The status of Hudson County’s most powerful people rises and falls from year to year. Some are more relevant one year and less so the next.
Influence can mean different things, not only political power. Artists, activists, and not-for-profits influence the lives of the public over the course of the year, sometimes more significantly than it would appear on the surface.
Each January, our editorial staff spends several grueling meetings ranking the county’s most influential people. This is our fifth annual list. Last year saw dramatic changes in nearly every way – shifts in influence, scandals, and truces – setting the stage for events that are to unfold in 2016. We believe our list reflects those shifts.
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1. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (No. 1 last year) Although indicted by the federal Department of Justice for allegedly helping a political contributor in exchange for gifts, Menendez remained a powerful voice for people inside outside Hudson County. Not only did he oppose President Barack Obama’s plans for Iran and Cuba, but Menendez served as leading advocate for immigrant rights. Behind the scenes, Menendez will likely play a critical role in bringing out the vote for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, and help the leadup to Steven Fulop’s 2017 run for governor. He continues to influence other Hudson County leaders, including Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, Rep. Albio Sires, Rep. Donald Payne, and through his surrogate Donald Scarinci, Mayor Felix Roque.
2. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (No. 3 last year) Gearing up for a run for governor in 2017, Fulop has put together a powerful coalition of urban leaders inside and outside of Hudson County. He has also taken a strong stance on key issues such as expanding public transportation and the development of casinos in Jersey City and other communities in northern New Jersey. With Jersey City development at a historic pace, Fulop will likely enter the governor’s race as mayor of the most populous city in the state. Development is widespread not just along the waterfront but also in areas like Journal Square. This guarantees Fulop strong support from trade unions.
3. State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco (No. 4 last year) As state senator and North Bergen mayor, Sacco has huge influence throughout the county, but in particular among North Hudson municipalities such as Guttenberg, North Bergen, and West New York. Sacco has strong allies throughout Hudson County, in particular Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto, Fulop, Rep. Albio Sires, and most if not all of the North Hudson mayors. Sacco continues to wear a variety of hats as the director of elementary and secondary education in North Bergen and as a state senator representing Legislative District 22, comprising much of Hudson and parts of Bergen counties. He has been a commissioner in North Bergen since 1985 and mayor since 1991. This year he was reelected and appointed mayor for the ninth time, amidst an increased show of interest in the downtown sections of North Bergen. In this year’s election his ticket included Julio Marenco, whose election as commissioner brought a balance of three Latinos out of five to the commission, reflecting the demographics of the township and coinciding with Sacco’s increased focus on providing more services and outreach downtown and to the Hispanic community.
4. Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto (No. 5 last year) Having just begun his second term as Assembly speaker in January, Prieto has indicated that he is focusing much of his attention on New Jersey’s transportation funding crisis, as the state’s Transportation Trust Fund stumbles toward running out of money by mid-year. Among his other top priorities are controlling property taxes, creating jobs, boosting the state’s economy, and fighting poverty and gun violence. Last year Prieto was elected to his third term as chair of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), making him one of the top decision-makers in the county. Also a construction code official in Secaucus, where he lives, Prieto is a strong proponent of expanding gambling beyond Atlantic City and potentially into the Meadowlands and Hudson County.
5. State Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack (No. 7 last year) With political peace brokered over the last two years with Sacco, Stack has become a significant contributor to advances in North Hudson. Although Stack’s primary interest is in Union City, the appointment of Tilo Rivas as chair of the Hudson County Board of freeholders comes at a critical time when many significant projects will begin. Redistricting of his legislative district has given Stack an increased presence in Jersey City and will give him a greater say over who will replace Fulop as Jersey City mayor if Fulop becomes the Democratic nominee for governor. Stack is also expected to play an important role in helping Gov. Christie’s bid to become president both in the primary and possibly the presidential election in November.
6. Gov. Christopher Christie (No. 2 last year) With Christie largely in a lame duck mode as governor and out of the state most of the time trying to run for president, his influence on the day-to-day life in Hudson County has diminished. Although poised to become one of the most powerful people in the nation if he becomes the GOP nominee for president, Christie will continue to fade as a local power figure. His control over the state budget and aid for victims of Hurricane Sandy still gives him a significant amount of influence in various municipalities. He will be expected to tap his local allies, such as Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli and state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack, in his primary run for president.
7. Local health care companies and hospitals (No. 8 last year) Health care in Hudson County remains one of the significant issues for local residents. CarePoint – which owns Bayonne Medical Center, Hoboken University Medical Center, and Christ Hospital of Jersey City – and Jersey City Medical Center-Barnabas have expanded to take over the practices of many local physicians and labs, while hospitals like Palisades Medical Center and Meadowlands Medical Center continue to provide services to their portions of the county. But it is a precarious balancing act, especially with recently-enacted state legislation that will change some of the rules for not-for profit hospitals.
