Will the 2009 Secaucus mayoral and council election be remembered for a changing of the guard, or will voters give their stamp of approval to the status quo?
This question will partly be answered on Tuesday, June 2, when registered Democrats and undeclared voters can go to the polls to choose mayor and council candidates to get the Democratic nod for the November general election.
Whoever wins the race will face the Independents in the fall, led by councilman and mayoral candidate Michael Gonnelli.
If incumbent mayor Dennis Elwell scores a decisive victory over a slate of rival Democrats this week, it could be a blow to critics who want to unseat him. However, if a Democratic mayoral challenger, attorney Peter Weiner or either of his running mates pulls off an upset, their victory could mean the end of Elwell’s hold on local Democratic Party politics.
Democrats and undeclared voters take to the polls on Tuesday.
Elwell will be on the ballot with his slate of council candidates: incumbent Councilwoman Dawn McAdam (1st Ward); Frank Trombetta (2nd Ward); and incumbent Councilman John Reilly (3rd Ward).
Challenging the mayor’s slate will be the Democrats for Change in Secaucus ticket, headed by Weiner. He’s running with Joseph Morano (1st Ward) and Susan Pirro (3rd Ward). Weiner does not have a running mate for the 2nd Ward since he supports incumbent Town Councilman John Bueckner, who is running for re-election in the fall on the Independent ticket.
Since March, the Elwell slate has campaigned on his 10-year record as mayor. Specifically, Team Elwell has touted the town’s reputation throughout Hudson County as a clean, safe municipality where parents can send their children to solid public schools. And Elwell has often favorably compared Secaucus to other towns in the county – specifically Hoboken and West New York – that have been burdened with fiscal problems and high taxes recently.
“If you look at other municipalities in Hudson County, you will find no others offer the level of services that we do for our residents. And we’ve been able to offer these services while keeping property taxes stable,” the mayor said in an interview in March. Prior to fiscal year 2009, which began in January, Secaucus had not had a local property tax increase for eight years.
Elwell specifically pointed to the Senior Center programs, the Secaucus Public Library and Business Resource Center, and the new Secaucus Recreation Center as examples of the town’s rich municipal services. Last year, New Jersey magazine named Secaucus as the 11th best place to live in the state, an accolade Elwell notes frequently.
In contrast, Weiner and his allies have questioned municipal spending, arguing that Elwell often releases inaccurate or misleading information to the public.
They question, for example, whether Recreation Center memberships will cover operating expenses without additional money from taxpayers, as the administration had promised.
They’ve criticized the amount of advertising done for professional service contracts and municipal spending. They’ve also argued that the Elwell Administration is resistant to sharing information with residents.
“This mayor refuses to give straight answers about crime numbers, the full costs of the rec center, what happened to our budget surplus, whether we’re going to have a deficit this year,” Weiner said. “When you challenge them to give you information, you get harassed and bullied because they want you to stop asking questions, and go away. This is not the way you treat residents when you’re in elected office.”
Dennis Elwell, mayoral candidate, incumbent
First elected to the Town Council in 1992, Elwell has been mayor since 2000 and is running for his fourth term. A decorated Vietnam War combat veteran, the mayor is also president of Elwell & Sons, a family owned and operated trucking company based in Secaucus. Before joining the Town Council, he previously served on the Secaucus school board.
A Secaucus native, Elwell and his wife Annette have two adult children, Jason and Alexis.
His slate includes:
Dawn McAdam, 1st Ward candidate
In March, the Secaucus Democratic Committee appointed McAdam to the Town Council to serve out the rest of former Councilman Richard Kane’s term after he resigned from the governing body. His term ends Dec. 31. McAdam is now running for her first full term as a councilwoman.
McAdam is no stranger to the campaign trail. In 2000 she ran for the Town Council as an Independent, facing off against incumbent 1st Ward Councilman Michael Grecco, who ran with Elwell. During that race she earned a reputation as a hard worker and tough campaigner even though she eventually lost to Grecco.
