For local politics, 2013 wasn’t the best of years or the worst of years, but it will be marked as a year in which the old political order in several corners came to an end.
This is particularly true in Jersey City and Hoboken, where the traditional political party lines were pushed aside in favor of the next generation, more reflective of a new breed of political power inspired by the resurgence in urban dwelling by young professionals.
While the Hudson County’s political stalwarts maintained their elite positions of power, 2013 may have marked the beginning of the end for old school politics.
The election of Steven Fulop as mayor and Jersey City and the reelection of Dawn Zimmer as mayor of Hoboken altered the fundament framework of political power and sets a model for future elections, not just in the two wealthiest cities in the county, but in even in the remote, usually sleepy corners.
Crafty politics in Hoboken
The aftermath of Superstorm Sandy that hit in late 2012 brought together a new coalition of powerbrokers and gave a political platform to people like Zimmer – and allowed her to hobnob with the county, state, and even national political elite to appear like a more powerful leader.
But it was crafty political maneuvering in 2012 that allowed her to finally walk off with the reelection in November of 2013. By changing the date of the local elections from May to November and doing away with runoffs, Zimmer was able to win reelection without having the 50 percent needed in previous municipal elections. She attained 47 percent of the vote.
Struggling with the aftermath of Carol Marsh’s resignation in fall of 2012, Zimmer was unable to keep control of the City Council for a few months after that as she was outfoxed by political opponents who used technical rules of order to keep her from seating the fifth and deciding vote on the City Council. For most of the year, the council became a political stage for pundits. But it was a division in the opposition that allowed Zimmer to triumph. Assemblyman Rubin Ramos launched his campaign for mayor early, and named his own candidates with the presumption that other anti-Zimmer people would have no choice but to support him.
With no say in the Ramos ticket, people like Frank Raia, Councilman Tim Occhipinti, and Democratic Chairman Jamie Cryan launched a third ticket, splitting the anti-Zimmer vote. Raia assumed that he could slip onto the council as the fifth and deciding vote. While Raia – along with his ally, Councilwoman Beth Mason, – poured money into the campaign, it never translated into votes.
Zimmer swept her council candidates into the power and won the fifth vote on the council, leaving her opponents to hunker down and plan for the council election in 2015.
But by year’s end, the opposition still hasn’t pulled together. Councilmen Michael Russo and Tim Occhipinti struggle to impress Zimmer by voting with her, while Raia and Cryan plot for a possible Raia run to unseat Russo in 2015.
Not all is well in the Zimmer camp either, as newly reelected Councilman Ravi Bhalla – always overly ambitious – considers a run for freeholder against incumbent Anthony Romano. A Bhalla victory would again leave Zimmer with a divided council.
Fulop’s victory took years to accomplish
Fulop, on the other hand, won his reelection the old fashioned way, plugging along year after year and racking up victories in committee and Board of Education elections. In some way, his run against Mayor Jeramiah Healy was a classic fight between changing generations, and his victory cast out the old guard in Jersey City – many of whom rushed to the arms of the still-welcoming Hudson County government (the next battleground for the New Turks). Fulop’s candidates also won control of the school board, which is both a blessing and a curse. His supporters will expect him to deliver the change his campaigns have promised for years, and there is already some restlessness by year’s end since the world hasn’t suddenly turned into a new Garden of Eden.
As with Zimmer’s victory in Hoboken, Fulop’s victory is overshadowed by the fact that he created his own opposition on the City Council with the victory of Michael Yun and Richard Boggiano.
The Fulop campaign made a tactical switch for the runoff election, choosing to jettison its own candidates, Sean Connors and Nidia Lopez, for Yun and Boggiano. Connors and Lopez were not Fulop loyalists, and some Fulop people feared creating a rival of Fulop if Connors got elected.
Yun and Boggiano, however, have already shown their independence of Fulop.
No civil war after all
At the beginning of 2013, a number of people predicted a repeat of the 2008 Democratic civil war between rival political bosses in North Hudson: North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco and Union City Mayor Brian Stack.
