2015 was much ado about nothing
The title of the classic comedy by William Shakespeare pretty much sums up politics in Hudson County in 2015.
Despite promises of great change, we largely got more of the same.
Tom DeGise was re-elected as county executive. Mayor Dawn Zimmer not only maintained control of her City Council in Hoboken, but expanded her hold. West New York Mayor Felix Roque was reelected in a landslide, despite years of dire predictions that he could not retain his seat.
To be or not to be governor?
In one of the worst kept secrets of 2015, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop took one more hesitant step towards declaring his candidacy for the Democratic nomination to run for governor in 2017. For several years, he has been putting together a group of political operatives that will allow him to compete on the tougher state-level political chess board.
But he hasn’t had a completely smooth ride. Earlier this year, the mayor fired the Public Safety Department’s press person over alleged mixed messages issued to the press. It appeared to some that he was concerned about his image as crime became more visible in Jersey City. The small incident did allow Fulop to bring on Ryan Jacobs, a much higher profile PR man with Washington D.C. experience. Unfortunately, by year’s end Jacobs got an offer he couldn’t refuse to write a book about the 2016 presidential campaign and left the post on short notice.
Jersey City also had several PR gaffes. In June, Fulop ordered the firing of the head of the Recreation Department over the failure to remove a registered sex offender from one of the programs. Angst in his relationship with the African-American community grew when Fulop’s Workforce Development director, Jim McGreevey, attempted to locate a prisoner reentry program next to a charter school.
Jersey City Councilman Khemraj “Chico” Ramchal also appeared to give the Fulop Administration another problem when he was arrested for an alleged DWI incident and was later fired from his Hudson County Improvement Authority job for allegedly failing to be where he was supposed to be in a county vehicle.
On the plus side for Fulop, he fulfilled nearly all of his mayoral campaign promises and moved forward personally, becoming engaged to his live-in girlfriend. He is uniquely poised for a 2017 run. (See more on Fulop’s accomplishments in the Jersey City stories of the year.)
Bloody battle in the 31st District
Early in 2015, the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) announced that they would not support current Assemblymen Jason O’Donnell and Charles Mainor. But it took a few weeks to sort out just who the HCDO would support, since Fulop kept changing his candidate from the Jersey City portion of the 31st District.
The HCDO eventually supported Nick Chiaravalloti and Angela McKnight. But the general election proved far less tranquil than usual when Republican candidate Matthew Kopko waged all-out war on the Democrats. While the attack was ruthless, it proved ineffective, and the Democrats easily won.
DeGise represents political stability
DeGise, of course, is a bellwether for the status quo, a man who most represents the mainstream of Hudson County politics, where the mayors of the 12 municipalities serve as the real sources of power. The 12 princes in 12 little fiefdoms bicker among themselves, but ultimately they decide the direction of county politics.
While rumors circulated early in the year about a possible replacement for DeGise, ultimately DeGise’s fate was decided when North Hudson’s mayors rallied behind him. Once the political machine – with state Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto’s hand on the controls – decided on DeGise, the election was largely a formality.
All’s well that ends well
A similar sequence of events coalesced in West New York to help get Roque reelected. Once seen as unelectable, Roque was saved by behind-the-scenes maneuvering by the chief power brokers in North Hudson. Early in the year, these brokers gradually dismantled the political machine that helped Roque win in 2011, and replaced the key players with more acceptable people. Roque had earlier managed to offend nearly all of the power brokers at one point or another during his first four years, and spent a good portion of the last two years mending fences.
One by one, the inner structure of his administration got new faces, but the takeover was completed with the naming of his ticket that included people selected by Rep. Albio Sires, state Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, and state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack.
Although Roque faced serious challengers that included his former arch rival, Commissioner Count Wiley, by the end of the year Roque and Wiley had kissed and made up, a true ending to a romantic comedy, if not exactly of Shakespearean caliber.
Not all is well that ends well for Roque, however, since he still faces state charges resulting from a widespread sting operation involving doctors and testing clinics throughout New Jersey. Roque, however, said he felt optimistic that he will be eventually exonerated. Roque beat federal charges in 2013 after being accused of conspiracy to hack into a political opponent’s website.
Split anti-Zimmer camp still haunted by petty differences
Hoboken proved to be the most illusory of the political battles fought over the last year. The opponents of Mayor Zimmer failed to learn the harsh lesson of 2013, when their divisions allowed Zimmer and her full ticket to sweep into office.
Although Councilman Michael Russo managed to get reelected, anti-Zimmer council members Terry Castellano and Tim Occhipinti were defeated. Former Assemblyman Ruben Ramos (a political foe of Zimmer) managed to win a three-way race in the 4th Ward, but he could not help Peter Biancamano win in the 2nd Ward, a seat left open by Councilwoman Beth Mason’s decision not to run. Despite a lot of rhetoric and claims of support, Carmelo Garcia could not overcome popular incumbent Jennifer Giattino in the 6th Ward. By the end of the day, Zimmer-aligned candidates controlled seven of the nine seats for a super majority.
This election bodes ill for future anti-Zimmer efforts, since Ramos is expected to run for mayor in 2017 and so is Freeholder Anthony Romano – in what could largely be a repeat of 2013.
Didn’t somebody once say, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it?”
Wainstein edges closer
Like Hoboken, North Bergen became a significant battleground when perennial gadfly Larry Wainstein challenged Sacco. These two have been rivals for years. While Sacco people claim Wainstein did not do as well as Wainstein claims, after the election the Sacco Administration began to pay a lot more attention to the south side of North Bergen, an area out of which Wainstein drew much of his support.
This year saw the resignation of longtime Commissioner Theresa Ferraro, who later passed away. Julio Marenco replaced her as a commissioner and later as part of the Sacco ticket.
You, too, Brutus?
This year was not without its drama.
The most significant was apparently the showdown between U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez and President Barack Obama over policies regarding Cuba and Iran. Menendez sided with Republican legislators in opposing opening diplomatic relations and other issues in Cuba as well as questioning the nuclear deal with Iran. Since Menendez is a Democrat and at the time was chairman of the senate Foreign Relations Committee, this must have seemed like a significant betrayal to a president seeking to build a historic legacy.
Menendez was also indicted by the Justice Department for allegedly taking gifts from a political donor. This sets the stage for potential GOP and Democratic hopefuls to seek his seat if he is convicted.
School politics in Secaucus
Nearly all of the political action in Secaucus involved the Board of Education. The district moved its elections from April to November. The school superintendent resigned to take up a post in another district, resulting the appointment of an interim super. A full search for a new superintendent will begin in earnest in 2016.
In Guttenberg, Councilman Efran Velez resigned and was replaced by Wayne Zitt. While the small town held a school board election with all new faces, the three candidates were uncontested.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.