You don’t have to be a politician to have influence in Hudson County, but it sure does help. However, you could be an artist, an activist, or even a group of people with similar interests and still wield enormous power.
Each January, our editorial staff spends several grueling meetings ranking the county’s most influential people. This is our third annual list.
2013 was an exciting year in Hudson County – mayoral elections caused a political shakeup, scandals and truces saw some gain power and some lose it, and a growing arts community continued to flourish – and we believe our list reflects that.
The key is simple: after each ranking’s name, a + sign represents that they moved up from their position on last year’s list, a – sign means they went down, and an = sign means they’re ranked in the same spot. The corresponding number represents their previous ranking.
#1: Christopher Christie, Gov. of New Jersey (=, 1) – Despite the George Washington Bridge lane-closure scandal and recent allegations that his underlings may have withheld Hurricane Sandy recovery funds from Hoboken over a development project he favors, Christie’s landslide reelection last November ensured that he kept his spot atop our list. For much of 2013, Christie was a star in Hudson County; he gathered endorsements from the mayors of Union City and Secaucus and spoke at the inauguration of New Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop. In fact, Christie spent much of his campaign season, when he faced doomed Democrat Barbara Buono, theorizing how his portrayal as a bipartisan go-getter would play out in 2016. That, of course, was all before a four-day traffic jam at the George Washington Bridge exploded into controversy at the end of the year. While the governor reigned supreme in 2013, look for him to drop a few spots on next year’s list, if Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer and the state Democrats have anything to say about it.
#2: Robert Menendez and Cory Booker (=, 2 and new, respectively), U.S. Senators – With the death of U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg last year, Menendez became the senior senator for the state, and one of the most powerful senators in the nation, chairing the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In Hudson County, he has been the power behind a number of key leaders including Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, Rep. Albio Sires, Rep. Donald Payne, and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop, as well as others. Although an invisible hand, Menendez (a native of Union City) exerts a huge influence. Booker, the new kid on the block, courted and won the support from every Hudson County Democrat during his election to the U.S. Senate, and for whom he will be expected to deliver in the upcoming year.
#3: Nicholas Sacco, Mayor of North Bergen/State Sen. (=, 3) – Over the last year, Sacco managed to bring together many of the leaders in Hudson County after Democrats came to the verge of another political civil war. His gain was state Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack’s loss. Sacco gave silent support to Fulop in Jersey City and did not intervene in the reelection effort of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer. More importantly, the naming of Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (from Secaucus) as speaker of the state Assembly gives Sacco clout in both houses of the state legislature. With Prieto as chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, Sacco also continues to have a strong voice on who gets selected to serve in public office throughout the county.
#4: Steven Fulop, Mayor of Jersey City, and Tom Bertoli, his political advisor (+, 12 and new, respectively) – If there is a rising star in Hudson County, Fulop is it. Although his election as mayor was years in the making, it positions him for a possible run for governor. Behind the scenes, Bertoli – who is seen as the mastermind of Fulop’s political rise to power – is one of the most powerful people in the state. Fulop’s reach will likely expand over the next year as he seeks a controlling voice on the Board of Hudson County freeholders. And through his alliance with Hoboken Mayor Zimmer, Fulop will have a huge say in further development of the Hudson County Gold Coast.
#5: Dawn Zimmer, Mayor of Hoboken (- , 4) – Zimmer dropped a spot from last year’s list, but that’s more due to Fulop and Bertoli than a discredit to her. The mile-square city’s first female mayor survived a brutal mayoral campaign in November and squeaked her way to victory with 46 percent of the vote, but in doing so, solidified her power base with a majority on the City Council, ensuring that her second term agenda won’t lose steam due to legislative roadblocks and political gamesmanship. Zimmer remained a familiar face on the national stage as she continued to advocate for solutions to Hoboken’s hurricane vulnerability. And though this list technically only pertains to a person’s performance in 2013, her nationally televised accusations against Christie could have a significant effect on her 2014 ranking, whether that means a surge upwards or a long fall down.
#6: Vincent Prieto, Speaker of the New Jersey General Assembly (+, 7) – Prieto was ranked seventh on last year’s list, but deserves the jump to number six after being elected Assembly Speaker, making him not only a major powerbroker in Trenton but solidifying his role in Hudson County. The Secaucus man assumed control of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) from Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith and cruised to reelection in November. His local agenda, probably set by Sacco (his mentor and number three on this list), will dovetail with his statewide agenda in 2014, the top of which will include pursuing investigations into alleged corruption within the Christie administration.