Redistricting as a result of the 2010 U.S. Census had altered the districts where Sacco and Stack also serve as state senators. Stack gained more ground in Jersey City, whereas Sacco gained West New York (traditionally a Stack stronghold). Rival civic associations served as a kind of guerilla war between the two, raising tensions and edging the county towards a more open conflict where – as in 2008 – Democrats had to choose sides.
Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith – who served as chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization until being replaced by Assemblyman Vincent Prieto in June – brokered an uneasy peace.
Although Stack had support of Republican Gov. Christopher Christie, who he endorsed later in the year for reelection, he had become more isolated – as many of his former allies made their own peace with Sacco, including Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and Rep. Albio Sires.
Perhaps the biggest loss for Stack was West New York Mayor Felix Roque, who was facing federal charges for alleged conspiracy to hack into the website of his political enemies. Roque made peace with Sacco and with U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.
While peace reigns between Sacco and Stack at year’s end, Stack is significantly weakened politically, and relies heavily on Gov. Christie to keep state funding flowing into Union City.
West New York still unsettled
Roque’s acquittal on federal charges in fall surprised many people around the county. But it did not translate into political success in West New York. Voters handed him a significant political defeat by voting overwhelmingly to establish an elected school board, thus stealing from him an important source of political jobs.
With the recall against him faltering, the Board of Education elections – one in January and another in April – promise to be a potential breeding ground for political opposition. Roque cannot openly support any candidates, but will likely have favorites that can help him retain his power on the board.
But by year’s end, even Roque’s inner circle appeared to be in the grip of a power struggle as some former key players lose status. A loss of the school board in early 2014 could result in more shakeups as the Roque Administration regroups and waits for a new opposition to emerge.
A choice of Christie
Christie made a number of visits to Hudson County during his campaign against his Democratic challenger, state Sen. Barbara Buono. For local Democrats, it was somewhat like the siege of the Alamo. Many Democrats defected to Christie prior to the November election – some more openly than others. Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli endorsed Christie based on the support Christie gave his town in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
Gonnelli, whose ticket ran as independent and unopposed, could afford to endorse a Republican.
Zimmer, who received similar support, did not openly endorse Christie. Roque didn’t either, but when he left town for a medical conference out of state, his acting mayor, FiorD’Aliza Frias, endorsed Christie instead.
While Christie did not win traditionally Democratic Hudson County, he managed to get enough Democratic votes to position himself as a crossover candidate for his expected run for president in 2016.
This move will allow Fulop to run for governor in a special election to replace Christie.
Booker becomes U.S. Senator
The death of longtime U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg in mid-2013 also helped alter the political landscape. As Newark Mayor Cory Booker was already planning to run against Lautenberg, he became the Democratic standard-bearer. Christie scheduled a special election for October that Booker easily won against former Republican Steve Lonegan, the former mayor of Bogota.
In Hudson County, however, Republicans appeared to gain ground in 2013, even if they didn’t win any elections. The change of demographics along the Gold Coast promises to give them a strong vote from North Bergen and Weehawken to Hoboken, Jersey City, and Bayonne as more young professionals flock into new development. This is something to watch over the next few years, and could play a significant role in elections in Hoboken when the ward seats come up in 2015.
A new world order in Hudson County
Meanwhile, the shift of power in the Hudson County Democratic Organization – due to input from Fulop and Sacco – could see a revitalized Democratic presence as well, although it will be a different Democratic Party than in the past, one based less on party bosses than on more corporate concepts.
While Ramos may become mayor of Hoboken in 2017, he and others running for public office elsewhere in the county will likely be forced to develop a model more like the one Fulop used to get elected this year, one that embraced both newcomer and old guard, and a model that builds a constituency out of various ethnic and economic voting blocs not at all in tune with the blocs of votes politicians depended upon in the past.
Al Sullivan may be reached at email@example.com.