may not be able to carry the necessary Jersey City committee votes to give Stack the seat. This is particularly true since the Bayonne election resulted in the reelection of Mayor Jimmy Davis, a strong DeGise supporter.
The Bayonne election is also emblematic of Stack’s problems. Once the county chair seat became disputed, Stack should have sent help to Davis’ opponent, and supposedly eventually did, but very late in the campaign. Now, Stack may wind up coming up short, and will be faced with fewer choices next year.
Amy DeGise, if she becomes chair, will undoubtedly give the official democratic line on the 2019 primary ballot to her father.
Will Stack back an independent ticket in 2019?
If Stack still intends to unseat DeGise as county executive, he will be forced to run an independent ticket in the general election. This will be costly, and will require Stack’s rich ally, Fulop, to let go of some of the hefty campaign contributions Fulop got when still thinking about running for governor.
Some reports suggest that Stack and Fulop, already feeling the heat from the challenge, are second guessing their timing as to when they started the war against DeGise.
But there is to be hell for others in this coalition, too, including Bhalla in Hoboken, where several council members have already thrown their support behind DeGise.
With Davis, Sacco, all of the west Hudson mayors as well as the mayors of Weehawken, Secaucus, and Guttenberg behind Amy DeGise for HCDO chair, and behind Tom DeGise for county executive, it is unclear how Stack can possibly win this fight.
As in 2007, when Stack last attempted to overthrow the HCDO, this war appears to be running out of fuel even before it started. And the backlash against Stack and company is bound to be bad and long lasting.
Bad things got said and will no doubt continue to get said unless someone with some common sense intervenes. But even then, it may not be possible to go back to the peaceful co-existence that briefly held sway over the last few years.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.