DeGise will face off against Bernard Hartnett, the current county executive, in the June Democratic primary. The race is among several heated county campaigns that have split candidates supported by U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez (D-13th Dist.) and those supported by Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham. Cunningham supports Hartnett against DeGise.
Wednesday, Menendez introduced the slate of candidates that would run with DeGise, as well as a host of other dignitaries that included Reps. Steve Rothman (D-9th Dist.) and Donald Payne (D-29th Dist.), state senators Nicholas Sacco and Bernard Kenny, three state assembly members, five of the county's seven freeholders, 11 of the county's 12 mayors, and numerous other councilpeople and commissioners from around the county and Jersey City.
The 12th mayor, Cunningham, is backing Hartnett to oppose DeGise.
A crowd of several hundred sign-waving supporters cheered on the army of dignitaries throwing their support behind DeGise Wednesday. Two weeks earlier, Hartnett had declared his candidacy on the same spot amid mostly county workers.
So far, the campaign, which officially doesn't start until the April 8 filing deadline, has been dominated by Cunningham's attacks on Menendez. Cunningham called Menendez a political boss in Hudson County.
Meanwhile, Jersey City Deputy Police Director Edgar Martinez announced Thursday that he will run against Menendez for Congress in the June Democratic primary.
Five county workers allegedly fired as political vengeance
The April 3 rally was not only designed to show the solid support from inside and outside Jersey City for DeGise, but to highlight the firing of five Hudson County employees - including Jersey City Councilman and Hudson County Director of Human Resources Mariano Vega - whom some say were fired by Hartnett for supporting DeGise.
Freeholder Barry Dugan said he was angered by the pink slips several county workers received after work on Tuesday evening. Among those fired were terminally ill Joan Walrod, a 67-year old aide; Peter DiNardo, director of Hudson County's buildings and grounds; Central Services Director Arnold Bettinger; and William Netchert, assistant county counsel.
When the Reporter called Mariano Vega's county office for comment, the secretary said Vega was on "vacation." Hartnett was not available by press time for comment.
Mariano Vega, who is also a Jersey City councilman, came out in support of DeGise this week, possibly enraging the Hartnett side.
Menendez, in declaring his own candidacy for re-election Wednesday, celebrated the unity of the Democrats, despite the fact that Hudson County is undergoing the most serious political split in decades.
In alluding to Cunningham, Menendez said this show of support proved that Hudson County is a group effort and not run by one man.
"We are united out of conviction, not fear," he said, "and we believe in doing things for the public good, not for private profit."
Menendez said the upcoming primary election will determine the future of Hudson County and whether or not the county will shed "bossism" for collective agreements among leaders throughout the county.
Singing DeGise's praises
In throwing his support behind DeGise, Rothman called Hudson County Democrats "a working family," and said DeGise brought to the position of county executive the experience of municipal leadership.
"Tom DeGise is a great leader and a good man," Rothman said. "He is a person of the highest integrity who will work for all of the county."
DeGise served on the Jersey City council from 1993 to 2001.
Rothman pointed to DeGise's 25 years as a teacher in Jersey City and to DeGise's commitment to providing kids with the educational tools they needed for success.
"Tom believes that you can't expect these kids to compete in the global economy unless we give them the tools to compete," Rothman said.
Congressman Donald Payne called DeGise "a consensus builder," and a man noted for his honesty and integrity.
DeGise, grinning slightly at the crowd's chant of "Tommy, Tommy, Tommy," said he was humbled by this show of support. He said he always believed that luck is a combination of opportunity and preparedness, and that he appreciated the opportunity to run for the office of county executive.
"While a look at a map shows that Hudson County may be the smallest county in the state, it has always been the most vibrant," DeGise said. "It is the place where the world meets New Jersey and New Jersey meets the world. It has always been the center of New Jersey and I intend to make certain that it keeps its role as leader."
DeGise said Hudson County needs a new kind of leader, one who will work "with everyone in Hudson County for everyone in Hudson County."
DeGise has his roots in Jersey City, and said he grew up within a mile from the steps of the Brennan Court house. He said he and his child had both graduated from St. Paul the Cross School in the Heights - the same school his parents and grandparents had graduated from.
"I have found as a teacher and an elected official that I get better results by listening rather than yelling," he said, "and that problem solving through cooperation is better than bullying."
Running on DeGise's ticket
Menendez - as county Democratic Chairman - announced that DeGise would run on the Democratic line on the ballot. His ticket will also include candidates for county freeholder seats.
Those candidates include incumbent freeholders Sal Vega of West New York, Brian Stack of Union City, Barry Dugan of Bayonne, Nidia Davila-Colon of Jersey City, Maurice Fitzgibbons of Hoboken, Tom Leggio of North Bergen, and Al Cifelli of Harrison.
Jersey City Councilman Peter Brennan of Ward A and former Jersey City Councilwoman Melissa Holloway will complete the freeholder ticket, facing off against incumbent Freeholders William Braker and Bill O'Dea, who are running on the Hartnett line.
Although the Hartnett team had not declared all its candidates, Eliu Rivera, running with Hartnett, has already announced his candidacy against Davila-Colon (see sidebar: Rivera faces Davila-Colon in 4th freeholder district). The rest of the slate must file by Monday, April 8.
Sal Vega reiterated the theme of the day by saying that he would stand by Menendez, DeGise, and the 11 mayors. "We have selected Tom DeGise as our candidate, not to have a candidate imposed on us by one mayor," Vega said, adding that freeholders would continue to operate in the best interests of the county.
