The big political news last week was that the Hudson County Democratic Organization is broke and deep in debt.
This was the result of several factors, most of which aren’t contemporary. Part of the reason the HCDO is so behind on payments has to do with the political civil war waged in 2008 against it by an alternative Democratic ticket, backed by state senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack.
The HCDO also had to contend with a lawsuit between former state Senator and Bayonne Mayor Joseph Doria and former state Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone.
And like credit card debt average Americans build up, the HCDO is struggling to catch up. But it’s not the only one. Both sides in that one time civil war amassed debts, which is why a new civil war is unlikely, and why there seems to be a mustering of troops around the 10th Congressional district race, with many former supporters of Stack lining up behind Donald Payne Jr. and the HCDO lining up behind Nia Gill.
On one level, the battle between Payne and Gill is part of a power struggle that has gone on for several decades, pitting U.S. Senator Robert Menendez behind Payne against Union County state senator and powerbroker Ray Lesniak, who is backing Gill.
Lesniak has always had his hand out for a piece of Hudson County, and had been part of several political plots during the 1990s that pitted Northern Hudson County against Southern Hudson County.
But in some ways, the Payne verses Gill fight is bringing out many of the same players that were involved in the 2008 civil war, but with a few new wrinkles. Many of the Payne supporters appear anxious to stick it to the HCDO, driving a stake through the heart of an organization they see as having outlived its usefulness.
Some disinterested parties in the county believe Gill can win the seat despite the fact that Payne has the Democratic line in Essex County where most of the district’s votes reside – and since the Union County portion of the district is holding an open election, meaning none of the candidates will have the benefit of being on the same ballot line as President Barack Obama, Payne would appear to have the upper hand.
Jersey City Councilman Steve Fulop’s support of Payne is significant because it expands Fulop’s base when he is trying to build his organization in time for next year’s mayoral election.
Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith, who chairs the HCDO, is taking a significant gamble in backing Gill because another loss – after HCDO-backed candidates lost several school board elections in Jersey City to candidates Fulop supported – could mean he might be replaced.
Some believe that the release of HCDO finances to the press in early May was designed to undermine Smith’s leadership by suggesting that he has mismanaged the HCDO.
“This is just not true,” said one source close to Smith. “These debts were incurred under prior chairmen, and you can’t hold enough fundraisers to both run the organization and pay off back debt.”
Yes, the HCDO owes $35,000 (the HCDO said it owes about $28,000) in back rent on its Oakland Avenue headquarters, something that was a problem when it was located at previous addresses, but not reported on then. “The landlord isn’t complaining about it,” one source said.
One of the questionable items on this hit list of debt is the so-called $300,000 in fees paid out during a three-year period.
HCDO Executive Director Craig Guy supposedly gets paid $50,000 annually for his services to the HCDO.
“And he’s worth a lot more than that,” said one source close to Smith. “This is a top notch executive. Where do you get that kind of quality in the business world for so little?”
People also complained about the HCDO cancelling its spring fundraiser, but insiders say this is simply an effort not to over-tap the same funders, who are currently funding campaigns for Menendez and others.
“How often can you go to the same well before it goes dry?” one source said. “The HCDO will hold a fundraiser in the fall.”
Who will run against Fulop for mayor?
Although incumbent Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy claims to be running for reelection, he may not be. There is something of a draft afoot focused on Assemblyman Sean Connors, although there is an internal battle among HCDO people as to whether or not Connors is ready.
“Healy wants to run, but he can’t beat Fulop. But Connors can if everybody gets behind him,” one political observer said.
There is a drive going on throughout the city for potential council candidates, and though Fulop’s people are close to putting together a ticket, they are seeking candidates that will help him, not hurt him, in his mayoral effort. Any candidate that runs with him will have to work hard to make sure to get the vote out. Otherwise, he doesn’t want them.
Shootout for sheriff?
Hudson County Sheriff Frank Schillari held a successful fundraiser last week, as did his expected opponent in next year’s election, former Sheriff Juan Perez.
Schillari appears to have solved some of his political issues within the HCDO and will likely be the HCDO candidate again.
Schillari beat Perez two years ago, and Perez is seeking a rematch, quoting General Douglas McArthur saying, “I shall return.”
Perez had more than 100 people at his event and has dispelled rumors that he might seek another seat other than sheriff.
“Perez is not interested in state assembly or another office, but to return as sheriff of Hudson County,” said Bobby Knapp, a long time associate of Perez.
Who will oppose Gonnelli in Secaucus?
Meanwhile in Secaucus, former councilman and current school board trustee Sal Manente appears to be seeking to put together an opposition ticket against Independent Mayor Michael Gonnelli – who currently has total control of the Secaucus Town Council. Manente was an independent in the 1990s when he was on the Town Council, but could soon become one of the key people reinventing the Democratic Party in Secaucus, which was decimated by the arrest and later conviction of former Mayor Dennis Elwell in the federal Bid Rig III sting.
Although a rumor suggested that Gonnelli might not seek reelection, Gonnelli told the Secaucus Reporter last week that he is running.