Who will be the main influencers in Hudson County during 2018? The Reporter’s annual rankings are below. Influence and power aren’t just confined to the political arena, of course.
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And now, the 2018 list:
1. State Sen. and Union City Mayor Brian Stack (2 last year). Stack’s early endorsement of Murphy for governor and his always powerful get-out-the-vote operation puts the dual office holder in a prominent position on the state level. North Bergen Mayor and State Sen. Sacco’s endorsement of Stack to chair the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) will give him significantly more influence across Hudson County. Stack has built a powerful coalition among other mayors and legislators. This has turned him from the political outsider of the past to the leader of the Democratic Party in Hudson County.
2. State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco (1 last year). Nicholas Sacco’s long career as a public servant appears to be changing, but he is still a force to be reckoned with in the county. He appears to be passing the torch to others. The intense battle among statewide Democrats last year led to a realignment of power from North Jersey to South Jersey. Since local Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (a strong Sacco ally) is no longer speaker, and with Sacco giving up the chairmanship of the Hudson County Democratic Party, Sacco’s control over county dwindles. Still, he retains significant power in North Hudson.
3. Gov. Phil Murphy (new). Phil Murphy has already taken the lead in Hudson County concerning major issues, including opposing NJ Transit’s attempt to buy land in Hoboken and promising to make improvements to the beleaguered transportation system. He will likely push ahead with the new rail tunnel under the Hudson River, and has supported citizen groups that opposed development plans for portions of Liberty State Park. At an appearance in Jersey City just after being sworn in as governor, Murphy made a commitment to support Hudson County in the future.
4. U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (3 last year). Menendez, who has become a leading spokesperson against Trump administration immigration policies, is up for reelection. Although he will not be re-tried on corruption charges, his mistrial may be used against him by Republican opponents.
5. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (4 last year). Fulop, despite a police scandal during his reign and a near-scandal involving former associates in City Hall, won reelection with 78 percent of the votes cast. He appears to be mending fences with Menendez and Murphy, which bodes well, and is close to Stack. If the prediction is right that Jersey City will become the most populated city in the state (and with buildings rising everywhere, it seems likely), Fulop as mayor will have a lot to say in the future.
6. Anthony Vainieri (8 last year). Named for the second year in a row as chairman of the Hudson County Board of Freeholders, Vainieri is a rising star, someone seen as the heir apparent to North Bergen political power once Nicholas Sacco decides to retire. Within a few short years, Vainieri has grown as a leader, laying out his vision for county government and expansion. He will likely oversee the groundbreaking of the new Hudson County Jail.
7. Ravi Bhalla (new). Ravi Bhalla was elected Hoboken mayor last November after facing five other candidates for the office of mayor. He became the first Sikh mayor of New Jersey, making national news. His election was considered a victory not only for minorities but for all Americans, according to Sen. Cory Booker, who in January swore him in. Since his inauguration, Bhalla has designated Hoboken a “welcoming city” and fought NJ Transit so the city can try to acquire northern waterfront property. With the force of a wealthy economy helping, Bhalla has the potential to influence county spending and the impact of county tax burdens on municipalities.
8. Esther Suarez (new). Esther Suarez as Hudson County Prosecutor has already proven herself as a powerful force for law enforcement as well as serving a role model for the Latino community. The Hudson County Prosecutor is poised to take on issues still plaguing the county like murder, gangs, and domestic violence. Political corruption cases can also fall under her purview.
9. State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (honorable mention last year). Sandra Cunningham as state senator, representing all of Bayonne and some of the poorest sections of Jersey City, has been busy drafting and passing legislation designed to help former criminal offenders reenter society as productive citizens. As chair of the state Senate Higher Education Committee, she will have a significant role in helping colleges.
10. Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise (9 last year). Always known as the peacemaker in Hudson County politics, DeGise’s role has diminished somewhat with peace between Stack and Sacco. An already declared candidate for reelection in 2019, DeGise clearly intends to finish up some of the work he started which will include the opening of the new countywide High Tech High School (a competitive countywide public high school), breaking ground on a new court house complex, as well as the extension of the Hudson Bergen Light Rail to Route 440 in Jersey City. He is often called the “Mayor of Hudson County.”
11. Women in government (new). Political power in Hudson County has historically been mostly a man’s game, but this is changing as women emerge in nearly every field and break the political glass ceiling. There were early pioneers, like Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, former Jersey City Acting Mayor Marilyn Roman, and Assemblywoman Joan Quigley. They paved the way for people like Cunningham (listed above) and Assembly members Annette Chapparro, Angelica M. Jimenez, and Angela McKnight, and Freeholder Caridad Rodriguez.