8. Hudson County development companies (and development activists) (No. 10 last year) While Jersey City is in the biggest expansion in its history, development is playing a key role throughout Hudson County, particularly along the waterfront in Guttenberg, West New York, Weehawken, Hoboken, Jersey City and Bayonne. KRE has topped off the first of three planned towers for Journal Square, while other projects such as The One, Haborside, and the second Trump Tower compete for tallest building bragging rights in the Power House Arts district. But development is also occurring in other areas of Jersey City and the county, in inland areas that few people expected to see transformed so soon. A batch of Bayonne developers have laid out plans to finally build on the former Military Ocean Terminal, while at the same time proposing projects that could revive the historic Broadway shopping district. Bijou Properties had a hand in a number of private developments in Hoboken that include office space, retail, a gym, parking garages, and residential buildings. Also growing in power were development activists, who have taken on the role of watchdogs in making sure the development has a positive impact in those communities. Some of these include Mary Ondrejka (Hoboken), Ron Hine (Hoboken), and Joshua Breakstone (West New York/Boulevard East area).
9. Esther Suarez (New) While Suarez is the first female prosecutor for Hudson County, she is expected to leave her mark on the county through significant changes she may bring to the office over the next year. She is known as a tough and aggressive attorney, and many see her doing the same as prosecutor. With close ties to Stack and Menendez, Suarez has significant political clout to get her job accomplished.
10. Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli (No.12 last year) Gonnelli won a major victory last year when Gov. Christie consolidated the Meadowlands Commission and the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (NJSEA), in the process eliminating the decades-old policy of tax sharing. Gonnelli had been the most vocal opponent of tax sharing, which cost Secaucus, North Bergen, and other communities many millions of dollars over the years. He is expected to be named as a commissioner on the NJSEA imminently, giving him even more power within Hudson and Bergen counties. Meanwhile Secaucus continues to be a leader in environmental stewardship and in help for the needy throughout the region, providing extensive assistance following tragedies like Sandy and the Avalon fire. Through it all, Secaucus continues to have the lowest taxes in the county and to land on lists like “best places to live in New Jersey” and “happiest places in the state.”
11. Rep. Albio Sires and Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner (No. 10 last year) Although powerful in their own right, Sires and Turner–his chief of staff–have expanded their influence over the last year, helping to reinvent West New York as well as oversee development along the waterfront. With their ally Caridad Rodriguez as freeholder, the two men have influence throughout Hudson County.
12. Newark Archbishop John Myers (new) Leader of Hudson’s Catholics, Myers was the architect of the controversial Bayonne church consolidation. He also regains additional clout with the death of Hudson County Bishop Thomas Donato, lightning rod for Catholic angst, with reports of his building of a retirement home. Changes are expected to be felt throughout Hudson County as the church consolidates its resources.
13. Sam Pesin (new) As president of the Friends of Liberty State Park, Pesin managed to put together a coalition of artists, politicians, and environmentalists in 2015 to oppose a proposed plan to commercialize portions of the park. This put Pesin in opposition to some of the most powerful political figures in Hudson County and the state – including Christie.
14. Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise (No. 13 last year) Reelected to what may be his last term in office as county executive, DeGise will oversee the construction of a new Schools of Technology campus in Secaucus and the first steps for a new court house complex on Newark Avenue. Seen largely as a stabilizing force in Hudson County, DeGise has done much to help resolve some of the political conflicts in North Hudson, expanding a period of political peace.
15. Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer (No. 14 last year) In November, Zimmer was able to increase her City Council 5-4 majority into a 7-2 “super majority.” She wielded power by touting the Rebuild by Design flood protection plan for the coastline, made steps toward creating three flood-mitigating parks, launched a bike share program, and named an official car sharing operator. With the force of a wealthy economy behind her, Zimmer has the potential to influence county spending and the impact of county tax burdens on municipalities. An outspoken critic of the current taxing formula, Zimmer could be a standard bearer for change on at state level. But Zimmer will likely have to develop a working relationship with newly elected council member Ruben Ramos Jr. and newly appointed council president Jen Giattino to get some of this done.
16. School boards (No. 15 last year) With the trend towards elected boards expanding to Bayonne this year, school boards have the potential to change the educational landscape, and wrest control of school districts away from the traditional mayoral puppeteering. Battles over the impact of charter schools in Hoboken, or retaining of superintendents in Jersey City and Bayonne, are among the serious issues these school boards must face in the upcoming year.
