If anyone doubts Vincent Prieto’s ability to rebuild and resurrect the Secaucus Democratic Committee in the wake of electoral losses and the federal corruption sting that toppled Mayor Dennis Elwell in 2009, you’d never know it from talking to him.
Buoyant and upbeat about the local Democratic Party, Prieto, chairman of the local committee, believes voters shouldn’t write off Secaucus Democrats or count the party out.
A Secaucus resident and state assemblyman representing the 32nd District, he took over as committee chairman last summer after Elwell was arrested and chose to resign. Since then he has made a number of decisions that have proved controversial.
Elwell was arrested just months before a reelection campaign that had him leading a ticket of three Democratic Town Council candidates. Following Elwell’s arrest, Prieto made the decision not to replace him with another mayoral candidate. The three council candidates continued their campaigns, but were all defeated by an Independent slate headed by current Mayor Michael Gonnelli.
“The local [Democratic] party is alive and well.” – Vincent Prieto
“We’re rebuilding [the local Democratic party] as any organization would that’s gone through what we’ve gone through. There will be growing pains,” Prieto said last week. “But the local party is alive and well. I think we showed that in the [June] primaries. We got all our candidates in and we’re running our full slate. Right now, we’re getting a great reception as we go door to door talking to voters.”
He remains unshaken by the setbacks of 2009. “They say hindsight is 20/20, but if I had to do it all over again, I would do everything identically, in the same way. My emphasis has been on putting Secaucus first. To give you an example, having a mayoral candidate last year would have been a futile effort, and it would have further divided the town. This is a hometown community that needed a healing process to [begin]. That election was the start of that healing process. What I’ve been trying to do is put a new face on the Democratic Party and I think what you’ll find over time is more people coming back.”
And Prieto isn’t alone in his assessment.
Richard Steffens, an active party member who was appointed interim mayor last fall to serve out the remainder of Elwell’s term, said Prieto should be credited for rebuilding the party.
“He’s really brought the party further along than a lot of people may think,” said Steffens. “If you take a ride up Pandolfi Avenue or Meadow Lane I was pleasantly surprised that many residents still believe in the Democratic Party and have signs out. They’re able to understand that it has to be born again. I think he’s doing an excellent job. Just to see the number of people who are attending the meetings, it’s given everyone a little bit of renewed energy, especially the candidates.”
Several new members have joined the party in recent months, Steffens said.
But some in the party question whether Prieto’s new faces have been embraced while other longtime party members have been pushed aside.
The Secaucus Democratic Committee holds regular meetings throughout the year, but three formerly active party members said last week they are often not informed of upcoming meetings and usually hear about them too late to attend or after they’ve already happened.
Loyal foot soldiers in the party who were active in previous local elections – those who formed the backbone of the Secaucus “Democratic machine” – say that for the first time since they can remember they’ve not been asked to help a campaign.
Several party members contacted last week expressed exasperation or disgust with the Secaucus Democratic Committee before saying they didn’t want to be interviewed or “no comment.”
One Democrat who did not want to be quoted directly said Secaucus Democrats are almost evenly divided between those who are happy with the party’s current direction under Prieto and those who are not.
One area of skepticism for some longtime Elwell supporters, according to one source, is the apparent close working relationship the current Democratic organization has with the Gonnelli administration, which is mostly made up of Independents.
“There’s a collusion there that some people find troubling,” confirmed another source.
These skeptics point to several areas where the Democrats and Independents appear to overlap.
Specifically they point to the fact that former Elwell ally Susan Pirro, who ran in last year’s primary as a Democrat, is now the 3rd Ward Independent candidate for Town Council. Pirro’s Democratic opponent in November, Mark Bruscino, had also been considered for the Independent ticket.
In early 2009, when former 1st Ward Councilman Richard Kane resigned from the governing body, Elwell and the other three Democrats on the Town Council backed Dawn McAdam as Kane’s replacement. Gonnelli and his Independent allies on the council supported Robert Zych, now the Democratic candidate for 1st Ward.
Two Gonnelli supporters – John Scheiner and Marilyn DePice – were elected last year to the Secaucus Democratic Committee, and DePice now works in the mayor’s office.
And there have been reports dating back to summer 2009 that the Democrats have been trying to bring Gonnelli into the party.
Prieto: ‘Competitive, not negative’
Prieto admits that the Democratic Committee selected three council candidates “who can work well with the current administration, and I obviously have a good working relationship with the mayor.”
Because of Prieto’s multiple hats, it’s expedient for the two men to have a good working relationship. As a state assemblyman, the mayor needs Prieto’s help in Trenton. Prieto is the town’s building code official, making Gonnelli essentially his boss.
But, Prieto added, “this is an important election and we want our candidates to win…We’ve kept our campaign positive, by listening to residents and talking to them about their issues. But just because it’s positive doesn’t mean it isn’t competitive.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.