"[The late] Peter Weiss' column in the Jersey Journal was like the Holy Grail," DeGise said at the 59th annual "Salute to the Press" at the Weehawken Elks Lodge Monday. "I was still trying to make a name for myself. When I first ran for city council in Jersey City, I remember my name appearing in his column. I clipped the article and my sister went out and bought every single copy of the paper in the neighborhood. It made me feel like I had a future in politics."
Obviously, DeGise did, going from a member of the Jersey City council to council president and finally winning the spot as county executive four years ago, after the disgraced Robert Janiszewski resigned in the midst of a corruption probe.
"When you're in political life, the relationship you have with the press is special," DeGise said. "Someone once told me that you can't pick a fight with the press, because you lose every time. You should never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the gallon."
He added that it is important for public servants to communicate with the press.
"I very rarely say, 'No comment,' " DeGise said. "I think you have an obligation to work with the press and that the press has a responsibility to report fairly. There should be a balance."
DeGise was the featured speaker in a night where the Elks Lodge takes the time to recognize the freedom of the press.
An Elks tradition
"The men and women of the press who have devoted themselves to the pursuit of facts and the expression of opinions are our main bridge to those events," said Dominic Facchini, the chairman of the Elks' "Salute to the Press" Night. "The knowledge they supply enables us to make intelligent and rational decisions that shape our daily lives."
Although the evening was designed to salute the local press, it ended up having a slight political undertone.
"We can't stress to you how important Nov. 7 is," Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner told the audience. "We can't mention tonight which way you should vote, because this is a non-partisan night."
But it was very clear that the emphasis was being placed on the Democratic candidates. Robert Menendez, Jr., the son of the U.S. Senate candidate, was there, making his second appearance at an Elks event in three weeks. Menendez Jr. was asked to introduce DeGise and said a few words on behalf of his father, who faces Tom Kean Jr. in the highly contested Senate battle on Tuesday.
Menendez Jr. and DeGise have been campaigning together for the young man's father.
"I've been fortunate enough to travel around the county with Tom DeGise, and everyone has been very generous and gracious," Menendez Jr. said. "He's been like a surrogate mentor to me and I've enjoyed working with him."
Essay contest winners
Each year, the Weehawken Elks sponsor an essay contest for Weehawken High School students to participate in regarding freedom of the press, with the winner receiving an award from the Weehawken and You Civic Association.
This year's winner was junior Maura Hehir, who read her essay to the audience.
"Suppose our country didn't provide freedom of the press," Hehir said. "Information would be prejudiced, and thus, public opinion would be effectively engineered. Only government-sanctioned information would be fed to the American people and we all know that governmental spin isn't always the most honest. All media would be controlled by a single ideology, as we've seen in the last century with Communism."
Added Hehir, "My hope is to pursue a career as a journalist. Without the protections guaranteed by freedom of the press, my dreams would be shattered. The breadth and depth of information and commentary available via print, Internet, radio and television help us to form opinions based on fact rather than fiction."
Elks helped when DeGise was disabled
DeGise said that he had a special kinship with the Weehawken Elks.
"In 1969, I was a freshman in college and I had serious surgery done to my ankle," DeGise said. "I was laid up for about a year and a half. My family didn't have much money and it was difficult for us to pay for the things we needed. A man from the Weehawken Elks named Stan Shaw heard about my plight and offered to help. This lodge bought me a wheelchair, crutches, a cane, whatever I needed. It was a huge help and I've never forgotten that."
Jersey Journal opinioneditorial page editor Agustin Torres also spoke at the event on behalf of his paper, as did this reporter speak on behalf of the Hudson Reporter Newspapers chain.