McKnight, whose non-profit Angela Cares has become a staple of southern Jersey City, is rapidly becoming one of the most prolific lawmakers in her role as an assemblywoman. She has authored and seen passed into law a massive amount of progressive legislation that has a direct impact on Hudson County’s poorest neighborhoods.
Also: Elizabeth Cain became the executive director of the new Exchange Place SID this year, promising to revitalize the waterfront’s cultural and business opportunities. Along with Rachel Sieg, executive director of the Historic Downtown SID, they will have a strong say over cultural and business affairs in the wealthiest part of the county.
Janet Castro is the first woman in North Bergen history to serve as health director. Kathy Gohde of Weehawken is member of the Advisory Council Board for the Hudson County Office on Aging. Benita Caridad Parets serves a similar role in West New York. Although she recently stepped down as Secaucus council member, Susan Pirro is a staunch advocate for animal rights.
Other prominent women in business and government include Francine LeFrak, Jersey City Superintendent of Schools Dr. Marcia Lyles, Hoboken Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Johnson, and Hoboken councilwoman and Hoboken Democratic Committee Chair Tiffanie Fisher. Jersey City Councilwoman Joyce Watterman has become one of the most powerful African-American leaders in Hudson County.
12. Environmental groups and activists. Sam Pesin and the Friends of Liberty State Park were instrumental in opposing the state’s development plans in Liberty State Park, and have long protected the park. In Hoboken, Ron Hine and his Fund for a Better Waterfront helped urge for the city of Hoboken to buy Union Dry Dock on the north waterfront so that it could become a park, running petition drives and making the case before the city was able to do so publicly. Former Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer says she’s going to be involved in advocating for environmental protection in the wake of the Trump administration’s rollbacks on various climate change policies. Other local groups have long gotten involved in development controversies and issues.
Behind these two are a variety of powerful groups such as the Sierra Club, The Bay Keeper and the Hackensack River Keeper. With NJ Transit ready to impose projects on Hoboken and wealthy developers seeking to encroach on Liberty State Park, you can expect Hine, Pesin, and others to do what they have in the past, holding rallies and meetings to drum up opposition. The Bayonne Nature Club, under Patricia Hilliard, includes many vocal environmentalists in Bayonne.
13. Art House Productions and other arts groups. Hoping not to get priced out of Hudson County, arts groups (as are the individual artists who can still afford to live here) are fighting to find permanent homes. Still, groups like Art House Productions have sponsored everything from gallery openings to social events to numerous festivals. Jersey City has become a center for the arts, particularly downtown and the Heights. Smaller organizations and individuals in local government have pushed for events such as art exhibits in public buildings, particularly in Union City at the William Musto Cultural Center and on the county level.
Developer Manhattan Builders, which currently provides space for Art House productions at one of its buildings on Jersey Avenue, has proposed to provide more permanent facilities in a new building under renovation. Paul Silverman, a developer in Jersey City, continues to provide space for two galleries as well as supports arts programs throughout the city.
The Jersey Arts Council has successfully lobbied Jersey City to purchase a building in Journal Square that they hope will become a new cultural center.
Meredith Burns took over as executive director of Art House at a critical time. Burns replaced Christine Goodman, who has since become the director of Cultural Affairs for Jersey City.
To show that the arts scene is growing in Bayonne, Cheryl and Christopher Mack recently unveiled the grand opening of their passion project, The Bridge Art Gallery, showcasing local work from Bayonne and Montclair artists, as well as some pieces from Atlanta.
In Jersey City, Mana, White Eagle Hall, and Transmissions have become centers for fine as well as performing arts.
Bill and Michele Sorvino, founders of the Golden Door International Film Festival, are also involved in many other aspects of the arts scene. Theater groups like Hoboken’s Mile Square Theatre and Weehawken’s Hudson Theatre Group also keep the arts alive, as do a group of local galleries in those towns. Union City and Secaucus have hosted art shows and plays in their relatively new arts centers. Lucio Fernandez puts together events (and art) in Union City.
Art teacher Liz Cohen Ndoye proves that even a library can become a cultural center with her displays in Hoboken. Geri Fallo oversees the city’s division of cultural affairs. Bryan Beninghove and Margo Parks have expanded The Riverview Jazz Festival beyond the boundaries of Jersey City, bringing in internationally recognized performers.
14. The North Hudson power bloc. The mayors not aforementioned still wield some regional power, although much of it is local. However, there are projects and policies affected beyond their towns. These include Richard Turner in Weehawken, Felix Roque in West New York, Wayne Zitt in Guttenberg, and Michael Gonnelli in Secaucus.
