When Jersey City police Det. Sean Connors recently walked into Gino’s Pizzeria in the Heights section of Jersey City, he wasn’t there to take a statement. He was there to register a complaint.
“Nick Sacco has three jobs,” he said. “There are only so many hours in a day. Something has to suffer.”
With that salvo, Connors succinctly stated why he is running for state Senate in the 32nd legislative district, which includes the Heights section of Jersey City, and all of North Bergen and Secaucus.
The June 5 Democratic primary election is coming up for a host of state legislative and county offices, and Connors is part of the Democrats For Hudson County (DFHC) ticket that is facing the long-standing Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO).
In the 32nd District, that includes an array of incumbents, including state Sen. Sacco, a 13-year incumbent. Sacco is also the mayor of North Bergen and a school administrator.
The DFHC is the umbrella organization headed by Union City Mayor and 33rd District Assemblyman Brian Stack.
Connors is joined on the 32nd District slate by two Assembly candidates: former Secaucus Board of Education member Tom Troyer, and North Bergen resident Marisa Suarez.
Sacco is running with incumbent Assemblywoman Joan Quigley, a Jersey City resident, and Secaucus resident Vincent Prieto.
Born at the Margaret Hague
A Jersey City native, Connors, 38, was born at the famous and now closed Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital. A graduate of Hudson Catholic High School, Connors attended Hudson County Community College for a year before he joined the Hudson County Police Department. He subsequently joined the Jersey City Police Department in 1994. Connors was promoted to the rank of detective in 2002. He lives in Jersey City Heights.
Connors is active in many local civic groups and neighborhood associations, including the Heights Hope Neighborhood Association, the Pershing Field Friends of the Flower Garden, the Pershing Field Little League, the Washington Park Little League, St. Nicholas Seniors, the Jersey City Police North District Meeting group and the P.S. 8 Neighborhood Block Association.
Connors pointed to his work with these groups as a source of grass-roots support that convinced him to start campaigning.
“You get feedback on what takes place in the community,” he said. “One of the best sources for information is meeting with constituents that go to the block association meetings. If someone goes to these meetings, you know they care and take pride in their neighborhood.”
Connors’ critique of Sacco
Connors initially focused on Sacco’s employment trifecta when asked why he believes that he is the better man for the job.
“The first two jobs that Sacco has are the mayor of North Bergen and the assistant superintendent of schools,” he said. “These jobs are very time consuming. The third job that he has is state Senator, and that’s where he’s lacking in time and effort. If you look at the total hours in a day and in a work week, he’s neglecting the residents of the 32nd District, including the people of North Bergen.”
Connors pointed to one instance he feels demonstrates the negative side effects of there not being 25 hours in a day for Sacco.
“Look at the Christmas tree fund,” he said, a reference to the controversial items placed in the New Jersey state budget by legislators for a particular benefit to their districts. These items are now under close scrutiny from the U.S. attorney in New Jersey, Christopher Christie. “For the last three years, Hudson County received $15 million through federal funds. In our district, Jersey City, North Bergen and Secaucus, which have a combined population of over 300,000, had to share $4.2 million. West New York (which is in the 33rd District) was provided with $7.2 million and has a residential population of about 50,000. So Sacco is either lacking interest in the 32nd District, or he just doesn’t care about it.”
One thing that Connors suggests that Sacco does care about it is getting his political allies jobs. A recent list of employees at the Hudson County Schools of Technology, located in North Bergen, revealed an extensive list of Hudson County politicians, or those who have political ties, on the payroll.
“It’s a patronage mill,” Connors said. “When I walk the streets of the district, I hear that North Bergen is controlled by Sacco, who controls the jobs. He’s running his town and the 32nd District with an iron claw.”
He added, “I’m a fresh start. With a fresh approach, we can get rid of corruption inside of the government. If we can start on this state level, it will transcend down to the local levels.”
Although Connors is quite critical of the number of jobs Sacco holds, he has a somewhat different view of the common New Jersey practice that makes it possible.
“I don’t know if they should pass legislation to ban dual office holding,” he said. “We shouldn’t take any right away from the voters. But we should be able to correct someone having two to three state pensions. I’m not running to pad my pension. I’m all for doing whatever it takes to establish one pension for a state government employee. That is it.”
Connors’ vision for the 32nd district
Regarding what he would do if elected, Connors began with the question of where the Hudson County Schools of Technology should move to, a possibility that has arisen in recent months.
“If you move the school to the Laurel Hill County Park area in Secaucus, sooner or later the entire park will turn into the school campus, which means limited space for the public,” he said. “There is space currently on County Road in Jersey City near the Clipper Exxpress freight forwarding company that should be explored. This way, the school wouldn’t interrupt neighborhoods and or take away from the general public’s use of Laurel Hill Park.”
Many local jobs are located in the Meadowlands, but the public transportation options to get to them for people in the 32nd district are limited. Connors suggested some possible solutions.
