Temperatures are rising in North Bergen, and it’s not just the onset of spring. The upcoming municipal election on May 12 has pitted two vehemently opposed mayor/commissioner tickets against one another in an escalating war of words, with a wild card independent candidate waiting in the wings.
The North Bergen form of government calls for the election of five commissioners every four years. The commissioners then choose the mayor from among themselves, although it’s usually obvious during the election who will be mayor.
The election pits Mayor Nicholas “Nick” Sacco and his ticket against rival Lawrence “Larry” Wainstein and his “Lower Taxes Vote for Change” slate. Meanwhile independent candidate Enrique “Henry” Marrera has actively avoided postering and is conducting a low-key run for a seat.
Where does Wainstein live?
A big issue in the election is whether Wainstein lives in North Bergen. His wife lives in their house in Franklin Lakes and their children attend public school in that town as well.
“Larry lives in North Bergen,” insisted his spokesman, William Blakley, stating that Wainstein bought a new home in North Bergen about a year and a half ago. “Larry owns a home in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Larry and his family go there in the summertime.”
Wainstein’s wife lives in the house with his twin sons and infant daughter four nights a week, according to Blakley, returning to Wainstein’s North Bergen residence on Fridays.
The reason, Blakley said, is that “Larry has a child with a learning disability and North Bergen has one of the worst track records and worst systems for children with learning disabilities.”
“One of the reasons Larry is running is because he wants to correct the terrible school system in North Bergen,” he continued.
However, North Bergen has actually been praised for some of its special ed programs. North Bergen Representative Phil Swibinski responded that “the North Bergen Special Ed program is one of the very best in New Jersey, and it was one of only 12 programs out of over 600 awarded with a $100,000 grant from the State Department of Education in 2012 for its excellent performance and ‘high growth and proficiency with special education student populations.”
Mayor Nicholas Sacco’s team is pitted against challenger Larry Wainstein’s ticket, with Sgt. Henry Marrero as wild card.
Wainstein has filed a complaint with the State Department of Education alleging that Sacco, who also serves as assistant superintendent of schools in North Bergen and is a state senator, used his influence to get jobs for family members and friends in the Board of Education. He lists 13 names in the complaint. The complaint also alleges that Sacco created a new position for himself in the education system to circumvent a salary cap implemented by Gov. Chris Christie, and that school aides and teachers were subject to threats if they did not campaign for Sacco and his team.
Sacco’s representatives called the claims baseless and frivolous.
Soon after Wainstein filed the complaint, Sacco’s team called a press conference at a Laundromat in Union City owned by Larry Wainstein and presented a March 30, 2015 letter from a law firm representing the Union City Building Department, indicating that the original certificate of occupancy on the building had been revoked and a subsequent temporary one had expired. They also claimed the building housed more washing machines than allowed by the North Hudson Sewerage Authority.
Wainstein’s representatives responded that the business was operating legally and complied with all regulations, calling the press conference a publicity stunt.
Wainstein owns “roughly about 10 or 12” businesses, according to Blakley. (Wainstein himself did not return phone calls for comments.) “He’s in real estate, development, laundromats, check cashing, liquor stories” not only in North Bergen and Union City, but South Jersey and Sayreville.
Sacco has been a commissioner since 1985 and the mayor since 1991. He has also been a New Jersey senator since 1994.
His ticket for the upcoming election consists of current Commissioners Hugo Cabrera, Frank Gargiulo, and Allen Pascual, along with new candidate Julio Marenco, who is currently the president of the North Bergen Board of Education.
The commission and mayor jobs are considered part-time with salaries in the teens.
Marenco was added to the ticket to replace Commissioner Theresa Ferraro, who announced in February of this year she would not run for reelection. (Ferraro passed away on March 17.) The addition of Marenco means the ticket is 60 percent Latino.
The Sacco team raised more than 8,000 signatures per candidate in the three weeks before launching their run at a rally in Schuetzen Park, where they were endorsed by virtually every politician within driving distance, including mayors, senators, congressmen, the state Assembly speaker, the county executive, and more.
Sacco is used to coasting to victory. In the 2011 election his team racked up about 83 percent of the votes. Sacco personally garnered 9,488 votes, while his running mates each received about 9,000 votes. Their closest competitor got a little over 2,000 votes.
Sacco has released an upbeat cable TV ad called “Looking Good,” touting his team’s accomplishments, including “outstanding public schools, booming recreation programs [and] stable taxes with a zero percent tax increase 2015 budget.” A radio in Spanish has praised successful immigrant “Manuel Rodriguez,” a fictional character representing North Bergen residents who thrived in the township.
