The continued feud between those loyal to State Sen. and Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham and the perceived invasion of other Democrats from outside Jersey City, supported by Rep. Bob Menendez, stirs up fearful memories of Richard Nixon's dirty tricks campaigns of the early 1970s when secret agents for the Republicans deliberately infiltrated the ranks of contending Democratic factions to stir up trouble. Under this agenda, Democratic candidates vying for power were so bent on hating each other that they hardly noticed Nixon's quiet march back to the White House.
If Republican U.S. Attorney Christopher Christie did not already have his dozen Judases in Hudson County government working to uncover corruption among Democratic elected officials here, you might well imagine some Republican whispering: "Hey, do you know what Menendez did this time?" Then this same person would go elsewhere and whisper, "Did you hear what Cunningham said today?"
Hudson County being Hudson County with this history of political betrayal and infighting among the Democrats, Republicans don't have to stir up the trouble, they just have to, as Bruce Springsteen said, "sit back and let it all be."
As it turns out, there will be a primary battle for the Democratic nomination for Congress after all, even if it's not productive for county Democrats to be fighting now.
After the gathering two weeks ago of Hudson County Democratic Organization members in the lobby of the soon-to-be-opened new Jersey City Medical Center, many political observers sat drumming their fingers for the filing deadline to pass and for the second shoe of this year's political drama to fall.
And fall it did.
Stephen Fulop, a Goldman-Sachs employee who is president of the Historic Paulus Hook Association, will take on the unenviable task of challenging incumbent Menendez for the 13th district House of Representatives seat. The primary is June 8.
Haughty HCDO insiders see Fulop as a lamb being led to slaughter, predicting a three to one or better Menendez victory in the primary.
Fulop should not be underestimated. Despite the HCDO's dominance, many loyal Democrats have secretly resented the loss of the seat to someone outside of Jersey City - an act of gerrymandering after the 1990s census, when Jersey City got split into three congressional districts. Menendez lives in Hoboken.
Fulop's campaign kicks off at a particularly advantageous time and you can expect his theme to center around an anti-pay-for-play campaign, meaning, a campaign against the idea of contractors making big campaign contributors and getting contracts. The campaign will be played against the backdrop of the Rene Abreu trial currently underway in Newark. Expect quotes from the trial to pepper anti-Menendez literature.
Pay for play was at the heart of anti-HDCO campaigns including that of the recently deceased Charlie Catrillo.
The HCDO also has a poor recent track record in getting out the vote. Tom DeGise, although re-elected as county executive, lost the Jersey City vote to someone with almost no name recognition.
While Cunningham can't magically drag Fulop into Congress, the fact that the Cunningham Reform Democratic Committee (shades of Bret Schundler's mid-1990s reform Democrats) plans a full slate for the June 8 primary means the HCDO will have a fight on its hands, and should not count its electoral chickens until they hatch. If the last two primaries are any indication, this will be a nasty fight, especially if the Abreu trial springs the same kind of surprises the trial of former Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon did last year.
Former Jersey City Councilman Jamie Vazquez said months ago that he had a green light from Cunningham to run against Menendez, but apparently lacked the financial resources Fulop can bring to the table.
"Those backing Cunningham can poke Menendez in the eye without having to take any money out of their own pockets," one observer said.
Other races being contested
County Sheriff BJoseph Cassidy is being challenged by former West New York police officer Richard Rivera, who cooperated with the FBI in an anti-police corruption sting. Rivera has been very active behind the scenes in North Hudson, a savvy political observer who knows how to connect all the dots to make a good campaign. But Cassidy will be tough to beat, partly because he has successfully avoided most of the political intrigues typical of most Hudson County politicians, and even people who support Cunningham's slate will likely favor him over Rivera.
If names could win elections, then Hoboken's Vince Lombardi would become the Democratic candidate for sheriff. The Hoboken police officer is well known for his strong support of public safety, but may lack the political power structure to claim the countywide seat.
Union City's Jose Falto may have an easier time tackling Tilo Rivas for the Union City freeholder seat, only because Rivas has not the same name recognition as some others. Union City Mayor Brian Stack resigned as freeholder when elected as assemblyman in the 33rd District. Rivas was named to fill his seat until the special election in November. Falto, who led a failed movement to recall Stack as mayor, may have to rely heavily on Cunningham's political machine to overcome Stack's support for Rivas. For Falto, the primary may be a test of the validity of his recall attempt, with each vote he receives seen as anti-Stack rather than anti-Rivas.
Jersey City's John Caulfield will have the least enviable task of trying to unseat an extremely popular Donald DeLeo for county surrogate. Because the surrogate's position touches people at a very vulnerable time in their lives, DeLeo can count on support of grateful voters he has helped through the financial morass that often follows the death of a loved one. This sentiment can't be overcome by a powerful political machine like Cunningham's. It is generated not by patronage but from some remote region of the heart.
The Hudson County Republicans are also putting up a slate that includes Richard Piatkowsky for Congress, Alexander Garcia for sheriff and Kenneth Marano for surrogate, destined to face the Democratic primary winners next November when their effort will be bolstered by Republican Incumbent President George W. Bush heading their ticket.
The HDCO also has some divisions among its own ranks, such as squabbles over the monthly cost of running the Wabash Avenue headquarters (rumored at $15,000 per month) which supposedly benefits Menendez. Unfortunately, poor Tara Gross, a member of the HDCO office staff, has become the latest victim of Cunningham's popularity since she has been partly blamed for the paltry 750 signatures generated out of Jersey City.
Of course, Cunningham may have to defend his back door if rumors are true that Jersey City Council and County Executive Chief of Staff Bill Gaughan has received the HCDO's blessing to run for Jersey City mayor next year. If this happens, Jersey Council President L. Harvey Smith could step down from presidency to give Gaughan a platform to challenge Cunningham on day-to-day city matters. This scenario should unfold sometime after the June 8 primary, setting the stage for yet one more confrontation between the two Democratic factions.