“Until the light rail is up and running out there, we should supply satellite shuttle areas,” he said. “We could designate high commuter traffic areas at points in North Bergen or Secaucus in order to maximize what we have available in public transportation to get people to work in the Meadowlands.”
Connors has an open mind concerning the various development and redevelopment projects being built or proposed in the Meadowlands.
“There are pro and cons to everything,” he said. “The Xanadu project could hurt small businesses, but it could also bring in tax revenues and keep people from shopping in New York. A lot of people complain about getting out to Continental Arena, saying that it’s isolated due to limited transportation. Redevelopment may be a good idea, and I think that Assemblyman Louis Manzo’s idea to put slot machines in the Meadowlands could help. It doesn’t hurt the area at all. I support him on that type of legislation.”
Manzo is running for state Senate in the 31st district as part of the DFHC slate.
Crime, taxes and residency requirements
Connors remains an active member of the Jersey City police force, currently working an 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift in order to both be a policeman and a politician without conflict. Connors has some very clear ideas about what he would like to do as an Assemblyman concerning law enforcement.
“The juvenile justice system isn’t working,” he said. “The delinquency rate for the last 10 to 12 years has increased dramatically, but nobody’s combating that. With the escalation of gang violence and other violent crime, we have to respond. We are going to have to consider some juvenile delinquencies as adult crimes. But at the same time, we have to enhance education programs. The biggest time kids get into trouble is from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. when they are out of school with no adult supervision. We have to set up more plans for them with recreation and the libraries. We have to give kids an opportunity to flourish and not be lured by the bad side.”
Another way that Connors thinks that all district residents will have a better chance to flourish is by reducing the tax burden on them.
“It’s the lower and middle income level people that are always getting hit in the pocket for taxes,” he said. “We’re not getting anything near what New York gets back from the Port Authority into our state and county budgets. Before we go into the pockets of the residents of Hudson County and New Jersey, we have to go into the pockets of the Port Authority. If it’s $6 for a car to go through the Holland Tunnel, as assessment of $1.50 to come back to our budget process isn’t a bad idea to request. We should get our fair share.”
While Connors believes district residents should get their fair share, he also believes that they have to truly set down roots here in order to fully benefit.
“I think we should create residential requirements for city and county employment,” he said. “Any new hire should go through a five-year requirement so that we can get tax revenue from the people living here, as well as the benefits of what they put back into the community economically. Also, when government employees see something in their communities that needs work, they’re going to take action. Everybody’s quality of life is enhanced by that.”
Connors also believes that a 311 non-emergency municipal services number should be put in place in his district, “just like New York.”
Background a boon, not a burden
Connors is not entirely new to the political scene. Political observers have often discussed his name as a potential aspirant to the Jersey City Ward D-Heights council seat, currently held by William Gaughan, Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise’s chief of staff.
And in a county where blood ties often lace into local politics, there is a sense of irony pervading Connor’s run. His uncle is Thomas Cowan, the noted labor leader who served for 10 years as the state Senator from the 32nd District until Sacco defeated him in the 1993 Democratic primary.
However, Connors made it known that neither other ambitions nor family revenge are the sources of his political motivation.
“No revenge, just better government,” he said. “But I am pro-labor. I’m an elected union delegate for the Jersey City Police Officer Benevolent Association. Labor shouldn’t be neglected, because it’s the backbone of Hudson County.”
Connors continued, “My candidacy in the 32nd district is based upon what I want to change with legislation in Trenton. So when people say I’m running to enhance my political career, I say I’m looking to run and to win so I can enhance the quality of life in my district. I can’t get to 2009 [a reference to the next Jersey City municipal elections] before I go through 2007, just like anyone else.”
A call to get involved
Connors is hoping to represent a district that includes not only Secaucus, North Bergen and the Heights section of Jersey City, but also the Hudson County municipalities of East Newark, Harrison and Kearny, as well as Fairview in Bergen County. While these municipalities have their differences, Connors is seeing a lot of common themes.
“A lot of concerns that I hear about when I walk down Central Avenue in Jersey City are very similar to ones I hear when I walk down Centre Avenue in Secaucus,” he said. “Our problems are neighboring.”
As a lifelong resident of Jersey City, Connors can’t help but notice that he has new neighbors as a result of the revitalization and real estate boom there. While Connors is well-versed in the old Hudson County, he paused before hitting the streets again to appeal to the new Hudson County.
“You have to go door to door and find out what’s on their agenda,” he said. “Until you ask a person, you’re never going to find out. And if we don’t make them aware of local issues, they’re never going to address them. It’s a shame that some people think that [New York City] Mayor Mike Bloomberg is the mayor here in Jersey City. We have to give the new people every reason to get involved. That’s what I plan on doing. I’m 150 percent committed to this.”
The Reporter will profile State Sen. Sacco in a future issue. Mark J. Bonamo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.