Anyone looking for the pulse of the Secaucus Democratic Committee would have been hard pressed to find it Tuesday night at the party’s temporary headquarters on Paterson Plank Road.
As 1st Ward Town Council candidate Robert Zych and 3rd Ward Council candidate Mark Bruscino somberly awaited poll results to come in, barely 12 people – mostly family members – waited with them to offer support and gratitude for running.
Democratic voters, campaign workers, foot soldiers, volunteers, Secaucus Democratic Committee members, and other true believers were, by and large, nowhere to be found.
Nancy Mateo, the Democratic candidate for the 2nd Ward Town Council seat, skipped the post election wrap-up altogether, preferring instead to talk to voters even after the polls had closed.
“They gave a valiant effort, even though the odds were stacked against them. But it’s an Independent climate now.” – Frank Trombetta
“We really had no budget,” Mateo said after the election. “We didn’t do a lot of advertising in the newspapers. We didn’t do a lot of mailings. People still have memories and still remember what happened last year [regarding former Democratic Mayor Dennis Elwell’s arrest]. And, you know, the town is running smoothly. Mike Gonnelli is doing a really good job. I think a lot of people like what’s going on and were really subdued this year. Nobody was thinking about voting as a Democrat; everybody seemed to be voting independently.”
While disappointed with his loss Tuesday, Zych maintained, “I think we ran a good campaign. And I can honestly say I wouldn’t do anything any differently than what I did. I obviously wish the outcome was different. But other than that, I think we did everything we could have.”
But if the Democrats want to mount a more aggressive attack against the incumbent mayoral administration in the next municipal election in 2013 they’ll need better ammunition than what they had in this year’s political fight.
Moments after the polls closed the results slowly trickled in, and for the Democrats the numbers were as bad as they had feared. The Democrats lost every district, in every ward. Zych lost to Jeffas, 388 votes to 877. Mateo lost to Clancy, 345 to 1,381. In the 3rd Ward in the race that some had thought might produce a win for the Democrats, Bruscino lost to Pirro, 542 to 1,122.
In each of the three wards the Independent candidates also received more mail-in votes than their Democratic rivals.
Zych, Mateo, and Bruscino, Prieto said, “worked really hard. They really gave it all they had. This was a bad year for Democrats nationally across the board. And I think that hurt our candidates. If you look at the [poll] numbers for Democrats that won, like Steve Rothman, you’ll see, even their numbers are down from what they normally are. So, I think that was a factor.”
But that spin may not wash in a largely Democratic Secaucus in heavily Democratic Hudson County, where the party dominates elections even in bad years.
This is the second Democratic slate to be defeated since Assemblyman and Secaucus resident Vincent Prieto (D-Dist. 32) took over chairmanship of the Secaucus Democratic Committee last year. Prieto has made a number of controversial decisions since becoming chairman, decisions that are sure to be questioned again in light of last week’s defeat.
Prieto took over the chairmanship after former Mayor Dennis Elwell and party chairman was arrested in July 2009 on corruption charges and resigned from the position. Elwell, who was up for reelection at the time of his arrest, resigned as mayor and abandoned his bid for re-election.
Among Prieto’s first decisions as party chairman was his choice to run Elwell’s three Town Council candidates – Dawn McAdam, Frank Trombetta, and John Reilly – without a mayoral candidate at the top of the ticket. Some Secaucus Democrats criticized the decision, arguing that a mayoral candidate could have helped some of the council candidates win. Prieto, however, has argued that a mayoral candidate would not have changed the outcome of last year’s race, when Gonnelli and all three of his Independent council candidates defeated the Democratic ticket and took control of the council
Earlier this year Prieto dumped incumbent Democratic Town Councilman John Shinnick in favor of Bruscino. With Bruscino’s loss last week, the Democrats have now lost their last remaining seat on the governing body. Adding Zych and Mateo to the ticket was also questioned by longtime party activists who wanted to see more seasoned candidates on the slate.
Prieto has repeatedly defended these decisions, noting that the party needs to be rebuilt with new people and energy in the post-Elwell era. But with a second defeat at the polls in as many years, the chairman may feel renewed pressure to go in another direction.
“I really like Vinnie and I think he has done some really good things,” said Secaucus Democratic Committee member Barbara Warth. “I think he is trying to rebuild the party. But the committee right now is not united. And even though Vinnie is chairman, a lot of Elwell’s people are still on the committee and still control some of what goes on.”
Warth indicated that there are factions within the divided committee which has prevented it from moving forward and rebuilding with a sense of purpose and unity. The infighting has, she said, forced her to become less active, although she did do some work for the Zych-Mateo-Bruscino ticket on Election Day.
When asked why the candidates apparently received little support from their own party, Trombetta, a 2009 council candidate who also worked the polls Tuesday said, “It’s upsetting. They gave a valiant effort, even though the odds were stacked against them. But it’s an Independent climate now. The Independents ran a very strategic campaign. The climate right now is against Democrats, and I think that affects how people in the party feel about being a Democrat, about being active right now.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.