15. The local press. So much is missed by purely political websites, or when the news comes only from City Hall. From those small but important meetings that no one else attends, to the less sensational events that need attention for the greater good (such as charity fundraisers), to corruption investigations that appear to have gone mysteriously quiet and need investigation, the local press will continue to shine a light on stories that would otherwise slip by. Unfortunately, it happens in a climate of dwindling resources (some factors, such as hikes in the cost of newsprint, readers often don’t realize). While the newer websites in the area tend to focus only on major political controversies, longer-term media will feature important news from all facets of the community, whether it’s writing about a needy person, students of the month, school sports, arts exhibits, late-night decisions by zoning boards, and public information that requires weeks of submitting requests to get. Investigative articles in the Hudson Reporter in the last few years have pointed out problems and recently spurred new initiatives. A 100-year-old Secaucus newspaper folded last year (the Home News) and the daily Hudson Dispatch closed in 1991, but there are still a few entities that keep citizens’ questions from being squelched, reach out for comments and quotes from all sides of the spectrum, and remind public servants that their constituents are watching. The media can’t continue to their job without suggestions, feedback, and input from readers, and the letters pages allow residents to speak out about local issues in a different way.
16. Women Rising. With the national “#Me Too” movement drawing attention to so many injustices against women that were not even a part of the conversation a year ago – mainly sexual harassment and coercion – leaders of local nonprofits and activist groups fighting for women have a powerful mandate this year. The county, too, has said they will focus more on domestic violence, although new initiatives have not been publicly announced. Jersey City-based nonprofit group Women’s Rising (led by Margaret Abrams) helps domestic violence victims and may play a part in urging for more attention to the issue after several women were killed, allegedly by their partners, in Jersey City last year. Battered women often need financial help as well as a place to live in order to escape violent situations.
17. Colleges (18 last year). With Gov. Murphy promising to provide free community college education, colleges in Hudson County will have a huge impact on people’s lives. Hudson County Community College may become the foundation for education for many students. With new buildings opening up in Journal Square, expanded programs at its North Hudson Campus, as well as new satellite located at the Hudson County Schools of Technology in Secaucus, HCCC will likely see many more students.
NJCU’s western campus expansion comes with a promise that needy students entering as freshmen this year will leave debt free in four years. This is a result of a private public partnership that will help offset the costs to the college. St. Peter’s University is moving ahead with expansion plans of its own for the McGinley Square area. Hoboken’s Stevens Institute of Technology is undergoing massive expansion.
Paul Hoffman, executive director of Liberty Science Center, will perhaps lead the most ambitious project in planning and building a new technology village near Liberty State Park.
18. Individual women’s activists and trailblazers. Liz Cohen Ndoye organized the Hudson County contingent to the Women’s March to Washington D.C. Ora Welsh, as director of HOPES, has a significant role in helping the community. Last year Cailin Brodel became the first female firefighter in the history of Bayonne. Constance Zappella, in Jersey City, not only became one of the first female firefighters, but fought against discrimination in promotions and became the first female battalion chief.
19. Immigrant rights groups. Secaucus resident Lorna Henkel; Rev. Birgit Solano, pastor of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Weehawken, and members of First Friends NJ NY, based in Kearny, have led the fight for immigrant detainee rights in Hudson County and throughout the state of New Jersey. Behind the scenes, Howard Moskowitz has been working tirelessly to ferret out information about inmates and develop strategies for helping detainees.
Among public officials most involved in this effort are Freeholder Chairman Anthony Vainieri and Freeholder Bill O’Dea. Stack has also spoken out publicly against the Trump administration and the national targeting of immigrants. Stack and Fulop have designated their towns “sanctuary cities.”
20. Other civic groups, non-profits and volunteers. Civic groups have grown very powerful over the last year, some in response to policies issued by the Trump Administration, others in response to continuing needs. As people move into luxury housing in the county, the area’s homeless and poorest residents (not to mention artists) need their own protections.
Although she stepped down as Civic JC president, Esther Wintner continues to play an important part in uncovering some serious issues in Jersey City and fighting for quality of life. Mamta Singh helped found in 2010 and it has become a force for diversity in Jersey City and around Hudson County, serving more than 23,000 families.