Ten years ago, McAdam was critical of Elwell for the town’s handling of contaminated land owned by a factory, Keystone Metal. Twice in the late 1990s, elected officials learned that residential homes near the Keystone site may have been affected by the chemical contamination, but each time, the town seemed to delay notifying residents of possible risks. More recently, McAdam, who lives near the old Keystone site, has said that she’s pleased with land remediation that was done in the area.
“There are times, and my moving onto the council is one of them, when diverse people have to join forces to do what’s best for the greater good, in this case the Town of Secaucus,” McAdam said.
She and her husband Dave have an adult daughter.
Frank Trombetta, 2nd Ward candidate
Currently a member of the Secaucus Board of Education, this campaign marks Trombetta’s first run for Town Council. He has been on the school board for more than two years. His current term ends Jan. 1, 2010 and he has said he would resign from the school board if elected to the council.
Trombetta is president of FTC Carpet, Inc., a family-run business in Lyndhurst. Elwell said he believes Trombetta, as a small businessman, adds diversity to his ticket and would bring valuable experience to the council. Trombetta agrees.
“I know what it means to make difficult financial choices when your budget and income are tight. I’ve had to do this as a member of the school board, and in my own business,” Trombetta said. “Hopefully that would be useful to the council.”
Deputy Mayor John Reilly, 3rd Ward candidate
Reilly has represented the 3rd Ward for more than a decade. A former Meadowlands Hospital Medical Center board member and retired United Parcel Service employee, Reilly has been a member of the Secaucus Volunteer Fire Department.
“I’ve worked closely with the mayor for many years, helping families achieve the American Dream here,” Reilly said. “We’re one of the best-run municipalities in Northern New Jersey. [They] say they want to ‘change’ Secaucus. I don’t know what they would want to change it to.”
Peter Weiner, mayoral candidate
An attorney in private practice, Weiner also serves as the Secaucus Public Defender, a position he has held for 15 years. Previously, he also served as attorney for the town’s Planning Board. Like his mayoral opponent, Weiner served in Vietnam, and is a decorated Army veteran. He was president of Unico, an Italian-American service organization, for three years and has been active in the Knights of Columbus.
A 30-year resident of the town, this is Weiner’s first run for elected office. He and his wife Mary Ann have two children, Peter and Leeann.
His slate includes:
Joseph Morano, 1st Ward candidate
A health insurance executive who previously worked with Aetna, Morano is now president of U.S. Benefit Partners, a national insurance brokerage firm.
He was recently elected president of Unico. Previously he worked with the Secaucus Volunteer Emergency Ambulance Squad for 14 years and served as its president.
A 35-year resident of Secaucus, Morano and his wife Lisa have one daughter, Christina.
Susan Pirro, 3rd Ward candidate
Of the three candidates on the Weiner ticket, Pirro has the most experience in elected office. She won two terms to the Secaucus Board of Education and served as both vice president and president of the board. She also chaired several board subcommittees. In 2008 and 2009 she was co-chair of Relay for Life of Secaucus, a benefit for the American Cancer Society.
A divorced single mother of three daughters – Christie, Lauren, and Cheryl – Pirro has lived in Harmon Cove for 18 years. She works in the Union City public school system as an administrator.
“Right now, there’s too little accountability in our local government,” Pirro said. “Basic information that should be available to residents and taxpayers isn’t available. And when you try to get it, you’re stalled again and again. It’s impossible to get information about the rec center, the municipal budget, [and] public contracts. This is what has to end.”
Down the stretch
It’s hard to believe the two slates competing in the June 2 Democratic Primary are talking about the same town. Depending on whom you believe, voters either care about residential parking, speeding, flood control, and the Xanadu development on Route 3 (as the ticket headed by incumbent Mayor Dennis Elwell maintains), or they care most about taxes, municipal spending, open government, and quality of life issues (as the Peter Weiner campaign maintains).
