The Secaucus Democratic Committee has submitted the names of three candidates to be the town’s acting mayor through the end of the year. Richard Steffens, Robert Zych, and Ed Zloty made the short list of names submitted to the Town Council, which surprised many who had expected high profile party leaders Richard Kane, Peter Weiner, John Reilly, or John Shinnick to be among those selected.
The 28-person committee met last Monday to identify the three Democrats, one of whom will serve out the rest of the mayoral term of Dennis Elwell, who resigned from office three weeks ago after being arrested on bribery and corruption charges. His term ends December 31.
Deputy Mayor John Reilly, a councilman who represents the 3rd Ward, is currently temporary Acting Mayor. But since Elwell was elected as a Democrat, state law requires that the local Democratic committee identify three candidates to serve out the end of his term. These names are submitted to the Town Council for a vote. If no one candidate gets a majority of votes from the council, the decision reverts back to the Democratic committee, which will them select the permanent acting mayor.
Elwell’s July 23 indictment on bribery charges, and his subsequent resignation as mayor and chairman of the Secaucus Democratic Committee, has jolted the local Democratic Party and left it reeling just three months before an election.
Even before Elwell’s troubles unfolded, the former mayor and his slate of Town Council candidates faced a tough November election challenge from Independent mayoral candidate and 2nd Ward Town Councilman Michael Gonnelli, who is heading up his own slate of council candidates.
Elwell’s departure left the local party with the unenviable task of replacing him as party chairman, identifying candidates to serve out the rest of his mayoral term, and finding someone to head the Democratic ticket for the November election.
With Elwell out of the mayoral race, most Democrats admit Gonnelli will likely coast to an easy victory for the top spot. However, the party would still like to hang on to Town Councilwoman Dawn McAdam’s seat in the 1st Ward and Reilly’s seat in the 3rd. Local Democrats would also like for newcomer Frank Trombetta to defeat incumbent 2nd Ward Councilman John Bueckner.
McAdam, Trombetta, and Reilly had been running on Elwell’s slate and many Democrats believe the party needs a smart strategy to prevent a Gonnelli sweep on November 3.
Local Democrats are also concerned about what a Gonnelli sweep might mean for Gov. Jon Corzine’s reelection bid against Republican Christopher Christie.
“It doesn’t make sense to make one person acting mayor, then have someone different be the candidate for mayor in November,” said one Democratic leader last week. “It makes more sense to make someone acting mayor, let that person grow into the job and demonstrate to voters what he can do. Then let that person run for a full term.”
A strategy dispute
But State Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32nd Dist.), the new chairman of the Secaucus Democratic Committee disagrees, and appears to be advocating a different strategy.
“As I’ve said before, this is a very difficult time. It’s a difficult time for us as a party, but it’s also a difficult time for the town. There’s a lot of work that needs to get done in the council,” Prieto said last week. “The council still must pass a 2009 budget. There’s the ongoing investigation of the Tax Collectors Office. What we really need is someone who can focus on the business at hand, who can focus on government without being distracted by a political race in three months.”
Richard Steffens and Ed Zloty, two of the candidates for acting mayor, agree.
“I really see myself as a bridge,” Steffens said, “someone who can help the council get back on track. There have been a lot of distractions lately. But there’s a lot of important business that needs to get done. I have no interest in running for mayor. So that frees me from having to think about the political repercussions of my actions on the council.”
He and Zloty both stressed that they are able to work with both the Democratic and Independent factions of the Town Council.
Gonnelli outpolled Kane, Weiner, and Shinnick, although one of these Democrats polled within eight points of Gonnelli.
Although Prieto has not stated it explicitly, it appears as though the committee will either select someone other than the acting mayor to lead the November ticket – which some on the committee see as a bad move – or perhaps let McAdam, Trombetta, and Reilly run for council without a mayoral candidate at the top of the ticket.
Until last week there had been speculation that the committee would select higher profile candidates to fill the vacancy. Peter Weiner, who headed a slate of Democratic candidates that challenged Elwell in the June 2 primary, had been among the names most mentioned, as had former 1st Ward Town Councilman Richard Kane. Kane resigned from office in February citing time restraints due to a new job. Current Town Councilman John Shinnick, who represents the 3rd Ward, and Reilly were also frequently mentioned as possible contenders to be acting mayor.
Prieto said Reilly and Shinnick were not selected because if they had been the committee would have to replace them on the council, an added burden the committee wanted to avoid.
It’s less clear why neither Weiner nor Kane were selected as candidates for acting mayor, but the answer may lie in a political poll that was conducted two weeks ago.
According to three people who said they participated in the poll, the survey asked Secaucus voters who they would vote for in a Gonnelli v. Kane, Gonnelli v. Weiner, and Gonnelli v. Shinnick race.
Although Prieto denied intimate knowledge of the poll in an interview last week, he has reportedly shared preliminary results of the phone survey with members of the Democratic committee and others.
According to those reports, Gonnelli outpolled Kane, Weiner, and Shinnick by a wide margin.
Some members of the Democratic committee believe the party’s best hope against Gonnelli should have been put on the short list for acting mayor, then placed at the top of the Democratic ticket in November. Since that wasn’t done, some are asking whether the local party has thrown in the towel, declaring Gonnelli unbeatable, or whether they are trying to figure out a way to work with the town’s likely next mayor.
It remains to be seen what the party will do with the November ticket. Prieto said the committee will meet again soon to discuss that matter.
In the meantime, Prieto, State Sen. Nicholas Sacco, and pollster and campaign strategist Rick Shaftan met with Gonnelli on August 6.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.