#7: The Port Authority and NJ Transit (new) – Hudson County’s largest transportation entities control an enormous amount of land and money, and their power was never more apparent than in 2013. NJ Transit spent much of the year continuing to press for approval to build three million square feet of residential, commercial and educational development on its own rail yard on the border of Hoboken and Jersey City. Due to a clause in a local law, NJ Transit must receive the go-ahead from the city of Hoboken before breaking ground (something that has proved difficult given Zimmer’s demands that the project be reduced by a third), but their bottomless pockets mean that the project isn’t going away any time soon. Meanwhile, the Port Authority’s apparently underhanded role in New Jersey politics was thrust into the public eye with Bridgegate, and nowhere in the state does the Port Authority control more land than in Hudson County.
#8: CarePoint Health (new) – Along with the ownership of three Hudson County hospitals – Bayonne Medical Center, Hoboken University Medical Center, and Christ Hospital of Jersey City – CarePoint has been systematically purchasing private practices throughout Hudson County and opening other facilities that position it as possibly the premier healthcare network in the county. Having created its own insurance network, CarePoint is also backing McCabe Ambulance of Bayonne to take the Jersey City ambulance contract from Jersey City Medical Center. JCMC’s Liberty Healthcare competes with CarePoint on a number of fronts, and this war between medical giants will be something to watch during the upcoming year.
#9: Hudson County development companies (+, 10) – As the economy continues to rebound from the 2008 recession, Hudson County developers continue to climb up the power list. The usual suspects – Hartz Mountain Industries and Roseland Properties – continued to develop on both Hudson County coasts, in Weehawken and Secaucus, while other groups, namely KRE, spent the year prepping for major work in Jersey City. Between KRE and Hartz, over 100 stories of residential development will soon pop up in the Journal Square neighborhood. Payments In Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) deals became even more commonplace, giving developers more leverage in their dealings with municipalities than ever before.
#10: Albio Sires, U.S. Congressman (+, 15) – A former mayor of West New York and one-time speaker of the state Assembly, Sires commands fierce loyalty in North Hudson. Although he bucked the political machine in the past in helping get West New York Mayor Felix Roque elected, Sires has recently renewed his connections with Sacco and other powerful Hudson County political people. Redistricting refocused his legislative district so as to impact more of Hudson County and its surrounding communities, giving him even more influence locally than he had before.
#11: Richard Turner, Mayor of Weehawken (+, 13) – There is no more levelheaded politician in Hudson County than Turner, and in the state’s wackiest political arena, the ability to approach problems realistically breeds significant influence. In addition to serving as his township’s mayor for over 20 years, Turner serves as Rep. Sires’ district director and the chairman of the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue Department. And additionally, he continues to serve as one of the county’s elder Democratic statesmen. The North Hudson reconciliation between Sacco and Union City Mayor Brian Stack – usually credited to Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith – wouldn’t have happened without Turner’s approval.
#12: Beth Mason, Hoboken Councilwoman and Democratic Party donor (+, 14) – What influence Mason lost locally in 2013 she more than made up for in county and state circles. A staunch and perpetual critic of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Mason took a chance in the mayoral election and helped to bankroll the campaign of one of the mayor’s challengers – losing big. Still, she toured Hoboken with future Sen. Booker (she was almost his opponent in the primaries after being courted by some party bigwigs to run for Lautenberg’s vacated seat) and hosted two of the year’s most well-attended political mixers. The second of the two, a dinner co-hosted with State Sen. President Steve Sweeney in Atlantic City during the League of Municipalities conference in November, was ranked highest on the Star-Ledger’s list of must-attend events.
#13: Paul Swibinksi, public relations expert (+, 16) – Swibinski’s firm, Vision Media, remains the most powerful politically connected public relations firm in Hudson County. Backed by the political might of Sacco, Vision Media does business in almost every town in Hudson County and was involved behind the scenes in a number of campaigns in 2013, and is expected to be involved in several more in 2014. But the firm’s strength goes beyond Hudson County and does business throughout the state.
#14: Jose Munoz, Chairman of the Hudson County Board of Chosen Freeholders (new) – The arch rival of West New York Mayor Felix Roque, Munoz made headlines over the last few years when he became the chief witness in a federal case against Roque. It was Munoz’s website that Roque had been accused of conspiring to hack. Roque’s successful defense against the charges should have spelled the political doom of Munoz, but has not. Munoz has been instrumental in helping to institute an elected school board in WNY (rather than one appointed by the mayor), and with his being appointed chairman of the Hudson County freeholders, he will expand his influence especially in regards to county spending and taxes. With ties to Sacco and Jersey City Freeholder Bill O’Dea, Munoz maintains his power at least for one more year.
