Between The Lines

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Just when you thought it was safe to ignore politics for awhile after the contentious elections in North Bergen and West New York, Hudson County is about to plunge into a new round of elections and primaries.

Primaries are rare in municipal elections in Hudson County, but East Newark looks interesting if only because incumbent mayor Joseph R. Smith is being challenged for the first time in 16 years.

Smith has the distinction of being the longest-serving mayor in the county, but he is being challenged by Dina Grilo, an executive with J.P. Morgan Chase.

Female candidates are still rare in Hudson County. Jersey City’s Marilyn Roman served as acting mayor briefly in 1991. Dawn Zimmer served two terms as mayor of Hoboken. If Grilo is successful, she would be only the third woman mayor in the county and the first in East Newark.

Smith is 78 years old. Grilo is 48. East Newark is the smallest municipality in the county with less than 1,000 registered voters, most of whom are Democrats.

Primary turnout tends to be very low. But Grilo may well be part of a larger movement in Hudson County, and could be following in the footsteps of Zimmer and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop as a harbinger of change.

Grilo’s campaign appears to be focused on helping East Newark get on the redevelopment bandwagon the way its neighbors Kearny and Harrison have.

East Newark is a quarter the size of Hoboken with a fraction of the population. It is part of the rust belt of Hudson County left over from the industrial past, and a Grilo victory would be strongly symbolic. Smith is also one of the icons of the old-school Democratic power structure, not to mention the all-boys network in a county where mayors are the most important elected officials.

Most primary seats are uncontested

For the most part, the Democratic and Republican primaries are uncontested. There are two notable exceptions.

Despite an attempt by the Hudson County Democratic Organization to have her yanked from the ballot, Patricia Waiters will challenge Tom DeGise in the Democratic primary for County Executive.

Waiters has been a sharp critic of policies in Hoboken and Jersey City, as well as on a county level for years. She is running as a candidate on the Cleaning up Hudson County’s Corruption slate.

Potentially more problematic for the HCDO are Roger Quesada and Mahmoud Mahmoud, candidates on the People Transparency slate, running against HCDO-backed Assembly incumbents in the 32nd District Angelica Jimenez and Pedro Mejia. Mahmoud, who did extremely well in his primary run against Incumbent Rep. Albio Sires in 2018, and his running mate, Quesada, are very progressive. They hope to push the Democratic Party in Hudson County into becoming much more aggressive.

This is a year when assembly members run without their state senate counterparts, making both Jimenez and Mejia potentially vulnerable without state Senator Nicholas Sacco to head their ticket.

The Hoboken mess

Even though Hoboken voters will not go to the polls until November to vote for ward council seats, Mayor Ravi Bhalla has announced his slate of five candidates.

Hoboken holds municipal elections every two years. One year the mayor runs with at-large candidates. The next, six ward seats are up for election.

Although this year may seem like an off-year election, it has serious implications.

The Hoboken council is split into factions. Although able to put together temporary alliances with some of the maverick council members, Bhalla could win a voting majority if he gets his ticket elected.

The Team Bhalla ticket includes a few surprises, but features mostly people involved with the community, not seasoned politicians. This could hurt Bhalla’s chances if the races get as nasty as they are likely to get.

Some of the candidates do not have wide name recognition. This may explain why he fielded the ticket as early as he did. Traditionally, tickets for November elections announce just before or after Labor Day.

Bhalla’s candidate in the 1st Ward, Migdalia Pagan-Milano, has the unenviable task of challenging Bhalla’s chief rival, Councilman Michael DeFuso. This is something of what they call in football a Hail Mary Pass. If Pagan-Milano can unseat DeFusco in this election, DeFusco would be in a weaker position in 2021 to challenge Bhalla for mayor.

Bhalla’s pick of Nora Martinez DeBenedetto also has a daunting task of trying to unseat Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher in the 2nd Ward.

Fisher along with council members Jen Giattino and Peter Cunningham split from Bhalla after Dawn Zimmer announced she would not seek reelection as mayor in 2017. While not as ardent a critic of Bhalla as DeFusco, Fisher has been very vocal.

As expected, Bhalla chose not to back any candidate against Councilman Michael Russo in the 3rd Ward, part of what some see as an unholy political alliance between Bhalla and Russo. This alliance benefits Russo more than Bhalla since Russo has been known to jump ship when it is to his political advantage.

Lisa Sprengle, Bhalla’s candidate in the 4th Ward, will oppose Councilman Ruben Ramos. This is something of a surprise, since rumors suggest Bhalla and Ramos had been trying to work out some kind of political deal prior to the announcement of the slate. Ramos is as entrenched in the 4th Ward as Russo is in the 3rd.

Some political observers see the 5th Ward as a possible gain for the Bhalla camp, where Phil Cohen  will challenge incumbent Cunningham. Cohen is a seasoned politician with previous runs for public office. He also is known to work hard.

Some other political observers believe that Bhalla’s candidate in the 6th Ward, Cristin Cricco-Powell, has the potential to unseat incumbent Giattino. The 6th Ward is the city’s smallest ward, and if Cricco-Powell can somehow win over the numerous mothers that previously supported Giattino, this could also be an upset.  Cricco-Powell comes from a well-known political family in Hoboken.