Tom DeGise is the former Jersey City Council president who took the mayoral election last year into a runoff with Mayor Glenn Cunningham. Bernard Hartnett, the current county executive, brings a three-decade reputation for peacemaking into this race.
Yet despite their tendencies towards conciliation, both men find themselves at the center of a political firestorm and have engaged in political hand-to-hand combat. In interviews done at different times over the last month, DeGise and Hartnett talked about their careers and their aspirations.
DeGise is being backed by Rep. Robert Menendez to take Hartnett's seat. Hartnett is supported by Glenn Cunningham.
Unfortunately, Hartnett has not responded to allegations that he recently authorized the firing of six county employees as political retribution for their support of DeGise - a matter the Hudson County Freeholders were expected to take up at a special hearing on April 19. The six were fired on the day that DeGise announced his candidacy.
DeGise came to politics as a result of being fired
DeGise said he knows exactly how it feels to get fired for a political belief, because it happened to him in the late 1970s, and motivated him to become involved in politics.
He called his life after high school a bit disjointed. He worked at a bartender and was known as a pretty good high arch pitcher in the softball league. He sometimes played seven nights a week.
He settled down and got married at 27, and this led him back to school to get his certificate in teaching - a job that has lasted him 25 years.
It was his sister who caused him to lose his job in 1977. She was a member of the council in Mayor Paul Jordan's administration from 1973 to 1977. When she left, he was fired.
Although he eventually got his job back teaching, the loss of work caused a fire in his belly, and pushed him into politics. In 1985, DeGise's involvement in politics caused his transfer from Dickinson to Snyder High School.
Moved on for a bit
After he lost the Jersey City election last year, DeGise threw away his cell phone. He had fallen into a political limbo. No one called him about politics, and he didn't care. He avoided political functions and got on with his life. Although he could have sought another elected office, he said at the time he didn't have the fire in his belly and actually got to go fishing or attend a barbecue.
"I could move more in the slow lane," he said.
The lifelong resident of Jersey City Heights and career counselor at Snyder High School wasn't getting the scores of calls requesting him to do political favors or take a position.
The rumors that he was running for county executive came before anyone ever approached him. Then, one day, he attended the funeral of a friend who had been deeply involved in local politics.
"Glenn Cunningham came over to me and asked if I wanted to go for a cup of coffee," DeGise said.
It was a remarkable gesture, considering how negative the campaign for mayor had been, but DeGise accepted. DeGise says that Cunningham asked if DeGise might consider running for office.
"We buried the hatchet," DeGise said. "We shook hands, and I thanked him for the offer."
But DeGise didn't end up running for a job with Cunningham's support.
Instead, after word got around about the meeting, Rep. Robert Menendez called and asked to meet with DeGise. "Bob told me about his struggle with Glenn, and he asked me if I knew anyone who would make a good candidate for county executive," DeGise said. "I gave him a few names."
A bit later, Menendez asked if DeGise would consider running for the job himself.
"It was too good an opportunity for me to pass up," DeGise said.
He said he saw it as a challenge to make a positive change on a county level, and he knew that if he didn't try for it, he would regret it later.
"That's how I felt when I ran for mayor," he said. "I'm 51 years old and this was a very exciting challenge."
If he wins the primary on June 4 and the general election on Nov. 5, DeGise said he will take an unpaid leave of absence from school and work as a full-time county executive.
Hartnett is a history lesson in Hudson County politics
Bernard Hartnett, the man who replaced Robert Janiszewski as county executive last October, is the mildest-mannered man you are ever likely to meet. Despite his position in the current jockeying for Democratic nominee in this year's primary, Hartnett is hardly confrontational. Once called the "Henry Kissinger of Hudson County," Hartnett, 71, has built his reputation on consensus and compromise.
In the 1970s, the soft-spoken attorney was instrumental in cleaning up the political disaster left in the wake of the indictment and later conviction of Democratic boss John V. Kenny. While no charges have been yet filed against Janiszewski, the county is in a similar state this time.
"When I came into this office last October, one of the workers here walked in with a carton full of paperwork of things that needed to be done," Hartnett said.
This included contracts and other documents.
"Mr. Janiszewski's mind was on other things," Hartnett said. "He just didn't get around to doing things he was supposed to."
In the first few months, Hartnett was instrumental in negotiating contracts with some county employees, as well as settling the critical issue of the two county-owned nursing homes.
Laid back is too mild a phrase to describe Hartnett manner of speaking. He tends to speak in parables, relating some current event to some past experience, like a country lawyer baffling his legal opponents with a round-about argument against which there is no defense.
