Among the political offices being contested in the upcoming June 5 Democratic primary, Hudson County executive entails administering operations over this county of 620,000 residents.
Running for the four-year term are incumbent Tom DeGise and challenger Noemi Velazquez.
DeGise, 56, the one-time Jersey City Council president and former schoolteacher, has served as county executive since winning a special election in November 2002 to serve out the remainder of former county executive and jailed felon Robert Janiszewski’s term.
DeGise was then re-elected to a full, four-year term in November, 2003.
Velazquez, also 56, has served as an educator and administrator in the Jersey City Public School system since 1979 and has been involved in numerous Latino and women’s community organizations. She currently serves as special assistant to the associate superintendent of the Department of Programs and Services for the Jersey City schools.
Interestingly, Velazquez last ran for political office in 2001 for the Ward E council east in Jersey City on a ticket led by DeGise, who was at the time a mayoral candidate.
DeGise is running with the backing of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, while Velazquez is the candidate for the recently-formed Democrats for Hudson County, a group led by Union City Mayor and State Assemblyman Brian Stack.
DeGise and Velazquez spoke to the Jersey City Reporter last week about why they are running and what they will accomplish if elected to a four-year term.
In his office last week, DeGise admitted that as he runs for county executive, there is still regret over not being in his dream position – mayor of his hometown of Jersey City. DeGise ran for the 2001 mayoral race but lost in a runoff against the eventual winner, late mayor Glenn D. Cunningham.
He said he would like to hold on to the county executive’s seat for another four years, as he has “unfinished business” to complete.
“With time, I have found a lot of goals that I am in process of achieving and would like to see finished,” DeGise said. “From a personal standpoint, the style of being a county executive suits me better, and I would rather be here than being mayor.”
Degise graduated from St. Michael’s High School in Union City and St. Peter’s College in the class of 1972. By 1976, DeGise was teaching in the Jersey City school system, and over the next 26 years did stints at Dickinson, Lincoln and Snyder high schools.
It was during his time as an educator that he started dabbling in the world of politics, starting with a failed run for the Ward D City Councilman’s seat in 1989. But he won a city councilman-at-large seat running on former Mayor Bret Schundler’s ticket in 1993.
Over the next eight years, DeGise served in the City Council president’s chair where he says with pride he never “missed a vote, a caucus meeting or even an abstention.”
DeGise also said serving on the City Council had prepared him for his current job.
If re-elected, DeGise said that one of his most rewarding accomplishments will be to see more affordable housing built under the Hudson County Ten-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness. In his State of the County Address in January, DeGise called Governor Corzine to “create a statewide system of county-based Trust Funds to prevent and end homelessness.”
“We’re convinced [trust funds] is the way to deal with the problem that is nationwide, but is a particular problem in places like Hoboken and Jersey City,” DeGise said.
DeGise said he would also continue to advocate for construction of new county parks and open space such as a nine-hole golf course near Lincoln Park West in Jersey City. DeGise created an Open Space Trust Fund in 2003, a small additional tax each year to generate funds solely dedicated to open space and historic preservation.
On the issue of education, DeGise wants to continue in office to oversee the construction of the new $55 million North Hudson campus of Hudson County Community College in Union City.
DeGise also is looking forward to the relocation of county employees from the Welfare Division and several other county departments from leased spaces throughout Hudson County and into the old Block Drug building on Cornelison Avenue in Jersey City by 2009.
DeGise also wants to pursue the consolidation of services in county government as called for by Corzine. The county has received a $300,000 state grant to study consolidation.
“We have hired a consultant and we are working with each of the towns to identify areas in which we can consolidate services,” DeGise said. “We are on the front burner when compared to other counties in the state.”
As far as his re-election efforts are concerned, DeGise said he is plans to campaign more heavily in North Hudson and to introduce himself to the Latino population, although he points out that several of his department directors were Latino. Latino political and community leaders held a rally for DeGise in Jersey City on Monday.
He said he also plans to run a “positive” campaign and “will not have a negative word” to offer about his opponent. But he did say of Velazquez, “My opponent will say what she wants to do, and I will say I have already done that.”
When Noemi Velazquez was asked why she was running for county executive, she shot back, “Why not?”
It was a warm Sunday morning at La Conguita Restaurant on First Street in Jersey City as Velazquez, with political advisor Roberto Cruz sitting by her side, enjoyed breakfast while spelling out why is running for county executive.
“I think I am the better choice,” Velazquez said. “I will bring the experience that I have from a lifetime of serving the public.”
Velazquez is a native of El Coqui Salinas, Puerto Rico. She immigrated with her parents to the United States in the late 1950s to Buffalo, N.Y. Velazquez studied at the University of Puerto Rico before completing her studies at SUNY-Buffalo with a degree in secondary education, then returned later to earn another degree in bilingual elementary education.
All during college and into her professional life as a Jersey City school employee, Velazquez has been a community organizer.
Among the groups she has been involved in are PACO (Puertorriquerios Asociados for Community Organization) based in Jersey City, WAGG (Women Advocating for Good Government), and The ASPIRA Association, and is the co-founder of the New Jersey Hispanic Research and Information Center.
Velazquez said she will make the county’s schools a priority if elected. The Hudson County school system operates nine schools throughout Hudson County, including, for instance, High Tech High School.
Velazquez wants to help students who may be potential dropouts or struggling academically, to keep them from turning to crime.
“We need to find out the students’ interests, their intentions, in order to minimize the potential for dropouts and keep them focused,” Velazquez said.
Velazquez also looks to work on opening a separate county office to deal with new immigrants and getting them adjusted to living in a new county, if not a new country.
“We can’t work to scare them away, but must prepare them on the path to citizenship,” Velazquez said.
She also plans to build on the county’s plan for dealing with their homeless population, saying she would form a committee to look at how the county can build more affordable housing.
As for the county’s administration itself, Velazquez will seek to hire more women and people of color to head various county departments.
Velazquez said she will depend on a voter base of not just Latinos but also new citizens and middle-class voters. She has lived in West New York and North Bergen in the past, and has lived in Jersey City with her daughter for the last 10 years.
She said that what helps her is being on the same political ticket with seasoned politicos such as Stack and State Assemblyman Louis Manzo. But ultimately, it will come down to getting the public’s attention.
“I am extremely honored to be running with [Stack and Manzo] as they are excellent campaigners and they are trying to bring change and true inclusion to Hudson County politics,” Velazquez said. “But they didn’t just choose any Latina with a pulse. I have to go out and show people that they have a choice come this June.”
Asked about her chances against DeGise, an established candidate and still a friend of hers, she sounded a confident tone.
“I do plan to win,” Velazquez said. “No one runs to lose.” Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org