Eighteen months ago, Raul "Rudy" Garcia could do no wrong. After mending political fences with Brian Stack, a man who came within 800 votes of unseating him as mayor of Union City, Garcia finally seemed to be on the fast track to political success. Some people actually believed he could take the place on some level of the legendary Mayor Bruce Walters - the political powerhouse who helped shape North Hudson politics for several decades. But last year, after the political celebrations ended, and the county got on with every day business, something changed. Garcia's enemies - including Menendez ally Donald Scarinci and Stack - claim he began to make moves inside and outside Union City that alienated people who had offered him their political support only last November. "It was an attempted coup," one north Hudson observer said. "A coup designed to unseat Congressman Menendez and put himself in that seat." This is a tale so often repeated that many people on the political scene have come to believe it is true. But Garcia - defending himself and the political backlash that has come as a result - claims he never made a move on Menendez, but rumors to that effect have caused a civil war in Union City with repercussions through the rest of the county. "What I did do is fire Donald Scarinci," Garcia said. "Donald Scarinci is Bob Menendez's money man and since then people have been coming out to get me." Scarinci, a friend and treasurer for Menendez and attorney doing business in various Hudson County communities, wasn't only fired from Union City. He also found himself put out of jobs in North Bergen and Secaucus, replaced by members of the Weiner Lesniak law firm of Union County, a firm in which Garcia is a principal partner. Although political factions have portrayed a conflict between Garcia and Menendez, Garcia said it was Scarinci who masterminded the attack on Garcia's administration, undermining confidence among key supporters. Earlier this year, Garcia removed Scarinci as well as a number of other key people in the administration. People opposing Garcia have painted this as an attack on Menendez, when Garcia said with the exception of Scarinci's firing, replacement of personnel was routine, and not a political purge. "We fired Scarinci because over the last 12 years he had billed Union City $9 million in fees," Garcia said. "I thought that $700,000 a year was too much for the taxpayers to pay." Scarinci said defended his fees, saying that he uses the resources of his entire firm to do the city's legal work. Since then, Garcia said, moves have been made to disrupt plans to balance the budget, including upsetting two key projects that would have prevented taxes from going up this year. When Garcia tried to sell Roosevelt Stadium to the Board of Education, members of the Union City Board of Commissioners loyal to Scarinci - Garcia said - scuttled the plans. When Garcia tried to turn a currently non-taxpaying bus station into commercial taxpaying project, the same group of commissioners acted against him. "This is all because I fired Donald Scarinci," Garcia said. A political divorce
Earlier this month, Garcia's train to glory got derailed by a rebellion led by Freeholder Brian Stack (whose alliance with Garcia had failed) and three other Union City commissioners, who stripped the mayor of many of his powers, and reassigned the duties to other commissioners. As part of these changes, Scarinci also got his position back. Stack said the move came as a result of Garcia's failure to live up to the agreement that brought peace last year, one in which Stack was supposed to be included in decisions made within Union City. "While I love being in politics, I love being in government more," Stack said. "I saw politics getting out of control in Union City. I tried to live up to my part of the agreement with Rudy over the last 16 months, but I found my suggestions being ignored and Rudy leaving me out of things." Stack said Garcia's approach to government was part of the problem. "Rudy is a legislator who has become a mayor. Rudy is used to submitting legislation and then if it doesn't pass telling people he tried and failed," Stack said. "But on a municipal level, people expect us to solve problems. That's something Rudy couldn't get into his head. If there is a pot hole, people expect it to be fixed." Stack said Garcia's hiring of more than 200 people contributed to the financial worries of Union City, and when the commissioners sought to put a hiring freeze on, Garcia refused to cut the payroll. Garcia's contacts within the county in 1999 allowed Garcia to pad the local budget, even going so far as to sell town hall to the Hudson County Improvement Authority. "All Rudy had to do was cut back on spending," Stack said. "With all the grants and loans and bonds floated, that might have been enough to balance the budget." Garcia, however, said he had cooperated with Stack, but that Stack had become one of the victims of the misinformation campaign. While Garcia did not dispute the number of people hired, he said most were hired to replace retiring employees, and that only 39 new people were hired, 20 police officers and 19 dispatchers. Garcia said through various uses of part time employees, he had managed to reduce the overall work force. Out there on his own
Garcia is seen by some of his supporters as the victim of North Hudson politics, not as the political shark others have painted him. Menendez supporters claim Garcia tried tell people that he had an organization independent of Brian Stack and Robert Janiszewski, but had made use of a political machine built by Menendez and former Union City Mayor Bruce Walter. "When Garcia formed an alliance with Stack, the machine began to work for Garcia," Scarinci said. "But when Rudy decided to take on Menendez and fire key allies of Menendez, Garcia weakened his own base." Garcia, according Scarinci, never had the political clout to take Menendez on. Many of the local political people had been part of the Menendez-Walters team since 1982. "Many of the people who were hired into key positions didn't just have a political relationship to Menendez, they also had a personal one," Scarinci said. "Bob Menendez isn't just a politician, he's the local guy that made good, the symbol of Union City pride. People have talked about him as a vice presidential candidate, and people in this area are proud as peacocks. To have Rudy talk bad about him only made Rudy's fall inevitable." Garcia, however, said he never went against Menendez, and that the only time he even considered the congressional seat was when Menendez sought a seat in the Senate. When Menendez changed his mind, Garcia backed off. But Scarinci and others say Garcia tried to build his own machine, putting out "tentacles" into various communities throughout Hudson County. Responding to whether he reached out around the county, Garcia said only that he was using various tools to help Union City. Stack, who has promised to run for mayor against Garcia, said he would pull in all the political tentacles. Scarinci said it wouldn't be necessary to pull them in, "Many of the tentacles have been cut off." Both men said political people who formerly sought closer relations to the mayor may now be seeking to create distance from Garcia, and that Garcia's political future as Union City mayor and Assemblyman in the 33rd district may be in jeopardy. But Garcia is not without resources, said Anthony Iacono, former Union City administrator and a personal friend of Garcia's. "He may be feeling down now, but he's only one vote away from retaking the board of commissioners," Iacono said. "Three of the commissioners, who are voting against him, all said they want to run against him for mayor. All Rudy has to do is sit back and watch them fight. Sooner or later, he'll get one of the others to vote with him and have the majority back." Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell, a major Garcia supporter, said he had not abandoned the Union City Mayor. "While he is having troubles in North Hudson, he is still a friend of mine and he has supported me in the past," Elwell said. Garcia said he has one valuable resource that is not part of any political machine. "I'm taking the issue to the people," he said. "I'm going to let them decide who is telling the truth. They will see through this ruse and they will decide who should have control - not Donald Scarinci. That goes for Union City and the 33rd Assembly District."