Wainstein became involved in North Bergen politics in 2011, founding the North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group (NBCCG) after a new liquor store was scheduled to open in a mall along Tonnelle Avenue across the street from a similar business Wainstein owns, Tonnelle Wine & Liquors. Critics have accused the NBCCG of being a front for Wainstein to stifle competition. He has since become an active and vocal critic of the Sacco administration.
Running alongside Wainstein are Juan Almanzar, Veronica Castrillon, Eduardo Cespedes, and Alcides Siri.
Wainstein’s platform calls for a tax reduction of approximately 30 percent for residents, along with elimination of parking fees for residents, and elimination of tax abatements for developers.
Henry Marrero: ‘Ethical Voice’
The outlier in the upcoming election is Enrique “Henry” Marrero, a sergeant in the North Bergen Police Department. Running solo against the two competing tickets, he has criticized both camps for the money they are “wasting” on posters.
Marrero ran last summer for District 8 Freeholder, losing by a wide margin to Anthony Vainieri in the Democratic primary. Early rumors hinted he would run for commissioner this year, either on Wainstein’s ticket or possibly replacing current Commissioner Frank Gargiulo on Sacco’s slate.
Instead he opted to go it alone. Heavily active on social media, Marrero has a Facebook page as the “Ethical Voice for the People of North Bergen.” His campaign goals include ending term limits, effectively restricting politicians to eight years in office.
“If you can’t implement your vision in eight years I think you should go,” he said.
Stating that he would refuse the paycheck that comes with the commissioner job and not accept a township vehicle, he also aims to eliminate the custom of allowing public employees to hold multiple jobs simultaneously.
Marrero has had his run-ins with the current administration as well. He filed a complaint in state Superior Court last year claiming to be the target of harassment by the Police Chief. Then, following his loss in the democratic primary, he sued the township and the North Bergen Democratic Municipal Committee, claiming that he and his supporters were harassed.
In a lawsuit filed with the U.S. District Court in New Jersey, he claimed that the defendants launched an internal affairs investigation of him based on trumped-up charges in order to destroy his professional career and political candidacy.
Representatives of the administration called the allegations baseless.
Asked whom he believed would best serve the people from among the other candidates in the upcoming election, Marrero told the North Bergen Reporter, “The best outcome is whatever the people want in the community. Whatever they select as the other four commissioners. I believe the people are voice of the community. They just have to come out and vote.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
School board candidate has criminal record
North Bergen Commissioners Hugo Cabrera and Allen Pascual, along with commissioner candidate Julio Marenco, called a press conference at the entrance of the high school on April 15 to announce their findings about school board candidate Jose Canonico, who is running on a ticket backed by their political opponents.
They presented documentation showing he had been arrested for an assault on a police officer in North Bergen in 1986 and then a burglary in Atlantic County the following year.
According to records from the Superior Court of New Jersey for Hudson County, provided by the Sacco team, Canonico entered a plea of guilty to an amended charge of simple assault in North Bergen for the police officer incident, and received probation for two years. He was then arrested the following year in Atlantic County for burglary and theft by unlawful taking and sentenced to six months in prison.
According to the report on the North Bergen assault, Canonico “repeatedly punch[ed] and kick[ed] the victim while he was standing and while he was on the ground, causing several contusions, abrasions and lacerations to the face and head of the victim.”
However, Canonico showed up at the press conference in person, stating that he would not withdraw his candidacy.
This led to an exchange after the press conference between Sacco campaign manager Paul Swibinski and Canonico.
Swibinski questioned Canonico about a mug shot of Canonico taken in North Bergen in 2006, asking what was the reason for the alleged arrest. Canonico stated that he did not remember the circumstances and would look into it.
Speaking to another reporter, Canonico called the assault “an unfortunate incident 28, 29 years ago,” and stated, “since then I’ve taken my life in a different direction.”
Canonico is running on the “Save Our Schools” slate along with Mary Luz Munoz and Jeanne Wesly. The three candidates were all recently endorsed by Larry Wainstein, leading the Sacco team to claim that Wainstein didn’t care about the children of North Bergen if he would back a convicted criminal for the board.
Sacco is backing three different candidates in the board election, which takes place on Tuesday, April 21. (See cover story in last week’s paper.)
Canonico did not respond to calls or emails for comment.