Secaucus Democratic Committee Chairman Vincent Prieto sucked what little drama still remained out of the upcoming November election last week when he announced that the local party will not run a mayoral candidate in the upcoming race.
The decision all but guarantees that 2nd Ward Town Councilman and Independent mayoral candidate Michael Gonnelli will be elected mayor of Secaucus in November.
Former mayor Dennis Elwell had been on the ballot and was seeking his fifth term, but abandoned his reelection bid after he was arrested on corruption charges in July. Elwell also resigned as mayor.
At issue for Gonnelli will be control of the council come January.
“I just didn’t think that, in two months, there was anybody with any town-wide stature that could mount a worthy challenge [to Gonnelli],” Prieto said last week. “You would always prefer to have a full ticket. But that isn’t always the best strategy.”
The absence of a mayoral candidate could have major repercussions for 1st Ward Councilwoman Dawn McAdam, 3rd Ward Councilman John Reilly, and 2nd Ward council candidate Frank Trombetta, who were running on Elwell’s slate. All three candidates have previous campaign experience, especially Reilly, who has been a councilman for more than a decade. But they relied heavily on the “Team Elwell” political machine in the June primary and may struggle to duplicate that momentum in November.
Strategy will remain the same
McAdam and Trombetta last week acknowledged the loss, but said they remain confident they can win, even without a mayoral candidate.
“This decision isn’t going to change my campaign strategy whatsoever,” said McAdam, who is running for her first full term. “Frank Trombetta, John Reilly, and I are still a team and we’re working together with Vinnie Prieto. We’re running on our record, and personally I’m running an issue-oriented campaign that’s guided by the residents.”
Trombetta said Prieto convinced him that campaigning on Elwell’s “record of low taxes, clean safe streets, and excellent services” will garner more votes than a mayoral candidate.
“Vinnie threw some scenarios out there. We sat down, mulled it over, and this decision made the most sense,” Trombetta said. “I’m pretty comfortable with it now.”
Prieto, who is up for reelection this year, believes he and Gov. Jon Corzine will be enough of a draw to lure Secaucus Democrats to the polls on Nov. 3. Corzine, a Democrat, is facing a tough race for reelection against Republican candidate Christopher Christie.
“The party doesn’t need a stick figure to hold it together,” Prieto commented. “Since I’m on the ballot and I run at-large in the Town of Secaucus, and of course we have Gov. Corzine, the party does have somebody with name recognition. I think we have a better chance of keeping the seats we have and gaining a seat by having myself and Gov. Corzine as the top of the ticket.”
But Prieto is running unopposed and is assured an easy victory, and so far Democrats have not been energized by the Corzine-Christie race. Low Democratic turnout in Secaucus could spell doom for McAdam, Trombetta, or Reilly and could mean a victory for Gonnelli’s council candidates Rob Costantino, John Bueckner, and Bill McKeever.
“Strategically this was a terrible move,” said one political observer. “You run a candidate, and even if that guy can’t beat Gonnelli, he can campaign for McAdam, Reilly, and Trombetta and secure their victories. If any one of them loses [by a small margin], their margin of defeat will be because there was no candidate for mayor.”
Attention turns to council races
For Gonnelli, the fall campaign season will likely be focused on getting his slate of candidates elected, particularly Costantino in the 1st Ward and McKeever in the 3rd. Neither one has previously run for office and will need to campaign hard to beat McAdam and Reilly.
Incumbent 2nd Ward representative and longtime Town Councilman John Bueckner also is running for reelection on Gonnelli’s slate, but can likely attract voters on his own based on his history in office.
At issue for Gonnelli will be control of the Town Council come Jan. 1. It’s possible that Gonnelli could win the mayor’s seat, but lose control of the council. If McAdam and Reilly win, the Democrats would have three votes on the council with 3rd Ward Councilman John Shinnick. The Independents would also have three votes if Gonnelli and Bueckner win, since 1st Ward Councilman and fellow Independent Gary Jeffas frequently votes with them.
But the council will have to select a new 2nd Ward councilperson to serve out the rest of Gonnelli’s term after he is elected mayor. State law is unclear about how a vacancy is filled if the vacancy was created by an Independent and if there is a tie vote on the governing body. Gonnelli’s seat could end up going to a Democrat if there has to be a special election.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.