The three Independent candidates for Town Council gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel on Wednesday for what was billed as a “pre-election rally,” greeting about 350 enthusiastic supporters. Running under the Independent Take Back Secaucus banner (TBS), the candidates – Gary Jeffas (1st Ward), James Clancy (2nd Ward), and Susan Pirro (3rd Ward) – will return to this same hotel on election night, Nov. 2, for what they hope will be a full sweep of every district.
In the final days of the 2010 council race the Independents cut a sharp contrast to their Democratic opponents.
While TBS decked the halls at the Crowne Plaza, their Democratic challengers Robert Zych (1st Ward), Nancy Mateo (2nd Ward), and Mark Bruscino (3rd ward) still hadn’t hired a place to hold their own victory celebration, just in case the underdogs pull off a stunning victory over the governing body’s reigning political faction.
“I still haven’t made up my mind about that,” said Assemblyman Vincent Prieto, who also serves as the chairman of the Secaucus Democratic Committee.
Election Day is Tues., Nov. 2. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
These observers, for example, point to a recent Zych-Mateo-Bruscino newspaper ad in which the candidates’ ballot position was erroneously given as 1B. According to the Hudson County Clerk, their ballot position is actually 5B.
The perceived missteps of the Democratic campaign have taken much of the drama out of the race and left some voters with the impression the outcome has already been decided.
‘Pounding the pavement’
Of course, don’t say that to the candidates, all of whom said they are taking nothing for granted and will be walking their wards asking for votes all the way through Election Day.
“I’m still knocking on doors and talking to residents about the work we’re doing for the community. I talk to them about the money we discovered the town is owed from unpaid fines and fees and foreclosure properties,” said Clancy, alluding to the administration’s aggressive pursuit of $850,000 in previously uncollected fines, $6 million in special assessments, and other outstanding payments owed to the municipality. “I think people in the 2nd Ward are truly satisfied.”
Clancy, who previously served on the Town Council under former Mayor Paul Amico, was appointed to serve out the remainder of Gonnelli’s term as 2nd Ward councilman after Gonnelli was elected mayor. Clancy is now running for a full four-year term.
The Independents estimate they’ve reached about 97 percent of the homes in town.
“We’re getting around to as many residents as possible. I’ve pretty much finished up everything in the ward. Now I’m just getting back to some houses I may have missed before because people weren’t home,” said Jeffas, who is running for his second term on the council. “What I’m hearing is people are very happy about what’s been going on in town. They’re especially happy about the youth programs, and the expanded senior programs, the programs we had over the summer. I’m also hearing people were happy the tax increase was minimal and they’re pleased about the financial things we’ve uncovered so far. People are more conscious than ever about every dollar that’s being spent, so that’s really resonating. People are very happy that the financial aspects of the town are being looked over closely. That really rings a bell, given the financial times that we’re in.”
Jeffas’ opponent, Robert Zych, said he is spending the last days of the campaign shoring up votes.
“I’m going around the ward again, thanking people for their support. I’m reminding them to go out and vote on Tuesday,” he said. “The feedback I’m getting from my people is very positive and I have to say, things look good.”
Mateo, the Democrats’ 2nd Ward council candidate who is running in her first election for public office, said she is keeping a similarly positive attitude about her chances for victory.
“I’m still pounding the pavement,” Mateo said. “I’m going from house to house speaking to the constituents and telling them that a Democratic voice in an Independent [administration] is something that’s needed because healthy debate is good.”
The argument that the council could benefit from a broader diversity of opinions is a talking point the Democrats hope will sway voters their way.
At present, the seven-member Town Council includes six Independents, including the mayor, and one Democrat, current 3rd Ward Town Councilman John Shinnick. Shinnick’s seat is up for election this year, but he is not among the candidates running. If TBS incumbents Jeffas and Clancy win re-election, and Pirro wins Shinnick’s seat, the Independents will control every seat on the Town Council.
Pirro v. Bruscino: A close race?
From the outset the Pirro-Bruscino match-up was considered the most competitive of the three council races this year and votes in the 3rd Ward could still be the closest on election night.
Still, one prominent Democrat in the 3rd Ward said recently that he expects Pirro, the Independent candidate, to win by a sizeable margin. Other Democrats in the ward have said Bruscino has kept a low profile since winning the party primary in June and may not have done enough legwork to fend off a Pirro victory.
The Democratic candidate himself, however, brushed off the suggestion he can’t beat Pirro.
“I was a little late getting out there. But I’m out there now,” Bruscino said last week. “I’ve hit a good majority of the homes in the ward. It’s going to be tough because I’m running against the backing of the mayor, which is always tough. But I feel it’s going to be a close race.”
However, Pirro has campaigned hard in this vote-rich district that includes both Harmon Cove and Xchange at Secaucus Junction, the town’s two largest developments.
“What I’m doing in the last week [of the campaign] is what I’ve been doing for months: going out talking to residents. Introducing myself to them if they don’t already know me; going door to door; seeing if they have concerns about the 3rd Ward or about the town,” Pirro stated.
The candidate said she has been on every street in the district and has visited or left literature with every single family or townhome in the ward. She has also been spotted shaking hands with Xchange residents – most of whom are new to Secaucus – during evening rush hours as they get off shuttle buses at the development.
But Prieto said his candidates “are getting a good response,” including Bruscino. “Hopefully that will translate into votes at the polls.”
Democrats a no-show?
In the waning weeks of the campaign the Independents have tried to make an issue of the fact that the Democratic candidates have not regularly attended Town Council meetings, which are held every other Tuesday.
The Democrats, however, have said this is a nonissue.
“I watch the council meetings on TV,” said Zych. “The Independents fought to get the meetings televised, and I supported that. That’s the point of having televised meetings, so people can watch them when it’s convenient for them.”
Zych did, however, attend the meeting of Oct. 12.
Bruscino, who estimated that he has attended one or two since he announced his candidacy, also said he views the meetings on the local public access station, as does Mateo.
“In order for me to campaign, I do have to know about the issues,” Mateo stated. “What kind of candidate would I be if I didn’t know what the issues were? I’ve been looking at the council meetings on TV and the ‘net…I’m sure if I went to the meetings people would be asking my opinion. At this point my opinion is like everybody else’s. I can’t make a change. So why am I going to put myself in jeopardy? And frankly, I need to be out campaigning.”
But Pirro, who has attended every council meeting, and a number of caucus meetings as well, said, “I don’t know if watching the meetings on TV is enough if you’re running for office. There’s a lot of discussion that takes place before and after council meetings with the public. And it’s important to engage in that, to hear what people are saying. And it’s important to see how the councilmen interact with the constituents because it helps you learn how to engage the public if you’re elected yourself.”
In October, the Hudson Reporter Newspaper Group hosted a debate with the candidates running for Secaucus Town Council. The debate can be accessed by visiting www.HudsonReporter.com and will be available online through Election Day.
Election Day is Tues., Nov. 2. Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.