During an interview conducted in his Brennan Court House office in Jersey City, Hartnett talked briefly about his ironic and humorous adventures in seeking out his Irish roots. He talked about his grandfather, an Irish immigrant who fought for the Union in the American Civil War, and the determination of his grandmother to win her husband's military pension after his death sometime around 1875.
Hartnett also talked about his own early injection into the working world when his father decided to rejoin the U.S. Navy to fight in World War II.
"He was 41 years old and had six children," Hartnett said. "He wasn't drafted; he enlisted, and he left me in charge of the family. I was the oldest. I had three sisters and two brothers. I was 12 years old."
Hartnett succeeded in ways he could not have imagined. Over the last 45 years, he has become prominent in the legal field as a labor attorney, working with such corporations as New Jersey Bell and Western Electric Company.
Politically, Hartnett has always had a spotless reputation, and he recalled when he was first called on to help Hudson County after the Kenny indictment in 1971.
He became one of the principal advisors to reform Mayor Paul Jordan in Jersey City during later 1970s. "That was a similar situation as the one we have now," Hartnett said.
In his role as peacemaker and advisor, Hartnett also helped negotiate Hudson County support for Brendan Byrne's successful gubernatorial effort in the early 1970s. Hartnett later went on to become one of Gov. Jim Florio's top advisors.
Why he wants another year
Hartnett comes into the middle of a great conflict, and believes that he can rescue the county away from a gluttony of contract-sharks he sees as feeding on the county coffers.
"Professionals have been getting very rich off Hudson County's taxpayers," he said. "I believe we can do much better by having our own employees do some of that work. I'm not saying we won't need professionals in the future, but I think that we can do a lot of what we're doing now in-house."
If this sounds a lot like a speech Freeholder Bill O'Dea might give, Hartnett said: "I've been preaching this long before Bill O'Dea came along."
Hartnett said he implemented similar policies when vice president of the phone company, and did very well. But he said this practice needs to be tested in a few areas first to see if it will work in Hudson County.
Professional contracts are one of the areas of contention in the upcoming primary, Hartnett said.
"Congressman Bob Menendez and his friend, Donald Scarinci, want to keep the county doing business as it is done now," Hartnett said. "I want to change things. That's why they want me out of this office."
Key to this change, Hartnett said, is a study of county government needs and a possible revamping, something that he has already begun. But it is something that will also take time to accomplish.
While Hartnett has already instituted changes such as expanding the membership to the Hudson County Improvement Authority, he said the committee would give him indications of other areas as well.
In January, Hartnett put together a management and budget review committee, a group of people prominent in their fields, to look over how county operations are done and to make recommendations for their improvement.
The committee, led by former U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg and including bankers and businesspeople, would provide Hartnett guidance as to how to make county government work more efficiently. While ostensibly, the committee would help shape the 2002 budget, it would also provide Hartnett with a roadmap for changing operations for the future.
Hartnett said he needs another year in office to implement the changes and to make certain that the county gets started off on the right foot rather than falling back into the bad habits of the former administration.
The committee, Hartnett said, interviewed each department head and examined their operations.
"Hudson County has the ability to be the premiere county in the state," Hartnett said. "But we can't be driven by political bosses. Each of us in government has responsibilities. Janiszewski left this county under a cloud and its up to me to straighten it out. I need another year to set things in place, and set a pattern of success that other people can build on."
No changes planned the first year if DeGise wins
Although this election is only to fill the unexpired term of Robert Janiszewski - a one-year period until the regular election in 2003 - DeGise said he intends to run for the full term if and when he wins this election.
"I won't be making any changes the first year; I'll be learning about how things work," he said. "I'll use the first year to review what's going out, and work on relations with municipalities and their leaders. Having been a council president, I know what they are going through. I also will be able to work well with the Freeholders."
But even after he begins changing operations, DeGise said he intends to maintain an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" philosophy.
In serving a four-year term, he will put his own fingerprint on the county, creating a system of operations that will reflect some of his views on government. He said he will continue many of the good things previous administrations have brought to the county, such as using the Hudson County Improvement Authority to help foster economic growth in the county, and he will seek to continue the affordable housing programs the HCIA has helped over the years.
"This won't be fluff," he said. "I'm going to try and bring to Hudson County many of the same successful things we had in Jersey City. I'm not a person to sit and do nothing if there is something to do."
DeGise said he would like to pick up on an idea that Jersey City Councilman Bill Gaughan had about bringing a major hotel into Journal Square, forming a center around which the area can build to restore the commercial viability of the area.
"I think a lot of good things were done, and I won't get rid of anything that works," DeGise said. "But I think I can bring to the position new ideas that will help make things good for the whole county."