A woman from one of the three senior citizen buildings in Secaucus called the Hudson Reporter last week to thank “Mayor Mike,” as Mayor Michael Gonnelli is best known, for the great time she had at the Fourth of July event held on the eve of the holiday. Yes, she said, rain forced the town to postpone the fireworks until later in the summer, but she still wanted to thank Mayor Mike.
“He let us eat all the food and we had a great time,” she said. “They ought to have the fireworks on Mayor Mike’s birthday. We really love him.”
While this may seem like one person’s take on Gonnelli, it is not. He is perhaps the most popular mayor in Secaucus history.
While Mayor Paul Amico, who served until 1990, has become an icon in Secaucus, he had significant political opposition.
Gonnelli’s opposition vanished when former Mayor Dennis Elwell resigned as a result of the federal sting Bid Rig III. Along with Elwell went a lot of the Democratic organization that had dominated Secaucus since the early 1980s.
Gonnelli’s emergence as a political figure might be compared to a butterfly. Prior to his becoming a councilman, Gonnelli was the go-to guy for other politicians, the DPW chief that made other mayors look good. From the mid to late 1980s, if something needed to be done, Gonnelli did it, and other mayors got the credit. But silently, over those long years, people got to know Gonnelli, and when he emerged as a political entity, he drew adoration that rivaled legendary political figures like former Union City Mayor Bill Musto.
These days, wherever he goes, he gets treated like a father figure. Kids love him, parents love him more, and he exists in political vacuum where organized opposition is practically non-existent.
Gonnelli has a good formula for keeping popular, too. All he has to do is give residents entertainment such as concerts in the parks and carnivals in the plaza, and keep taxes low.
A tax break?
Gonnelli appears to have hit a home run by endorsing Republican Gov. Christopher Christie last year. For the second year in a row, Secaucus had the yolk of the tax-sharing burden among Meadowlands communities lifted off its shoulders, a huge element in keeping taxes down.
Almost from the founding of the Meadowlands District more than 40 years ago, mayors complained about the tax sharing formula that had some towns paying into a tax pool, while other towns drew from it.
The idea behind the original district was not preservation, as it has since become, but orderly development.
Towns left to their own development aims tended to stay away from residential or any other kind of development that put a strain on local resources – such as housing that brought in school kids. So town after town wound up with tons of warehouses and little else.
Some towns like Kearny had huge portions that served as landfill and trash dumps.
Just prior to Hartz Mountain Industries’ purchase of a huge portion of land in the Meadowlands, the state decided the area needed to be better managed, and so imposed a master plan that covered portions of 14 towns. Some towns that were allowed to develop such as Secaucus were required to share their newfound tax revenue with towns like Kearny that could not develop.
Since 1969, mayors bickered about having to foot the bill, often asking state legislators to modify the formula that would ease their payment. Secaucus, which saw a significant amount of development, was particularly hard hit, often seeing millions each year fade away.
Last year, Christie relieved Secaucus of a portion of its obligation. This year, the town found out that the state – despite a huge budget deficit – will take over the tax obligations for the district.
Clearly, Gonnelli has learned what Union City Mayor Brian Stack learned a while ago: It is good to have a friend in high places.
Stack loses an important player
Stack, however, has other troubles. Two weeks ago, Mark Albiez, Stack’s chief of staff, confirmed that he will be moving on, and taking a position with Mayor Steve Fulop in Jersey City.
This is a huge blow to Stack’s political organization. Albiez was among a small group of close confidants to Stack, and almost irreplaceable.
Over the last few years, Stack has seen a number of his key people move on, but Albiez is special, a political guru and a workaholic who has long been one of the movers and shakers of Stack’s agenda.
Who will replace him, no one can yet say.
Fortunately, this occurred during a time of relative political peace.
Battle for governor starts
For Fulop, this acquisition is part of building a team that will likely work towards his election for governor. Fulop is like the New York Yankees grabbing key players with the goal of creating a championship.
Some believe that former Gov. Jim McGreevey was brought on specifically to bring experience on the state level into the Fulop camp. Indeed, some key advisors appear to be members of what was once called McGreevey’s Kitchen Cabinet.
You can expect Fulop to make other moves, including possibly picking up some survivors from the recently demolished administration of Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith.
With state Sen. Steve Sweeney (Fulop’s expected adversary in the Democratic primary for governor) backing newly-elected Bayonne Mayor James Davis, Fulop may find some real nuggets of political wisdom among former Smith people. Expect Fulop to seek out help from Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, and perhaps others.
Some of the structural changes inside Jersey City government appear to be part of a Fulop strategy to clean his own house ahead of any kind of political attack from the outside; this includes a recent move to replace the chief of police.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.