“I’ve always been lucky to enjoy good health,” former Mayor Paul Amico said, seated in a chair as the crowds gathered in the large reception hall of the La Quinta Inn on April 27. The event was billed as a Community Ball, an annual fundraising dance for the Secaucus Emergency Fund and K & S Social & Athletic Club. But for the first hour only one couple danced, while a couple of kids made an attempt at dancing.
This was not for lack of people. The place was packed, every chair at every table filled with somebody who knew Amico and wanted to help him celebrate his 100th birthday. Running jokes claimed that he didn’t look over 80, and like the old-fashioned politician he was, he had taken so long to get to his seat not because he was so old but because he needed to kiss every woman in the room – and babies, too.
“Until this year, I haven’t really needed to see many doctors either,” Amico said.
The event drew people not just from Secaucus and Hudson County but from remote parts of the country where friends had wandered. Many retired officials much younger than Amico returned, owing a debt of gratitude for the role he played in their lives during his long tenure as mayor.
Although Amico has been a lifelong political independent, politicians from both parties paid him tributes.
Among those who came to honor him were state Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, Assembly members Vincent Prieto and Angelica Jimenez, and Democratic gubernatorial candidate state Senator Barbara Buono. Republican Governor Christopher Christie also sent a letter honoring Amico.
A great man
Most public officials speak in awe of the man who sometimes treated them like a father. That was certainly the language current Mayor Michael Gonnelli used when talking about him before the crowd, celebrating Amico’s 28-year career as mayor, his personal probity, and his work ethic.
“He was my mentor when I worked for the town,” Gonnelli said, noting Amico was always able and willing to help when Gonnelli needed counsel or advice. “I paid him many visits and I still do. He is a great man.”
Many town employees came to Amico for advice with both town and personal problems.
Amico’s nephew, Dan Amico, dispelled many of the negative rumors spread by the handful of political enemies who never reconciled with the former mayor. Amico had political opponents, but he usually managed to win them to his side before long, one of the secrets of his long success.
Dan Amico made it clear that his uncle never profited from his years as mayor, contrary to some claims Amico had to endure after leaving office in 1990, when mean-spirited politicians tried to destroy his legacy.
“My goals were not to have the biggest police force or the best schools or the best streets, but to have all of them at a high level of quality.” – Paul Amico
Amico came to Secaucus in 1919 at the age of six. His parents had moved out of Little Italy in New York City seeking elbow room. His father worked on the New York railroad. At 13, Amico started to work for Marra Drug Store behind the counter, and several of the members of the Marra family, including Gerald Marra, were on hand for the birthday. Old friends spoke of the early days when Amico helped transform Secaucus from an economy stagnating with a dying farm tradition to one of office buildings and shopping malls, without losing the small town feel Secaucus always had.
Amico transformed the town
Although Amico didn’t finish school, he soon graduated to his own business, a diner on Route 3, the experience to which he credits his organizing skills. In a small eatery the only way to make money is through volume. He built the counters so that he and his workers could provide quick, efficient service.
Providing service became one of the chief motivations for him over his 28-year mayoral career. It was to seek better services that Amico transformed the town from a backwater world of pig farms and trash deposits to one of the most successful business communities in the state.
His initial attraction to politics did not come from a vision for the future, but from genuine anger at the way things were done. Returning from the Army after World War II, Amico found things he detested about local government. The politicians seemed to treat the townspeople with contempt. While he didn’t run for office until the 1950s, he watched and learned, and then organized a personal political machine capable of beating the politicians at their own game.
Even before he was elected mayor in 1963, Amico had set goals of improving the school system, providing kids with recreation, and expanding municipal services to the town. He wanted to attract development which would employ people and create a tax base with which to pay for improvements to the town.
“I wanted to create an atmosphere in which developers would feel comfortable investing in Secaucus,” Amico said, during one interview with The Secaucus Reporter. Hudson County had a bad reputation.
“My goals were not to have the biggest police force or the best schools or the best streets,” Amico said. “But to have all of them at a high level of quality. It’s like being dressed up. You don’t want the best tie or shirt or suit, but you want to have everything you need to look good.”
Over his career, Amico replaced the grammar schools, built a high school, expanded sewage treatment and provided one of the highest level of services in the county to Secaucus residents. He saw the lack of these things as limiting the ability of the town to grow.
Development, Amico believed, was a necessary evil that allowed the town to give the residents a better way of life. The more industry that came into town, the more services the town could provide. He compared it to a family trying to send its kids to college.
Amico knew how to play politics
Amico’s career can be divided into two differing epochs. In the first 14 years, he was in total control, wielding a majority on the council that allowed him to decide Secaucus’s fate. His opponents accused him of being too close to the county, something he denies.
“I was on good terms with them, but I kept my distance,’” Amico said. “You can’t be antagonistic. You have to be careful and very selective, considering the long and short-term interest of the town before you get involved to any extent.”
But he had no qualms about admitting he liked the early years better when he could operate more freely.
“If you’re not strong, you can’t lead,” he said. “If you can’t get momentum, you can’t be effective. If a good person is a strong politician, he can move a program.”
But in 1977, the Democratic Party made inroads into the council, taking the majority vote away from him.
“While the Democrats were not in harmony with each other, they voted together and in that position, I couldn’t be awfully effective,” Amico said.
In truth, the nature of his position changed. Some believe he was more effective during the second half of his career when he built coalitions rather than pushing his agenda. There were betrayals. People he’d helped turned on him and worked for his opposition. Yet somehow he overcame them all, even when he was accused of hiring supporters for key jobs. Some believe there was no real opposition to him at all. Even when the Republicans rose from the dead in 1982, forcing him to unite with the Democrats, many Republicans voted for him.
Amico retired in 1991 and fell out of favor with the administrations that followed him, but regained much of his popularity when Gonnelli became mayor in 2009.
“He has become a role model for his kids and everybody else’s,” Dan Amico. “He was always the head our family as well as the head of the family of 14,000 we know as Secaucus. He is everybody’s Uncle Paul.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.