Other extremely active groups include the Windmill Alliance, Catch You Later Foundation, and Recognized by Hudson County government over the last few years to provide services to the most needy in the county, The Bayonne Economic Opportunity Fund is headed Samantha Howard. Matt and Stephanie Cohen have been very active with The Madison Rose Heart Project for infants with heart defects,
Hoboken’s Shirael Pollack has taken up support for the Hoboken Public School District through her nonprofit, Hoboken Public Education Foundation, which has pusedh for facility upgrades, professional development, and new programs in the district.
Other community activists and groups include Hudson Pride, Laura Knittel for LBGTQ rights, and Tom Foley from Hoboken Senior Center. The Waterfront Project, which opened a new facility in Jersey City, last year provides lawyers working for the poor.
Suraj Kaufman, Sneaker Room in Jersey City, donates to myriad charities.
Former Gov. Jim McGreevey became an influential leader in prisoner reentry, reaching well beyond Jersey City and Hudson County, to various community groups.
21. Junior Maldonado (new). He became Hudson County Clerk this year, and his role will allow him to oversee record keeping on property, marriages, and even elections. In one of the most important government positions in the county, Maldonado is expected to make changes that will increase the county’s efficiency.
22. Protectors of the children (new). CASA trains volunteers as local advocates for foster kids, and works to place and provide more stability for the city’s more than 700 foster kids. Many of its volunteers throughout the county have made a major difference in local kids’ lives.
The Hudson County Boys and Girls Club, with Gary Greenberg as executive director of the local clubs, provides kids with safe after-school and summer care. Recently, Greenberg received a visit at the Jersey City location from Tammy Murphy, wife of Gov. Phil Murphy. His location was selected as one of two such clubs in the state as a model for community involvement. It is serving as the springboard for a relief effort to help the victims of Hurricane Marie that struck Puerto Rico last year.
Amy Albert runs Haven for Kids, a safe place for kids at risk in Jersey City.
Although Jerry Walker was elected as a Hudson County freeholder in November, his impact with youth in and outside of Jersey City is well-known. He has managed to create ties to statewide programs that provide local kids with opportunities for success. Pete Amadeo heads the Buddy baseball and other programs for kids with special needs. The True Mentors program hooks kids up with positive role models.
23. Homeless activists (new). Riaz Wahid, Erik-Anders Nilsson, and Jessica Hellinger led the Jersey City Peace Movement, which has taken a stand against violence, war, and immigrant intimidation. They are also key figures in helping to feed the homeless throughout Hudson County. Teaming up with Garden State Episcopal Community Development Corporation, they successfully lobbied the county to provide a warming center to handle homeless persons who cannot find room in shelters. Other activists include Carol Saint Hilaire, and Jaclyn Cherubini, executive director of The Hoboken Shelter. A new home for homeless vets was advocated by American Legion Post 107, led by John Carey and Mark Villamar, which began demolition last year for the space. Rene Gonzalez, owner of Bambino Chef, teaches kids cooking skills and often holds programs that donate food to local shelters.
24. Transit activists and leaders. The influence of Bike JC has been felt throughout the county with towns adopting bike sharing programs. The group is lobbying for safety measures in conjunction with SafeStreets Jersey City focusing the more dangerous streets in the county. Pam O’Donnell works for safe driving in Bayonne. The city of Hoboken appears to have heeded the call of local bicycle riders and may at long last link its bike share system with Jersey City.
25. Chambers of Commerce. Various local chambers of commerce have become more involved in local government, helping to shape new policy and legislation: such as the Hoboken Chamber of Commerce, led by President Richard Mackiewicz. The Hoboken Chamber recently presented a unified voice from the business community through a white paper detailing their issues and opportunities as the city undergoes its Master Plan Reexamination. The Hudson County Chamber, under the leadership of President and CEO Maria Nieves, has also had influence countywide.
Honorable Mention Also worth noting: Hoboken Councilman Ruben Ramos Jr., head of the JC Redevelopment Agency David Donnelly, Hoboken Councilman Michael DeFusco, City Planner Suzanne Mack, Bayonne Quilt Club (which donates their quilts), Terry Young, Music on Broadway, Captain Bayonne, McCabe Ambulance and all first responders (including the all-volunteer Hoboken Ambulance and Secaucus Fire Department and at Jersey City Medical Center), the unions, the Junior Chamber of Commerce, the Hoboken Motorcycle Club, which supports charities, CarePoint and other medical companies and area hospital operators, adoption activist Heidi Conlin, Matt and Stephanie Cohen, magician and health educator Micky Magic, Sai Rao and the North Bergen Public Library with its ample programming, the Jersey City Public Library, developers who give back, your local bartenders and baristas (particularly those facilitating friendly conversations at hip local joints like ModCup and Bwe), and any resident with the guts to speak out at a public meeting.