#15: The Hoboken Fair Housing Association (+, 19) – If you win once, as the saying goes, people notice you, but they might not respect you. If you win twice, then respect is on the table. Enter the Hoboken Fair Housing Association (HFHA), a plucky group of ragtag David-like tenants who slew Goliath for the second consecutive election in November, leading the defeat of a ballot referendum that would have drastically altered the mile-square city’s decades-old rent control laws. Goliath, in this case represented by the Mile Square Taxpayers Association, a group of landlords and developers, is trying to overturn the results of the November contest (as they did in 2012), but HFHA has already indicated its resolve to fight on behalf of tenants again.
#16: Brian Stack, Mayor of Union City / State Sen. (-, 2) – Stack was tied for third with his archrival, Sacco, in last year’s edition. At the time, Stack and Sacco were enveloped in a civil war over control in North Hudson, but when a truce was drawn up prior to the November election and county politicos remained loyal to Sacco, Stack’s power greatly diminished. Still, in his decade of service in Union City, Stack has achieved a god-like status amongst the city’s residents, and his close (and well-publicized) friendship with Gov. Christie ensures that he may not be in danger of losing what remains of his power.
#17: Mark Smith, Mayor of Bayonne (-, 11) – Few politicians in Hudson County lost so much in one year and still retained strength as Mayor Smith did. Stripped of the chairmanship of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, Smith lost a lot of influence, yet he is credited with helping the county to avoid a Democratic political war during his last few months as chair. Seen as the frontrunner in a three-way race for reelection in Bayonne, Smith still maintains ties to a number of key people, such as Sacco. If reelected, Smith still will oversee a vast stretch of potential Gold Coast realty ripe for development.
#18: Sandra Cunningham, State Sen. (-, 6) – With the election of Fulop as mayor, Cunningham’s political influence appears to be diminished in Jersey City. But she still has strong connections to Gov. Christie and state Sen. Ray Lesniak, as well as some key local officials such as Freeholder Bill O’Dea. Her apparently wise decision to refrain from running for mayor last year seems to have paid off in helping maintain her position as state senator, a position many believe she will retain until she decides to give it up.
#19: Tom DeGise, Hudson County Executive (new) – Although he lost a valuable ally when Fulop beat Jerramiah Healy in last year’s Jersey City mayoral race, DeGise retains strength as the standard bearer for a significant portion of old guard Hudson County Democrats. DeGise, who appears to still have the support of Sacco, Menendez, and other power brokers, is seen as a steadying influence in the county, one whose steady hand has kept the county stable during the last ten years of extreme political turmoil.
#20: William O’Dea, Hudson County Freeholder (=, 20) – With his support of Fulop in the last Jersey City mayoral election, O’Dea’s political fortunes rose significantly. He is on the move to expand his influence beyond Jersey City’s west side, and beyond Jersey City even, as he positions himself to run for county executive in 2015. You can expect a lot of fireworks from him over the next year.
#21: Michael Gonnelli, Mayor of Secaucus (+, 22) – Gonnelli, whose ticket ran unopposed last year, had a significantly more influence than the size of his town would otherwise indicate. After winning a long-fought battle over tax sharing in the Meadowlands, he positioned Secaucus as currently one of the few towns in the county to fully embrace the Super Bowl. With significant number of hotels, business offices, and retail, Secaucus has become a job center for other parts of the county. Gonnelli has brokered his town’s status into state concessions on taxes, and remains close to people like Sacco and Prieto.
#22: Hudson County school superintendents (new) – A school superintendent is only as powerful as the Board of Education he or she serves, but in Hudson County, there are some powerful boards. Hoboken, Jersey City, Union City, and West New York are only four of several “Abbott” districts in the county, meaning they’re largely funded by state dollars. How those dollars are spent is up to the various board of ed, but how they’re implemented often falls to the superintendent, and therein lies enormous influence over the children’s facilities, their curricula and, at the end of the day, their minds.
#23: Hudson County arts community (new) – If it weren’t for politicians, Hudson County might be known to the rest of the tri-state area not as a land of backroom deals and shady election results, but as a haven for artists, where rents are cheaper than New York and local governments encourage collaboration of many kinds. From Bayonne to North Hudson, artists have banded together to form musical communities like Arts Circle, the Union City Chamber Players, and the Hudson River Performing Arts Center; film festivals like the Golden Door in Jersey City and NoHo in Union City, and theater groups like Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre and Weehawken’s Hudson Theatre Group.
