Whether you’re feeling relief, rage, or something in between as a result of the May 14 municipal election in North Bergen, the feud between Mayor Nicholas Sacco, and his perennial opponent Larry Wainstein, was high drama.
Sacco, a 28-year incumbent, had a deep team of Democrats backing him and the four incumbent commissioners on his slate. Backers included the Hudson County Democratic Organization, North Bergen’s municipal Democratic committee, and Gov. Phil Murphy. All offered full-fledged support from the get-go.
Still, a lack of support from established politicos didn’t take the wind out of Wainstein’s sails. His self-financed campaign was fraught with personal politics and court cases, in what was a full-on grudge match from the start.
Wainstein fueled his campaign almost entirely on negative messages against Sacco, resonating with a crowd of those who apparently had an axe to grind against the incumbents.
Looking back at election season, one thing is clear: Personal attacks took pride of place.
Sacco declared war against Wainstein at a packed campaign kickoff event, establishing a clear goal of scaring Wainstein off from North Bergen politics for good Wainstein, meanwhile, in a months-long diatribe, alleged that Sacco was “corrupt” and “out of touch.”
The results of the election can be found in the “Breaking News” section of hudsonreporter.com. Here are some of highlights of 2019’s fierce election.
Back to school
Board of Education matters drew the first drops of blood. After Wainstein lost in 2015 with 4,904 votes against Sacco’s 8,465, local politics remained tepid in North Bergen until the April 2018 board of education elections.
Wainstein, who backed a slate of candidates who opposed a team that had Sacco’s endorsement, took the election as the first opportunity to rail against the Sacco administration. Things briefly settled down after the Sacco-endorsed slate won by a margin of about 10-1.
A few months later, a lawsuit Wainstein filed against the Board of Education reignited the flame. He charged that the board violated the Open Public Meetings Act by allegedly not giving enough public notice before holding a Dec. 11 vote that would approve the board spending $60 million on an expansion to the high school.
After that case was thrown out of Hudson County Superior Court, the expansion was approved with 3,800 votes in favor of the project and 1,300 votes opposing it.
Wainstein’s running mate, Diana Ortiz, filed an appellate case to overturn that decision. That case stalled the expansion project in February, and it’s still stalled, because the Board of Education is under a moratorium until a verdict is reached in that hearing.
After receiving inquiries about the project, Superintendent of Schools George Solter wrote a letter to parents informing them the project was stalled. Wainstein targeted Solter in a School Ethics Commission Complaint filed in April, claiming that Solter’s letter was an attempt to defame him on behalf of Sacco’s campaign.
It’s raining mud
While education was a hot-button issue, it was only one of many. Sacco and Wainstein had plenty more mud to sling at one another.
Sacco’s team reiterated accusations about Wainstein made in the 2015 election. They accused Wainstein of working in cahoots with Joe Mocco, a former North Bergen clerk who served a prison sentence after a sweeping racketeering bust in 1986.
Sacco spokesman Phil Swibinski said that photos depicting Mocco walking into Wainstein’s campaign headquarters were a “smoking gun” and charged that Mocco was pulling the strings behind Wainstein’s campaign. Wainstein, who was a teen during Mocco’s more infamous years, said that Mocco had no role in his campaign, and was merely paying him the occasional visit.
Sacco’s team also slammed Wainstein over an IRS lien against his business, which indicated that he owed the federal government roughly $107,000 in back taxes. After spokespersons for Sacco dubbed Wainstein a “tax deadbeat,” Wainstein responded that the lien was only a matter of incorrectly filing IRS paperwork.
Sacco allies also accused Wainstien of living in the Bergen County town of Franklin Lakes because he owns a house there. That didn’t faze Wainstein, who maintained that he lived in North Bergen full time, and his residency was never disqualified in court.
When Sacco declared verbal war on Wainstein in the company of the governor and local officials, Wainstein fought back.
After team Sacco announced that the incumbent commissioners received more than 10,000 signed petitions each, the campaign showcased boxes filled with those thousands of documents. But they neglected to mention that they filed only 1,100 of those petitions with the town clerk’s office and held on to the bulk of them.
Wainstein confirmed that only 1,100 petitions for Sacco’s slate were on municipal record, and went on the offensive, accusing his opponents of inflating the number of petitions they received. While there was no official count of the Sacco slate’s petitions in a government office, the stockpile of paperwork twice shown to the press indicated that the overwhelming bulk of signatures never made it to municipal chambers.
Toward the last few weeks of campaign season, Wainstein framed himself as the green candidate, lambasting Sacco’s endorsement of the proposed North Bergen Liberty Generating power plant, which will be a major source of revenue for North Bergen if it passes every environmental permitting process.
Wainstein remained relatively mum on the matter, until he filed a class action suit targeting Sacco, North Bergen Township, and Gov. Phil Murphy as defendants on April 15. He claimed in the suit that the plant’s operation was a civil rights violation, based on an executive order Murphy signed in August 2018.
Sacco’s campaign team said that while it believes that the project will be completely safe for North Bergen residents if environmental agencies give it the green light, Sacco’s team would “do everything they can” do shut down the project if it was a proven health risk to those nearby, according to spokespersons for the campaign.
Last ditch efforts
North Bergen High School’s critically acclaimed production of “Alien: the Play” didn’t escape the political fray.
On April 30, North Bergen High School’s Vice Principal Nick Sacco Jr., the mayor’s son, posted an image on Facebook that appeared to be a fake post made to resemble one from Wainstein’s Facebook account.
The post, under username “Larry Wainstein,” read, “Mayor Sacco is using the students of North Bergen High School as a tool for publicity at the expense of a play that is copy-written material of both Fox and now Disney.” The allegedly fake post implied that Wainstein would push for legal action against the high school.
Wainstein, who wasn’t keen to see North Bergen’s school district sued in this instance, said that he was filing a complaint with local police, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, and the Attorney General’s office against Sacco Jr. for the allegedly phony Facebook post.
A few days later, Sacco’s team heckled Wainstein for endorsing former Gov. Chris Christie during his 2013 re-election campaign.
In that endorsement letter Wainstein called Christie “a symbol of anti-corruption” and commended him for his response to Hurricane Sandy. He said North Bergen residents “have a true friend and supporter in Governor Christie.”
Soon after, Wainstein bounced back, pointing out that Sacco’s running mate, Commissioner Frank Gargiulo, also has Republican ties. Gargiulo is a former Republican Assemblyman and once served as Hudson County’s Republican Chair.