Bayonne political history was made just after noontime on April 6 when Anthony Chiappone formally announced his intention of stepping down as city councilman, opting to keep his seat as state assemblyman instead.
But fewer than two dozen people appeared at the last-minute press conference.
Several Chiappone supporters expressed bitterness or disappointment at Chiappone’s decision to give up the council seat, claiming they had voted him into the position to serve as a watchdog.
Denis Wilbeck, who had supported Chiappone in several campaigns, said he believed Chiappone would continue to work in the best interest of Bayonne, but that the residents of the city had lost a valuable voice in city government.
The move comes after more than a month of behind-the-scenes negotiations with Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith and Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy and others, and marks a dramatic shift on the local political scene.
Chiappone said he will resign his City Council seat as of April 9 as part of a bargain to get support from the Hudson County Democratic Organization for his Assembly re-election bid.
“After 11 years on the council, I decided I would like to focus my attention on the Assembly,” Chiappone said. “It’s a career choice.”
He said the decision to resign had come too quickly for him to consult with supporters, and that he had talked with family and close friends about the decision before agreeing.
Chiappone submitted his letter of resignation to the city clerk on April 2, giving one week’s notice that he intends to vacate the seat.
Chiappone will make one last appearance at the School of Board Estimate, where he has vowed to bring down the $122 million school budget.
In late March, Smith said he would support Chiappone’s Assembly efforts if Chiappone stepped down as councilman.
Chiappone said his resignation is in the interest of preserving party unity, maintaining a peaceful relationship between state Sen. Sandra Cunningham – a Chiappone ally – and Healy, who serves as the chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.
Chiappone, who was grandfathered in two years ago when the state passed its ban on dual office holding, said he feared the law might be changed again and that he would be forced in the near future to give up one of his two elected positions anyway.
“I would rather go out on my own terms,” he said.
Mayor Smith commended Chiappone for his years of service on the council and state Assembly.
Smith said that the government is faced with problems that can be overwhelming, and he was impressed with Chiappone’s resolve to solve the issues on a state level.
“The city will need a strong voice in Trenton,” Smith said. “We have found some common ground and will be working together in the future.”
Chiappone, elected to the City Council’s 1st Ward seat in 1998, became a potent critic of Mayor Joseph Doria, who was elected the same year.
In 2002, Chiappone ran at large and won, setting the stage for an even more significant confrontation with Doria when running for state Assembly on a ticket that was led by Mayor Glenn Cunningham for state Senate. Chiappone knocked Doria out of the Assembly.
The untimely death of Cunningham in 2004 set the stage for Chiappone’s assembly defeat when Doria ran and beat Chiappone in a special election to fill Cunningham’s unexpired term.
Doria led the move to push Chiappone out of the Assembly in spring 2005, but was unable to unseat Chiappone from the City Council in municipal elections held in 2006.
Chiappone’s strong support of Cunningham’s widow, Sandra, helped him regain his assembly seat in 2007. But Chiappone once again became a political outcast in 2008, when he openly supported Patrick Conaghan in a special election against Mark Smith to fill the mayoral spot vacated by Doria in 2007.
Some Chiappone supporters were shocked at the resignation, and claimed he is making a grave mistake.
The general belief is that as a city councilman, Chiappone could not be removed, but that two years from now, Chiappone will once more be dumped from the Assembly seat.
“As a councilman, Tony was invincible,” one supporter said. “Now, he’s given the HCDO and Mayor Smith a way to get him out of their hair.”
Reports from reliable sources say part of the deal included a county job for Chiappone for an undisclosed salary.
Chiappone said that while he did feel pressure to leave the council seat, he actually likes the idea of continuing his role as an assemblyman, which will include many of the constituent services he did as a councilman.
“For over 11 years, I have had the privilege and honor to serve on the Bayonne City Council,” Chiappone said during the press conference. “My passion for public service will continue and I plan on seeking re-election to the Assembly, serving District 31 in Bayonne and in Jersey City.”
He said he will focus on creative ways to provide public services despite shrinking budgets.
“I have been assured by Mayor Smith that I will have an open door when advocating on behalf of issues that are important to Bayonne,” he said. “You can expect me to be the same person I am. I am not leaving. I am still your elected official. I will continue to be assessable to the public.”
The official resignation is expected to take place prior to the City Council caucus on April 8, after which the council will begin the quest to replace him. Council President Vincent Lo Re said the City Council will likely fill the vacancy quickly in order to have the special election next November.
If a replacement is not found within 30 days, candidates would run in November to serve the unexpired term until July 1, 2010.
The council is expected to vote on a replacement at the April 15 meeting, allowing this person to serve until the November special election. The winner of the special election would take office immediately after the results are verified and would remain as councilperson until July 1, 2010, when the winner of the regular municipal election is sworn in.
Although several names have already surfaced as possible interim replacements until a new councilman can be selected at a special election in November, several people in City Hall are urging to leave the seat open until November.
Two names mentioned several times as possible council picks are Mike Embrich, an up and coming figure on the local scene, and Jim Dugan, former aid to Mayor Joseph Doria.
“I would consider it if the council of course chooses me,” Dugan said.