After weeks of rumors that the leaders of Hudson County’s Democratic Party were shifting support away from Hudson County Sheriff Juan Perez, who is up for reelection this year, it has become obvious that they are backing his opponent, county Undersherrif Frank Schillari, a Secaucus resident.
Party heavyweights Tom DeGise, the Hudson County executive, and North Bergen Mayor Nick Sacco are now publically supporting Schillari and predicting that he will win big in the June contest against Perez.
Schillari’s detractors, many of whom support Perez, have tried to undermine his candidacy and question his fitness for elected office, pointing to a report in the local daily newspaper three weeks ago that said Schillari allegedly had an “amicable” conversation with an alleged member of the Genovese crime family that was picked up on a wire worn by an FBI informant in 2004. The story did not indicate what or whom the FBI was investigating.
Schillari has promised to “increase efficiency [and] boost morale” and the department.
In any case, the story may not be enough to diminish political support for Schillari. Many sources, including Perez spokesman Robert Knapp, agree that Sheriff Perez has an unexpectedly difficult primary battle ahead of him.
A longtime Secaucus resident and a former sergeant with the Secaucus Police Department, Schillari has served as an undersheriff in the Hudson County Sheriff’s department since 1997. During his tenure, he has overseen the department’s Communications Center, as well as the Patrol, Detective, and Criminal Identification bureaus. He has also served as a Special Deputy United States Marshall with the New York, New Jersey Regional Fugitive Task Force.
Described as an active Democrat, Schillari has promised to “increase efficiency [and] boost morale” and the department.
Last week, two of his biggest supporters spoke up on his behalf.
“I’ve known the undersheriff for many years and he has an excellent understanding of the department and its personnel, and he understands the needs of the officers,” said Sacco. “He serves with compassion and intelligence. And I believe he’s going to modernize the department and work very well with the communities in the county. He’s very attuned to the needs of the local community.”
While Sacco, who is also a state senator in Trenton, talked up Schillari’s human qualities, DeGise played up Schillari’s resume.
“Frank is a veteran law enforcement guy,” he said. “He’s a veteran of the Sheriff’s Department, so he’ll be able to hit the ground running. It’s important to the mayors to know that they have a sheriff that will cooperate with their own enforcement departments. And I think they look at Frank as that type of guy.”
Two officials in Secaucus, where he served on the local police department, also had positive comments on his work
Perez a ‘maverick’
Some sources interviewed last week began to hint at the reason Hudson County Democrats – including the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) – are now supporting Schillari over Perez.
Schillari’s supporters say he is a “nice guy” who can “get along” with Hudson County mayors, police chiefs, and rank and file officers in the Sheriff’s Office.
Perez, who was elected sheriff in 2007 and took office in 2008, has ruffled the feathers of some mayors and members of his department, according to several sources. A number of sources described him as a “maverick” who initiated law enforcement projects without getting the support of local mayors and police chiefs, and who didn’t do enough of the police work local leaders preferred.
The sheriff’s office is primarily responsible for protecting Hudson County’s Superior Court in Jersey City and helping local authorities protect county roads and parks, such as Laurel Hill in Secaucus and James L. Braddock Park in North Bergen.
Perez, however, took an interest in areas of law enforcement that generally fall under the discretion of local police departments, sources said last week. Such initiatives as the “Click it or Ticket” campaign and anti-speeding measures were specifically cited by sources as programs that Perez emphasized that were contrary to what some local mayors thought his department should be doing.
Two years ago, residents in Secaucus complained to former Mayor Dennis Elwell after several of them began receiving speeding tickets from Hudson County Sheriff’s officers on County Avenue. While residents had long complained about speeding in various areas of town, this anti-speeding campaign was launched by the county without the Town Council or Secaucus Police Department being notified of the effort.
Perez’s spokesman refuted reports that he did not work well with local mayors.
“When he took office he made a number of promises,” said Knapp. “One of them was to fully cooperate with the municipalities, both mayors and their police chiefs in regards to countywide law enforcement. And he did it. There were people in this county who hadn’t seen a sheriff’s officer in all the 12 years prior to Sheriff Perez being elected. He has reinstituted patrols of county parks, which freed up local police officers to concentrate on city streets.”
Perez frequently sends letters to this newspaper outlining his accomplishments and goals.
One Perez supporter in law enforcement who asked not to be named said he believes the sheriff is just another casualty of Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s weakened clout within the county.
Healy tapped Perez to run for County Sheriff three years ago, and convinced others in the party to give him the Democratic line because it was time for a Latino to be in that position of leadership. Healy, who chairs the HCDO, had wanted Perez to get the same support this year for his reelection bid. But Healy, whose administration has been under a cloud since last summer’s corruption busts, was unable to broker such a deal, sources said last week.
This situation, one source said, allowed Sacco to take advantage of an opportunity and quickly build support for Schillari. (Two sources said that if Schillari wins, he has agreed to appoint an undersheriff with ties to Union City Mayor Brian Stack.)
Regarding the lack of support, “We are utterly shocked and surprised by this,” Knapp said. “We have no idea where this shift in support is coming from. It’s something we didn’t foresee happening.”
With backing from the HCDO, Schillari will have momentum – and campaign money – going into the primary, and his supporters believe he will win both the Democratic primary in June and then the November general election.
Schillari’s supporters hope Perez will see the handwriting on the wall and actually drop out of the race.
“As an elected official, you have to realize you’re not here forever,” DeGise said, “and you need support from the mayors in order to keep your seat. That’s the way it is. And you may not be there as long as you’d want.”
However, Knapp said Perez plans to campaign hard to get reelected.
Schillari’s PR team canceled his intended interview with the Reporter last week due to a family emergency. An interview had been scheduled the previous week, but a spokesman said Schillari’s schedule was too full.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.