Change comes to Secaucus council Elwell team incumbents out; Gonnelli, Jeffas in

The Take Back Secaucus slate, led by Michael Gonnelli, won two out of three town council races in Secaucus on Nov. 7.

With all votes counted except provisional ballots, Secaucus’ Election Day results demonstrated significant gains for the opposition to Mayor Dennis Elwell.

In the 1st Ward, attorney Gary Jeffas defeated incumbent Michael Grecco by a razor-thin margin, 746 to 731.

In the 2nd Ward, Gonnelli resoundingly defeated incumbent Robert Kickey by a 1358 to 895 vote count. The 2nd Ward councilman-elect, who serves as the town superintendent of the Department of Public Works and as a volunteer fire department battalion chief, is the main political rival of Mayor Elwell.

Independent candidate and Secaucus school board member Tom Troyer received 69 votes in the 2nd Ward race.

The only bright spot for the Elwell Team came in the 3rd Ward, where former school board member John Shinnick defeated Gonnelli and Jeffas’ slate mate, chiropractor and school principal Dr. Robert Berckes, 1069 to 775.

Council shift anticipated in polling places

At the polling station at the First Reformed Church on Centre Avenue, poll challenger Michelle Halpin stated that she could the political shift take place from her vantage point.

“Voter turn out was very high today,” she said. “The Menendez-Kean Senate race helped, and the weather was good. But I think the town was really looking forward to some change. Instead of being unopposed, you actually had people challenging for seats. That’s always good.”

Candidate Tom Troyer concurred.

“Turn out definitely seems good today,” he said. “I’m glad the people came out.”

Further strong evidence of high voter turn out could be found at Huber Street School, where a line of voters stretched out of the polling place doors towards the end of voting hours at 8 p.m. The school is the sole polling place for the 2nd Ward, home of the most closely watched council election in Secaucus due to the candidacy of Gonnelli. It was at the school, surrounded by his friends and allies, where Gonnelli realized that he had won due to unofficial results derived from the voting machines by 8:15 p.m.

The first words of the councilman-elect were filled with joy and relief.

“I feel like a million bucks,” Gonnelli said. “I’m glad that people didn’t believe all of the rhetoric that was put out there. I attribute this victory to my reputation, my worth ethic, and everything I’ve ever done for the community. People don’t forget that stuff.”

Long faces

It was definitely an Election Night that Secaucus would not forget. Inside the La Reggia Restaurant, the tone was somewhat somber as the Elwell Team and their supporters gathered. Although Grecco and Kickey did not comment immediately about their electoral setbacks, both councilmen commented the next day at the town council meeting.

“I want to congratulate Gary Jeffas on his election yesterday,” Grecco said before a council audience of approximately 50 people. “Secaucus will have a very good representative in Gary. He’s a good man.”

Kickey later offered similar comments.

“It was a very hotly contested election,” he said. “And the end of the day, the people decided what they wanted. I congratulate Mr. Gonnelli. I hope he does a good job, which I’m sure he will. I wish him all the luck in the world over the next four years.”

John Shinnick, the lone victorious member of the Elwell Team, set a conciliatory tone for the days ahead.

“I think I ran a good, positive campaign,” he said. “Everyone who ran cares about Secaucus. I hope that we can move forward and put the town through a healing process. I hope that we don’t become a council fighting over political differences all of the time. We’re there for the good of the town and to do what’s best for the town.”

Bright smiles

Meanwhile, while coffee spoons dinged disconsolately at La Reggia, there were smiles on Paterson Plank Road.

At the Take Back Secaucus party at the Masonic Temple on Election Day night, grins glowed and libations flowed as the newly elected councilmen celebrated their victories.

George Spangenberg mentioned a notable undercurrent of discontent in the town that contributed to the election results.

“At the town council meetings, they just do what they want to do without regard to what the people say,” he said. ‘The people put them in there. Now the people just turned around and told some of them that they are not going to be there anymore.”

Gary Jeffas discussed why he believed that he and Gonnelli will be there on the council.

“I chalk up our victory to people in town really wanting a change and us offering the change that they want,” he said. “The high turn out I think showed that. People got up off of their couches that hadn’t voted in the past to make sure that change would happen.”

While Dr. Berckes will not take a council seat in January, he looked back with pride and forward with hope.

“I have no regrets,” he said. “I learned a lot that I can bring back to my school and tell them what it’s like to put your hat in the ring. I had a great run with Gary and Mike, and they will get the remaining council members to see things the way the people want it to be seen. Secaucus is in very good hands with them.”

With a council seat put firmly in his hands, Gonnelli reflected on why voter turn out and his margin of victory were so significant.

“It was the first really contested election in Secaucus in many years,” he said. “People know me. I’ve been here my whole life. I think it showed.”

Sam Maffei looked at the results and thought that they showed the way to a different political future for the town.

“This will start a new beginning for Secaucus,” he said. “This is a movement towards a new mayor. No doubt about it.”


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