You might call him the “Grover Cleveland of Bayonne.” Like his fellow New Jerseyan, Gary La Pelusa served a term, was defeated in a follow-up run, was undeterred as he returned to “private” life for four years, and then was reelected.
But like a phoenix rising from the ashes, La Pelusa got a new lease on public life after speaking several months ago to an upstart mayoral candidate named James Davis, whose ticket he agreed to join because of similar views on issues of importance to both.
La Pelusa made it into office, along with Davis and three of his four council running mates, in a close runoff election on June 1, in his case determined only by about three dozen or so votes.
So on July 1 in the Bayonne High School auditorium – transformed for a day into a makeshift city council chamber – La Pelusa took his second oath to serve the city. Now, at least in Bayonne circles, he can be mentioned in the same breath as Cleveland in terms of being a politician resurrected from the political heap.
La Pelusa is the “new” councilman for the Third Ward, an area from 32nd Street to the Bayonne city line, where La Pelusa has lived his entire life.
In an interview after the city named its new police chief – part of Mayor Davis’s reshaping of the city administration, La Pelusa said his interest in governing this time around is much like the first time he won office; his fondness for helping people.
He said he also ran the first time because he was not in agreement with the financial mechanisms the city was using at the time, including how it funded new projects.
“There were a lot of ‘creative ways’ of financing,” he said, “which I was not happy with at all.”
La Pelusa felt the city was using gimmicks to pay down debt and plug budget gaps.
“I think you needed someone new in there at the time, and I was the only new one elected in 2006,” he said.
During his first term in office he said he worked hard to make a difference, reaching out to diverse groups and also acting as a city watchdog. In one memorable incident, he complained about water from a city line being used by two non-city entities.
In 2010, Mayor Mark Smith ran a full slate in his second campaign – a first attempt at a full term – in office. (He had won in a 2008 special election.)
Smith easily won the election, sweeping his entire slate in with him, the first time that had occurred since Bayonne switched to the Mayor/City Council-type of government in the 1960s under the Faulkner Act.
La Pelusa ran again in that election, and lost. He now jokes that with 2014, his races have ended in just about every way they could have for him; an outright win, a runoff loss, and a runoff win.
During the four years between council seats, La Pelusa kept busy with his self-named civic association, and a host of other community or religious organizations, including the Sons of Italy and his local parish, St. Vincent de Paul. And he continued to work hard at growing his own landscaping business, now celebrating 25 years.
Why did he run again in 2014? This time around, La Pelusa again cited a need to help people. But he also mentioned a second, important reason for throwing his hat into the ring.
“I felt the city definitely needed a change from the Smith Administration,” he said. One of the things he disagreed with most was the city’s 2010 sale of 131 acres of the former Military Ocean Terminal to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey for $235 million. La Pelusa feels that Bayonne sold itself short on that deal, and could have gotten so much more. He also is unhappy that as a governmental agency the Port Authority pays no taxes on that land, and feels the city continues to lose greatly from that deal.
In the second mayoral debate, hosted by the Bayonne Rotary Club at the high school, Smith said that Trenton had a “gun to my head” and that he had to make the deal with the impending threat of bankruptcy and possible state takeover.
La Pelusa said that among his priorities in his new term would be helping with a settlement of the four-plus year-old teachers’ contract dispute.
“It will be a pleasure to work with Gary La Pelusa for the next four years,” said Mayor Davis. “His experience and expertise will benefit the people of the Third Ward. I look forward to having a great working relationship with him.”
La Pelusa is married and has four children.