Between the Lines

The end of an era?

The May 14 elections in North Bergen and West New York may well be the end of a political era.

North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco lived up to his campaign promise to “crush” his opponent, Larry Wainstein. 

Although narrowly defeated by a ticket led by Gabriel Rodriguez, Mayor Felix Roque brings to a close an eight year term full of political turmoil and intrigue.

Even though Roque had a reasonably good legislative record and a pile of campaign cash, he could not overcome opposition backed by some of the most powerful political bosses in Hudson County.

The losses of Wainstein and Roque show how much political affiliations or the lack of them may matter more than a good record or a lot of money.

Roque, sometimes referred as “The Donald Trump of North Hudson,” has always been a maverick who has often pitted himself against the mainstream. But mavericks rarely win when the opposition is very organized.

Roque pulled off an upset in 2011 when he beat West New York Mayor Sal Vega. But Roque had a lot of friends back then, political allies that in 2019 were either aligned against him or stood on the sidelines and did nothing to help him.

What helped Roque win in 2011 was the fact that he was part of a larger political war in North Hudson that pitted Union City Mayor Brian Stack against Sacco in North Bergen.

Rep. Albio Sires backed Roque in 2011 because of a political feud with Vega. But in the May 14 election, Sires – an extremely popular former mayor of West New York – worked hard to unseat Roque.

His change of heart partly has its roots in last year’s failed political coup in which Roque aligned himself Stack, Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop in an attempt to unseat County Executive Tom DeGise.

When the plot failed, Stack and Bhalla brokered deals with the powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization that supported DeGise. Fulop, very popular in Jersey City, made his peace later. This left Roque as the last remaining conspirator, an unrepentant rebel who apparently believed that there would be no retribution. This created bad blood between Roque and Sires.

Roque had plenty of money to throw away in this election and plenty of bodies on the street. But his organization just wasn’t up to the task of beating back well-organized opposition.

Roque’s eight years in office have been some of the most turbulent in West New York history, full of plots and counterplots and conflicts and, at the worst, power plays that went all the way to the US Senate.

Roque has survived two criminal trials, and managed to somehow avoid the wrath of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez after he accidentally endorsed Menendez’s Republican opponent.

If there is one lesson to be learned by this West New York election this year, it is that politics is organized but is also every man and every woman for his or herself. Ultimately, you need to align powerful forces on your side in order to survive.

Once former allies abandoned him and powerful political bosses aligned against him, it was nearly impossible for him to win.

West New York is just not Union City or North Bergen and Roque is not Stack or Sacco. Roque had little clout from outside West New York to use against these bosses.

Wainstein in his bid to become mayor of North Bergen had a similar problem as Roque.

Four years ago, when he came within spitting distance of Sacco, he had Stack as an ally. Stack, who had made his own peace with Sacco, did not support Wainstein in the 2019 election.

Much of what occurred in West New York and North Bergen had to do with some of the behind-the-scenes deal-making that allowed Stack to remain at peace with Sacco and the HCDO, and came at the expense of Wainstein and Roque.

This is not to say that Wainstein or Roque would have won if Stack had helped. But as it turned out, Roque and Wainstein were left to become floundering Davids against the Hudson County political Goliath.

Sacco, of course, had a lot of motivation to beat Wainstein.

This may well be Sacco’s last hurrah. He is not expected to seek election again as mayor or even as state senator. Sacco needed to prove his organization is still strong before he passes it on to whoever will inherit it.

Sacco wasn’t just showing off for local voters, but to ward off political enemies from South Jersey, who would have loved to see Sacco defeated.

The 2019 election in West New York and North Bergen will go down in history as the end of an era. North Hudson has been a kind of Wild West over the last three decades with powerful ranchers like Sacco and wisecracking gunslingers like Roque in charge of government.

The election is West New York will leave that government in the hands of much more mundane leaders, people who will operate government more like a business than a rodeo.

While the new administration will likely produce a more productive government, Hudson County loses one more political character and much of the texture of what made politics in North Hudson so interesting.

But this is only the beginning of what is likely to be massive political changes in North Hudson over the next four years.

It will be curious to see what new power brokers will rise out of the ashes to replace those whose political careers expire.

Who will replace Sires in the House of Representatives? Who will replace Sacco as state Senator? What will become of his handpicked members of the state Assembly?

Will there be a major turnover of commissioners in North Bergen when Sacco finally decides to call it quits?

Will the newly elected commissioners in West New York create a stable enough government to get reelected four years from now?

Will anyone actually run against Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner?

Perhaps the answers to these imponderables will be the stuff future political empires are made of.