Holloway said she has previously worked with DeGise on the Jersey City Council. Davila-Colon, who is running for her seventh three-year term as freeholder, is the senior member of the freeholder board, and although she said she had had disagreements with Menendez in the past, she is glad to be running on the ticket.
"I've always run with the regular Democratic Organization. Everyone has disagreements from time to time," she said. "Let bygones be bygones."
Fitzgibbons alluded to his notorious battles with former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo.
"A year ago Mayor Dave Roberts and I stopped a bully in Hoboken," he said. "Now we have to unite the county the way we did in Hoboken. This can't be one-man rule." Rivera faces Davila-Colon in 4th freeholder district Eliu Rivera, director of the Puerto Rican Association for Community Organization (PACO), announced on March 29 that he would challenge Freeholder Nidia Davila-Colon in the 4th District Democratic primary.
In one of the many press conferences held on the steps of Jersey City City Hall, Mayor Glenn Cunningham announced the candidacy of his latest ally in the war for control of the Hudson County Democrats.
As part of his effort to line up support behind the re-election of County Executive Bernard Hartnett, Rivera joins two other current Jersey City freeholders: William Braker and Bill O'Dea.
Cunningham said he had spoken to Davila-Colon and that she had regretfully declined to run with the Hartnett team.
When introducing Rivera to the sparse crowd, Cunningham claimed Rivera had the clout to beat Davila-Colon and provide Hartnett with the boost needed for the county executive post.
"Eliu has been working in this community for more than 20 years," Cunningham said. "He is a warrior and has helped thousands. He has a lot of supporters and he brings a large following with him to our side."
During the 2001 mayoral election, Rivera supported Tom DeGise for mayor, making this announcement something of a coup for the Cunningham-Hartnett camp. DeGise is running against Hartnett in the June 4 county executive primary.
Cunningham appears to be seeking to erode DeGise's support in Jersey City, and though Rivera's switch is significant, Cunningham has at least five Jersey City council members against his team.
Cunningham said Rivera has "a caring personality," and is known for his problem-solving abilities. Rivera, Cunningham said, also strongly supports law enforcement efforts to curb crime.
Rivera said he had spoken to Davila-Colon and told her he had supported her over the years, but could not support her choice this time.
"We don't need to work under any so-called political bosses," Rivera said, claiming that Jersey City had lost many of its traditional benefits, such as jobs, to North Hudson during the mayoral administration of Republican Bret Schundler in Jersey City. "This fight is about Jersey City getting its fair share again," Rivera said.
Davila-Colon said Rivera has always wanted her freeholder seat. She also noted that the day before he announced his opposition, she had helped pass a contract approval for his organization.
"One day I'm helping him get his contract, the next day he's announcing he's running against me," she said.
"That's politics." - Al Sullivan
Cunningham has continued to support interim County Executive Bernard Hartnett Jr. in the upcoming June Democratic primary as Cunningham battles with the five-term congressman for political power in Hudson County.
In spite of this overwhelming division between the administration and the council, both Cunningham and the councilpeople said that it would not affect how Jersey City's municipal government conducted business. "I would hope [it] would not," said Cunningham when asked if the new political climate in the county would adversely affect Jersey City's affairs. "It would be a sad day for Jersey City if they were going to play politics at the city's expense."
For the most part, the councilpeople who are supporting DeGise came as no surprise because that they ran under his ticket during his mayoral campaign against Cunningham last year. Councilmen Peter Brennan, Steve Lipski, William Gaughan and Jeremiah Healy were all part of the DeGise ticket, and consequently have aligned themselves with their former political ally. Councilman Peter Brennan announced Wednesday that he will run for freeholder against William O'Dea, who is one of the two freeholders supporting Cunningham.
However, three councilpeople that ran on Cunningham's ticket - Mary Donnelly, Mariano Vega, and E. Jr. Maldonado - formally detached from that political alliance when joining the Hudson County Democratic Party on the steps of the Brennan Court House Wednesday to support DeGise.
Without the support of those councilpeople, Cunningham's political influence over the county election has diminished. Council President L. Harvey Smith and councilwoman Viola Richardson remained the only two councilpeople on Cunningham's side of the fence.
One defector came as a shock to Cunningham. "I was only surprised by Junior [Maldonado]," Cunningham said. While other candidates explained why they were supporting DeGise, Maldonado did not talk to Cunningham about his intentions prior to making his decision.
"It was the most agonizing decision I had to make in my lifetime," Maldonado said last week. "I took into account my family, my political career and my constituents."
Indeed, his political career is his career. Maldonado works full-time for the powerful Hudson County Improvement Authority as its chief enforcement officer.
In the end, he said, his decision was not based on siding with Cunningham or Menendez, but simply sticking with the Hudson County Democratic Party, which has been led by Menendez since Robert Janiszewski resigned in September. Maldonado said he went against the party in a 1989 election when he supported a Republican candidate for the City Council. "I will never make the mistake of going against the organization with something as unwinable as this again," Maldonado said. Whether or not his decision will shield him from political retribution in the immediate future remains to be seen. In the midst of this power struggle, several county employees who voiced support for DeGise were fired Tuesday. Sources said that Councilman Mariano Vega, director of the Hudson County Department of Public Resources, was one of those people.
People at Vega's office said he was on "vacation."
Councilpeople said that the county firings had not filtered down to the city level thusfar. Referring at a rally Wednesday to the string of pink slips, Menendez announced that the Hudson County Democratic Party would file a civil rights lawsuit as a result. - Prescott Tolk