#24: Norman Guerra, Chairman of the Hudson County Improvement Authority (new) – As chairman of the Hudson County Improvement Authority, Guerra controls one of Hudson County’s biggest, yet least conspicuous, pots of money. The HCIA – with its ability lend to governments and authorize loans to development projects – has become a kind of bank that many rely on and an instrument for advancing projects that might not otherwise be able to move ahead.
#25: Anthony Vainieri and Joe Muniz, political operatives (-, 17, and new, respectively) – Vainieri and Muniz are rival political princes under the dominion of Sacco. Both are looking for ways to become the next generation of political bigshots. This year, both have made advances beyond North Bergen, Vainieri as a possible new North Bergen freeholder, and Muniz as chief of staff for newly named Assembly Speaker Vincent Prieto. These are two people to watch over the next year as the possible next generation of leadership rising up out of North Hudson.
#26: Carmelo Garcia, State Assemblyman and Director of the Hoboken Housing Authority (new) – There was a moment this summer when it looked as if Garcia – a longtime Hoboken politico with connections to former mayors Anthony Russo and David Roberts – would be out of the picture for good, when Zimmer’s allies on the Housing Authority board tried to oust him and he retaliated by filing a mildly eccentric lawsuit against her, claiming she, the city’s first Jewish mayor, wanted to “ethnically cleanse” Hoboken. Still, by the year’s end, Garcia had kept his job at the Housing Authority (for a whopping $175,000 a year) and had prevailed in November’s general election to be elected one of the 33rd District’s new state assemblymen. In January, his lawsuit against Zimmer was dismissed, but he said he plans to refile.
#27: Michael Russo, Hoboken councilman (new) – His surname precedes him in the world of Hudson County politics, but Russo is far more his own entity than simply his father’s (former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo) son. A charismatic smooth-talker, Russo spent much of Zimmer’s first term railing against her management style and spending tactics, but he stayed relatively quiet during her reelection campaign (he endorsed one of her challengers, but unlike his anti-Zimmer colleagues on the council, he stayed out of the spotlight) and since Election Day has positioned himself to be Zimmer’s sixth vote on measures that demand a supermajority (six votes; Zimmer currently controls only five). Russo has contacts outside of Hoboken as well – he’s one of Stack’s few remaining allies, is building a relationship with Fulop in Jersey City, and has many of the county old-timers, especially DeGise, on speed dial.
#28: Craig Guy and Bud Demmelier Jr., HCDO political operatives (-, 18) – With roots deep in Hudson County government, Guy and Demmelier have served as the chief architects for the Hudson County Democratic Organization for well over a decade. While they were diminished by Healy’s loss in his run for mayor of Jersey City, both have a significant voice in Hudson County government, Bayonne, and North Bergen, and are still seen as behind-the-scenes operatives.
#29: Riaz Wahid and Esther Wintner, Jersey City activists (+, 34) – Holding no political office, Wahid and Wintner have had a huge influence on public policy over the last decade and the last year, especially when it comes to the plight of homelessness in the county. Not only outspoken at Jersey City meetings, they have pushed their agenda on a county level, resulting in more positive policies in regards to providing care and shelter for the county’s most vulnerable.
#30: Felix Roque, Mayor, and Silvio Acosta, Deputy Mayor of West New York(-, 27, and new, respectively) – Roque almost didn’t make this list, but just managed to grab the last spot thanks to his chief of staff, Acosta, who has managed to wield such control in the town’s day to day operations that some have gone so far as to name him a shadow mayor. Roque’s ranking on this list has fallen consistently since he ran a successful recall election against former Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega in 2011; his subsequent indictment on federal hacking charges became a great hindrance throughout the past two years. But he beat the rap in spectacular fashion in 2013, and with Acosta’s help, is solidifying his power against challengers like Commissioner Count Wiley and Freeholder Jose Munoz. Still, federal investigators are looking into allegations that he took part in unethical hiring practices in the town’s school district and punished teachers who didn’t contribute to his war chest, so unless lightning strikes the same place twice, next year’s list could be free of Felix.
Honorable Mention: Hoboken/Jersey City Heights Freeholder Anthony Romano, the North Hudson Community Action Corps (which provides health services for the needy throughout the county), state Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez (D – West New York), Jersey City Director of City Planning Robert Cotter, U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell, Brian Stack’s chief of staff Mark Albiez, Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff, Axiom Communications (a public relations firm fighting to change rent control laws around Hudson County), and the county’s tech startups.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
and Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.