In a runoff election that may have had candidates on both sides biting their nails for more than an hour after the polls closed on June 10, James Davis upset Mark Smith to become the new mayor of Bayonne.
Davis appears to have also swept his whole ticket of candidates in, although the battle between former Councilman Gary LaPelusa and Councilman Ray Greaves in the 3rd Ward was not expected to be settled until provisional ballots were counted on June 13. All of the races were extremely close.
With mail-in and machine ballots counted, LaPelusa beat Greaves by only 39 votes. In 2010, Greaves beat LaPelusa when the Smith ticket was swept into office.
For many political observers, the 2014 election will be remembered as a David and Goliath battle, in which Davis – a relatively unknown – upset the well-established and well-funded Smith.
In truth, this election can be split into two parts – the regular election leading up to May 13, and the runoff.
The “Davis and Goliath” tale took place when campaign manager Joe DeMarco got the Davis ticket into the runoff for four of five council races, as well as the mayor, and won one council seat outright. This was done on a shoestring budget, managing to get the word out through unconventional means.
The Smith ticket ran a very conventional campaign, highlighting the accomplishments of his administration while raising questions about Davis’ ability to lead.
But Davis was able to capitalize on small things the Smith campaign dismissed as insignificant.
The standstill in the first round of elections told forces outside Bayonne that Smith was vulnerable, and Davis got a flood of help – money and workers – that allowed his ticket to challenge Smith in ways Davis could not during the first round, especially in moves to get out of the vote on election day.
The shock was that all of Smith’s candidates for council lost when at least two of them, Terrence Ruane and Debra Czerwienski, had significant leads coming out of the May 13 election. But a strong Latino turnout in the runoff appears to have propelled former Hudson County Sheriff Juan Perez into a win. The bigger surprise was Sharon Nadrowski who came out of nowhere in the first round of elections to finish third. She finished first in the runoff balloting for at-large seats.
Salvatore Gullace’s victory in the 2nd Ward over Councilman Joseph Hurley was also a surprise, since most people believed Hurley had a significant voter base. But Gullace’s forcing the runoff on May 13 showed how vulnerable Hurley was.
Most believe that Smith was able to bring in his council candidates in years past due to his own popularity and the powerful political machine he built. The opposite was true in 2014. Smith’s unpopularity, some believe, brought down his council candidates, despite a money advantage going into the first round. He also lacked the advantage on the street on June 10 that he previously had.
Whereas in the past elections, in 2008 and 2010, Smith was able to put hundreds of workers on the streets, overwhelming the opposition, on June 10, Davis workers matched Smith workers on nearly every street corner in the city.
Behind the scenes, powerbrokers such as state Sen. Ray Lesniak, U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, and people connected with former Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria gave Davis the ability to go nose to nose with Smith and squeak out a victory.
Smith’s decisions as the one-time chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Party angered a number of powerful people. But none were willing to take him on during the first round because they saw him as unbeatable, and did not want to start a war among Democrats on the behalf of Davis. But once Davis showed Smith as weak, many of these power brokers came in.
Ironically, Davis’ victory celebration brought together Hoboken political rivals Mayor Dawn Zimmer and Hoboken Councilwoman Beth Mason. Mason, according to Davis people, gave an infusion of cash to Davis late in the campaign, allowing the Davis ticket to mount a serious street fight against Smith.
But the runoff was part of a bigger battle than just Bayonne, foreshadowing a possible battle for county executive next year, since at least two of the key people in the Smith campaign were tied to Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise. County workers flooded the streets on Smith’s behalf as did union workers on behalf of Greaves in the 3rd Ward.
With Smith’s loss, DeGise loses a valuable ally in his attempt to retain his seat as County Executive next year.
Heads will roll
With the election settled so late, Smith people will have little time to pack up their offices for the massive changes that Davis will likely bring. There will be many casualties, key political people whom the Davis ticket will replace right away. This will likely include Business Administrator Steve Gallo and City Attorney Charles D’Amico.
But there will be many other changes, likely including heads of departments for municipal services and public safety.
Most likely, some former Doria people – driven out by a similar purge after Smith’s victory in 2008 – will return. These could include former City Attorney Jay Coffey, and even former Business Administrator Peter Cresci. DeMarco, who currently has a similar position in West New York, is expected to replace Gallo as business administrator.
Terrence Malloy, who serves a number of roles including the head of the UEZ, and a city finance director, and Joe Nichols, the tax assessor, will most likely be retained.
The Davis victory also sets the stage for a state Assembly challenge next year in which Davis is expected to possibly back Nicholas Chiaravalloti against Smith ally Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell.
The Davis people are also expected to mount a challenge to replace O’Donnell as chairman of the Bayonne Democratic Organization.
Roque is Democratic chairman again
In West New York, Mayor Felix Roque added to his reputation for political prowess by fending off a challenge to his chairmanship of the Democratic Party there.
Instrumental in helping with Caridad Rodriguez’s primary victory over Freeholder Jose Munoz, Roque was able to retain his seat as chairman, despite the fact that nearly all of his political opponents joined forces against him.
This positions Roque well for his reelection bid next May.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.