17. Freeholders Tilo Rivas and Anthony Vainieri (No. 16 last year) The reorganization of the Freeholder board this year has once again steered control towards North Hudson. Rivas’ appointment as chairman returns the center of power back to North Hudson at a time when the new schools of technology is expected to break ground in Secaucus and significant progress towards development of the new county court house is expected to happen in 2016. Named as vice chairman of the Hudson County Freeholders, Vainieri’s real influence will likely be felt most in 2017 when he inherits the chairmanship. But with so many huge issues facing Hudson County, he will have a big say in setting the stage this year.
18. Hudson County arts community (Same as last year) The arts community – including Elizabeth Cain, Christine Goodman, Silverman, Mana, White Eagle Hall, North Hudson arts programs, and some county arts and other programs that originate in Bayonne – has expanded as city centers grow in population. These are helping to shape the culture of a new urbanism in an attempt to rival New York City as a center for emerging arts.
Some of the leaders include Eric and Paul Silverman and the organizers of the Golden Door in Jersey City and studio tours in Jersey City and Hoboken. The NoHo in Union City and theater groups like Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre and Weehawken’s Hudson Theatre Group also keep the arts alive, as do a group of local galleries in those towns. Union City and Secaucus have hosted art shows and plays in their relatively new arts centers. The list includes longstanding groups like the Union City Chamber Players, the Park Players, the Hudson River Performing Arts Center while new groups like Guttenberg Arts put their small town on the arts map this year establishing the First Annual Braddock Park Arts Festival, which goes beyond Guttenberg itself. In Hoboken, artists and art aficionados made their voices heard last year during the deliberations for the future of the Neumann Leathers Building in the south edge of town, which will maintain its existing tenants according to a new redevelopment plan.
19. Vision Media and Axiom Communications (Same as last year) Behind the scenes and acting on behalf of some of the most powerful people in Hudson County, these companies and the political players who run them help shape the public view of government and elected officials. In many case, they work to shape the view of development in the county.
20. Local colleges (new) Although Hudson County only has a handful of colleges, some universities in the area were able to make their presence known on a wide scale last year. New Jersey City University opened a business school in Exchange Place, solidifying its footprint in the “Wall Street of the West,” and broke ground on the first part of a $400 million west campus. Meanwhile, Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken put in an application to finish its parking garage and was given the okay by the Zoning Board of Adjustment to construct a two-building Academic Complex.
21. Riaz Wahid and Esther Wintner, Jersey City activists (same as last year) These activists continue to work on behalf of the neediest in Hudson County, the homeless. Over the last two years, they were instrumental in lobbying the freeholders and other government officials into providing a warming center as well as providing necessities such as food and clothing.
22. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (new) will continue to play a significant role in development and transportation this side of the Hudson, including a new train tunnel and bridge renovations.
23. North Hudson Community Action Corporation (No. 23 last year) Tied into nearly every aspect of people’s lives in Hoboken, Jersey City, West New York, Union City, North Bergen and other towns, this group will play an increasing role in determining the health and well-being of the population. This is an organization that, like its counterpart the Bayonne Equal Opportunity Foundation in Bayonne, serves people who need low-cost health services. Local officials throughout Hudson County rely on this organization’s resources.
24. Joe DeMarco (No. 25) Currently business administrator in Bayonne, DeMarco has taken a leading role in helping to redevelop the Bayonne portion of the Gold Coast as well as its business district. He is the power behind Mayor James Davis, and may well be able to return Bayonne to its former glory, not just along the waterfront, but also along the Broadway shopping district.
25. The New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority (new) will also play a significant role in the lives of local residents. The NJSEA will oversee the sport complex in East Rutherford as well as Liberty State Park, and possible casino operations at both if approved by voters in November 2016.
Bayonne Mayor James Davis, Sen. Ray Lesniak, West New York Mayor Felix Roque, Fulop chief of staff Mark Albiez, Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff, Hoboken Councilman Michael Russo, head of the JC Redevelopment Agency David Donnelly, former Gov. Jim McGreevey, Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti, Assemblywoman Angela McKnight, Republican Matthew Kopko, State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, Freeholder Bill O’Dea, Freeholder Anthony Romano, Hoboken Councilman Ravi Bhalla, Newly-elected 33rd District Assemblywoman Annette Chapparo, 1st Ward Hoboken Councilman Michael DeFusco, Jersey City Schools Superintendent Marcia Lyles, North Bergen Concerned Citizens Group founder Larry Wainstein, and reform West New York school board member Matthew Cheng.