Depending on who is trying to spin you, the municipal elections on May 10 in three Hudson County towns meant everything…or nothing at all.
Going into these elections, nobody expected the political earthquake that hit Hudson County. Some believe that when the dust clears, the political landscape will have shifted sharply, and could have implications for future elections.
The elections in West New York, North Bergen, and Hoboken were indeed a tale of three cities. In two of the three elections, political underdogs managed to pull together critical victories, although in very different ways.
The “Together We Can” team of Dr. Felix Roque, Count Wiley, Caridad Rodriguez, Fior D’ Aliza Frias, and Ruben Vargas beat incumbent Mayor Sal Vega, Gerald Lange, Michelle Fernandez-Lopez, Lawrence Riccardi, and Alberto Rodriguez in a dramatic upset.
“We didn’t see this coming,” said one of Vega’s campaign people. “We looked up and the villagers were at the gate. They must have hid the torches and the pitch forks in the trunks of their cars because we didn’t expect this.”
This loss wasn’t a matter of the Vega team making any mistakes, their people said.
“We did everything we were supposed to do, but if the people want you out, you’re out, and no matter how good a campaign you run, you can’t win. That’s what happened here.”
Door-to-door campaigning didn’t even warn the Vega camp. Everybody said they would be voting for the incumbent team, but apparently voted for Roque instead.
“By any reasonable political assessment, Sal Vega should have won,” said another operative. “They had the team in place to win. Roque had no field operation, and guess what, they didn’t need one. People came out to vote him anyway.”
Paul Swibinski, of Vision Media, who ran the Vega campaign, said, “This election was lost Feb. 2009 when taxes went up 51 percent. Everything else was a lot of work, lot of resources, a lot of effort, [but it] didn’t mean anything. There was a mood for a change in the town, too much damage that the mayor was not able to recover.”
But he said Roque ran a good campaign, although his press operation was weak.
“Roque had a top pollster, a top campaign manager, and a good staff,” Swibinski said. “He also spent nearly $300,000. You have to give him credit for his determination.”
Hoboken was a calculated risk
Reformers in Hoboken needed to gain a seat to regain control of the nine-member City Council, and even though they were outvoted citywide, they managed to defend one ward seat they already had and defeat an incumbent in another ward to gain the 5-4 control they need.
Councilman Peter Cunningham successfully beat back three challengers in a first round win that shocked most political observers who’d predicted a runoff. Cunningham appears to have run a tough campaign, and harvested votes out of the critical Fox Hill senior development in the 5th Ward, gaining the better than 50 percent needed to win.
Meanwhile, political newcomer Jen Giattino defeated Councilman Nino Giacchi in the 6th Ward, giving reformers a one vote majority on the council.
This is a huge victory for Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who can once more count on support from a council she lost last November when Tim Occhipinti beat Councilman Michael Lenz in a special 4th Ward election.
While reformers had hoped to win in the 2nd ward, Tom Greaney was short by about 25 votes, allowing Beth Mason to be reelected.
Although outvoted citywide, reformers – apparently reading the tea leaves in this past April’s Board of Education election – concentrated their efforts on the 5th and 6th wards.
Sacco won big in North Bergen
Meanwhile, North Bergen Mayor Nicholas led his ticket called “Stable taxes, stable neighborhoods,” consisting of Commissioners Frank Gargiulo, Hugo Cabrera, Theresa Ferraro, and Allen Pascual, to victory over the “Citizens for Change” group that included Michael Kreutzer, Maria Benitze-Mir, Adrian Cepero, Ravinesh Varma, and April Tricoli-Busset.
The Sacco team won by taking 83 percent of the vote, the largest margin in his election history going back to 1985.
Swibinski said Citizens for Change were no pushovers, but Sacco may be unbeatable in North Bergen.
“But nobody expected a margin this big,” he said.
What does it mean for the future?
While Swibinski downplayed the larger implications of these elections, saying North Hudson might not see significant political shifts due to Roque’s election. Other people believe the West New York and Hoboken elections show weakness in the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) that will likely get exploited in next year’s U.S. Senate election when Robert Menendez is up for reelection.
Menendez backed Vega in this election, which raises the question as to how much support Menendez can expect from his home turf in North Hudson.
Despite some who claim the HCDO failed in West New York, Swibinski and others claim the HDCO did very little.
“Vega’s team thought they could win it in their own,” he said, adding that gauging by the results, the HCDO would not likely have turned the election around for Vega even if they’d gotten involved.
A lot of the future depends on what Roque does as mayor, if he will become part of the HDCO or become something of a maverick the way Union City Mayor Brian Stack and Hoboken Mayor Zimmer have.
Most believe this election was far from good news for Sacco, Menendez, or even HCDO Chairman Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith. With redistricting, Sacco as state senator inherited West New York, and now must live with a possible hostile mayor. With a large number of Latino voters in North Bergen and West New York, Sacco has to look over his shoulder to make sure that a Latino challenger for his Senate seat does not emerge.
Menendez, meanwhile, also has something to fear since Stack and Zimmer already have close ties to Republican Gov. Christopher Christie, and one more hostile mayor in West New York could form a huge bloc against him right here in his home county.
Even if Smith and the HCDO were not involved in West New York and Hoboken (a claim some dispute), the losses in both towns seem to show HCDO weakness.