No one can say what will happen in the runoff election between Mayor Mark Smith and his challenger, James Davis on June 10. But Smith’s effort to seek reelection in the first round—in which he missed an outright win by only 180 votes—was derailed by a number of small issues that the Davis campaign capitalized on, as well as a kind of guerrilla political warfare by Smith opponents that won unexpected converts among unlikely voting blocks.
Some Smith people believe their supporters took the election for granted and did not come out, something they believe will change in the runoff. The Smith ticket was shocked by losing one council seat outright and by the mayor and four council members having to compete in a runoff. But a Smith victory is still within reach—if he can highlight his record of accomplishment and emphasize his plans for the future. The Davis campaign has always taken a wait-and-see approach and has not clearly outlined what he would do if elected. Although Davis won a significant psychological victory by getting into a runoff, his campaign has largely capitalized on Smith’s mistakes.
Some believe the seeds of the 2014 election were sown at the height of Smith’s popularity, when Smith ran in a special election in 2008. Smith kicked off his campaign to become mayor by shifting a significant amount of blame onto the shoulders of former Mayor Joseph Doria—a campaign tactic that he continued in subsequent elections, including this year’s.
Doria supporters prior to this year voted for Smith because they did not share the views of challengers, such as Judge Patrick Conaghan and former Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone. But with the emergence of James Davis, many of these former Doria voters had another place to go.
Most political observers outside Bayonne saw Smith’s reelection as inevidable. Smith had everything going for him: a powerful political organization, incumbency, and money. The Davis campaign was operating on a shoestring.
But this election showed how newcomers like Davis can make use of social media to counter a conventional campaign. Davis supporters were very active on the internet and also in coffee clutches, neighborhood organizations, and even chance meetings on the street. They also sent out armies of volunteers to hand out literature Davis did not have the finances to distribute by mail. The Smith Campaign ran a typical campaign that included mailers, political rallies, door-to-door visits, and significant endorsements.
Outside the city
Some of the endorsements Smith received came from political powers outside Bayonne who didn’t particularly agree with Smith but saw him as the inevitable victor. None wanted to make a political enemy of the mayor of Bayonne. This is particularly true for Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop, who will need a unified Hudson County Democratic Organization if he hopes to get the Democratic nomination for governor in 2017.
This may change with Davis’s runoff with Smith; support from outside may stop until these people see who comes out on top.
Usually an incumbent is brought down by a single powerful issue, such as the huge tax increase that brought down West New York Mayor Sal Vega in 2011. In Smith’s case, Bayonne had a number of smaller issues the Davis campaign capitalized on. The most significant was the lack of a teachers’ contract. Although technically it was not in Smith’s purview to resolve the issue, the Davis campaign was able to connect it to Smith, partly because Smith had appointed the Board of Education.
Smith tried to dismiss this as an issue, suggesting that many of the teachers were not residents and could not vote as a block, but he apparently discounted the significant sympathy vote among parents and others. Signs of dissatisfaction were evident long before the election, as sympathizers posted signs in stores and on houses supporting the teachers.
Political observers claim that one of the chief reasons that Smith’s ticket did not win outright on May 13 was his lack of direct contact with average people. Unlike Doria (who had a host of eyes and ears in the community), Smith relies on a very small core of people to advise him and apparently did not see many of the warning signs prior to the election.
The sale of the Municipal Utilities Authority (MUA) had a positive impact by ridding the city of debt but a negative effect when it raised every homeowner’s water bill just in time for the election. The city’s arbitrary change of power companies for all residents—unless they opted out—created a backlash because some in the public saw government intruding into their private affairs.
The change that would do away with rent control did not affect a significant voting block, but Davis was able to use it as an issue—especially when the group was banned from meeting in the public library, due to a policy change implemented by the mayor’s office. The administration argued that they wanted to limit insurance liability and require the group to provide insurance. But this change also affected non-political groups, breeding further dissatisfaction with the administration.
Davis was even able to capitalize on what should have been positive news for Smith: the announcement that lawsuits over the Military Ocean Terminal had been settled, clearing the way for new development. The Smith administration had overseen the sale of a large portion of the terminal to the Port Authority. Because Davis had claimed this was a bad deal done at the last minute, the settlements looked like political posturing on Smith’s part. Davis continued to raise the question about the timing of new development since the settlements came just prior to the election. The same scenario played out regarding redevelopment plans for a portion of the Broadway shopping district. In reality, political expediency wasn’t always the motive; several of these announcements coincided with the resurging economy.
The Smith ticket lost outright in the First Ward, primarily because Smith did not realize the impact to First Ward residents of the continued blasting in the Kill Van Kull last summer and the construction of a gas pipeline that eventually was diverted away from homes. This part of the city saw significant damage as a result of Hurricane Sandy and is the area most impacted by the raising of the roadway on the Bayonne Bridge.
Political observers said Smith did not do enough to address these concerns, leaving public relations to the Army Corps of Engineers and the Port Authority.
Both the Davis and Smith campaigns did their share of negative campaigning, but Davis people were better able to utilize the rumor mill, and often created political furor without basis in truth. Midnight flyers attacking the credibility of members of the Smith team did not have the requisite information regarding who was distributing them. The same goes for a newspaper distributed without any mention of who was publishing it or who paid for it. Failure to provide this information may be illegal. Meanwhile, reports that Smith supporters had torn down Davis signs ahead of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade this year motivated Davis people further and allowed the Davis camp to paint the Smith Administration as bullies.
For Smith, who hopes to win in the runoff as well as carry in his four council candidates, it will take a lot of money and a concerted effort to get out the vote and to win back some of the voters he lost.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org