If there’s one issue both campaigns agree voters care about, it’s the lack of a major supermarket in Secaucus.
Last week, as the race for the Democratic entered its final days, candidates from the two tickets took a break from campaigning to assess voter feedback to the race. Both campaigns believe they have knocked on the doors of nearly every known registered Democrat and undeclared voter in Secaucus, and each slate has vowed to keep pushing until polls close on Tuesday.
“I never ask people to vote for us,” Elwell said on Tuesday from his campaign headquarters. “What I ask for is their consideration. You can usually tell from their body language if you’ve got their vote.”
It’s all in the eye contact, he said. Voters who look a candidate in the eye and say, “You’ve got my support, or I’m with you,” he said, are definite supporters. Voters who say all the right words, but who look away, support the opponent.
Based on this criteria, Elwell added, “I can tell you, we’re getting very positive responses from voters.”
One wonders whether these are the same people the Weiner campaign has met.
“We’re hearing that people are ready for a change, and are excited about the possibility for change in this election,” Weiner said last weekend during a break from door knocking. “We’re getting support from people of all races, all ethnic groups, age groups, all [religious] denominations. And we’re getting support from all the different political factions.”
In addition to the supermarket issue, Weiner’s 1st Ward Town Council candidate Joseph Morano said voters in his ward are talking to him about the “closed nature of the Elwell administration, the lack of an open and honest government. The lack of videotaped meetings. And public safety issues like high crime, the need for a second ambulance.”
Susan Pirro, who is running with Weiner as his 3rd Ward Town Council candidate, said voters have identified taxes and municipal spending as their number one concern.
“Financially, the town has a problem. [The Elwell administration] would not be looking to defer $930,000 in pension payments at 8.25 percent interest if there weren’t a problem,” Pirro said. “Voters instinctively understand that and are concerned about it.”
Elwell acknowledges that voters have expressed concerns about taxes when he has come knocking, but most voters, he said, care more about more personal issues than televised meetings.
“The average taxpayer is concerned with the 50 ft.-by-100 ft. space around their home,” he said. “That equates to many things: taxes, town services, clean and safe streets, education for their children. That’s what they’re voting for. The rest of it is secondary.”
Voters have labeled the Secaucus Recreation Center – again, depending on which campaign you believe – either a blessing or a curse.
“People are starting to see that the rec center isn’t going to be able to support itself with membership dues, and taxpayers are going to have to support it,” Pirro said. “But if your kid wants to play basketball at the rec center with friends, and isn’t a member, he has to pay a fee to play. So it’s like your family ends up paying for it twice.”
Elwell’s 2nd Ward candidate, Frank Trombetta, said he hasn’t heard similar complaints about the recreation center as he has toured his ward. Most voters tell him they’re either members or they plan to join in the future, he said.
“I hear the same thing time after time,” he said. “We have a good system. We have good facilities, a good school system, great services, and stable taxes. And that’s all people are interested in.”
Trombetta added that he was a “little apprehensive” about door knocking when he first entered the council race because “you never know what you’re going to get hit with. But I haven’t had any doors slammed in my face.”
Neither has Weiner and, he added, “If we see an Elwell lawn sign, it doesn’t matter. We knock on their doors anyway. Signs don’t vote; people do.”
Elwell said he doesn’t bother with homes that have pro-Weiner signs on display. “I mean, what’s the point,” he commented.
Meanwhile, Town Councilman John Reilly, Elwell’s 3rd Ward candidate, predicted the 2009 campaign will be among the best of his career.
“I think we’re going to get a lot of support from what I call the silent majority,” he said. “These are the people who have moved to town over the last five to seven years. They don’t work for the community. They don’t have family members who work for the community. They selected this community because we offer a quality of life they thought they couldn’t find anywhere else.”
These voters, he said, care less about “stabilizing taxes” and care more about maintaining their quality of life.
Registered Democrats and undeclared voters have their say Tuesday. – EAW E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.