“Down here it’s just winners and losers, and don’t get caught on the wrong side of the line,” Bruce Springsteen once sang.
But in the primary elections for freeholder in Hudson County, the conflicts were far from that simple.
Some of the losers won strategic positions for future races, while others may have come to the end of their political careers.
Freeholder Anthony Romano took a significant risk in deciding to seek the Democratic nomination since the odds were against him. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop endorsed Phil Cohen. Traditionally, the Hudson County Democratic Organization and its chairman allow the mayors of each town to select the candidate.
Since District 5 is split between Hoboken and Jersey City Heights, Romano faced opposition by both mayors and the HCDO.
Normally, this would have been an insane move. But a number of factors made Romano’s job easier. First of all, a number of unions, who had backed Zimmer in the municipal election last November, felt betrayed when she seemed to revert to an anti-development stance. These unions not only put money behind Romano, but also provided him with support from some of the top political people in the state.
Second, many of the diverse political groups who oppose Zimmer, who have split before, gathered together behind Romano in part to deny Zimmer another victory. With one exception, Romano went into this election with a united Hoboken front that included Frank Raia, Carmelo Garcia, Michael Russo, Beth Mason, and others.
Third, Cohen himself gave Romano a boost. Cohen ran a campaign that sounded good to Zimmer reformers in Hoboken, and perhaps even the Riverview section of the Heights, but fell resoundingly flat with a number of others. Cohen kept talking about how bad a job the freeholder board was doing and how he was going to change it, while at the same time running with the support of those he was attacking.
Not only did the support from the HCDO dry up, some of those who should have supported Cohen went to Romano instead.
Even Mayor Steven Fulop seemed to back off – although for an entirely different reason. Fulop wanted Jeff Dublin off the freeholder board more than he cared about Romano, and so sent his workers to Wards A and F, leaving the Heights to go where they wished. While Cohen technically beat Romano in the Heights, most of these came from the Riverview section, while Romano drew strong support from Washington Park area, the business district, and other parts of the Heights. Jersey City Councilman Richard Boggiano was a strong supporter.
Romano’s victory not only assures him a freeholder seat but positions him as a political leader in Hoboken for the future.
Munoz couldn’t overcome the odds
Freeholder Jose Munoz, in defending his seat in District 7, had the most to lose, and he lost it. Although well-funded, Munoz could not overcome the combined political powers of the HCDO, Rep. Albio Sires, and nearly all of the North Hudson mayors. He also apparently was opposed by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.
While turnout was relatively light, Munoz lost several districts which he needed to win, while his opponent, Caridad Rodriguez, won in most districts to make up for those districts where Munoz did well. While Munoz only lost in West New York by about 200 votes, he could not make up for votes cast against him in Weehawken and Guttenberg.
“They had a lot of money and put out a lot of flyers,” Munoz said.
His trip to Cuba hurt him because it allowed the opposition to post flyers that had images of Munoz and Fidel Castro. In a community that had a lot of Cuban exiles, this was a powerful message. The opposition was able to paint him as a debtor for his problems with credit cards in college, and oddly as both a Communist and at the same time a member of the conservative Tea Party.
But ultimately, it was the Democratic ballot line he could not beat with U.S. Senator Cory Booker and Rep. Albio Sires at the top. People just voted down the line, which benefited Rodriguez, Munoz said.
In evaluating his loss, Munoz said he did things for the right reasons, but they were often politically damaging. He said many of the people who urged him to run didn’t come out, and some of those he thought would be allies worked against him.
Fonseca seen as big winner
But many people credit Pablo Fonseca with the win. Fonseca brought in people from other successful campaigns such as those for Booker and Ras Baraka in Newark.
Although involved in the 2011 Felix Roque election over then WNY Mayor Sal Vega, Fonseca was only doing logistics for the last two weeks.
“This is my first time running the whole drill in West New York,” he said. “We had a good plan and a good infrastructure, and some of the best people working for us. Mayor Roque also did a great job.”
Fonseca said he worked hand in hand with Paul Swibinski of Vision Media.
“Munoz spent a lot of money: $150,000 to $200,000,” Fonseca said. “He put out 12 mailers and ground pieces. He had an army on the street. But much of his campaign was negative. We ran a positive campaign. We stuck to issues. We showed Caridad’s record and took the message of stabilizing taxes to the people of West New York.”
But for Fonseca, this primary was a test for an even bigger election next year when the mayor and commissioner seats come up for reelection in WNY.
“This is a map for the future; it shows us our weaknesses and our strengths,” he said. “We went out and knocked on13,000 doors to get our message out. We had more signs than anybody has seen before. And if you think this was something, wait until 2015. I have a full year to put together that campaign.”
Jump start for Smith runoff in Bayonne
The decisive win of Ken Kopacz in the Bayonne Democratic primary may give Mayor Mark Smith’s team a head start the June 10 primary (Bayonne readers will see this after the election and will know if it’s true).
Smith and four of his five council candidates are locked in a tight race – although Smith people claim they have a significant lead. Kopacz – who Smith supported – won significantly in areas that were considered strong for Smith’s opponent, James Davis.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.