The Secaucus Democratic Committee has replaced former Mayor Dennis Elwell as its chairman and will soon vote on nominees to replace him as mayor.
At a meeting held Monday night, the committee nominated Assemblyman Vincent Prieto (D-32nd Dist.), a Secaucus resident, to be its new chairman.
Prieto’s first order of business as chairman will be to help the Democratic Committee make two critical decisions: nominating the town’s permanent acting mayor, and deciding who will replace Elwell as the party’s mayoral candidate for the November election.
The committee must nominate three mayoral candidates to serve out the rest of Elwell’s term, which ends on Dec. 31. These nominees will be submitted to the Secaucus Town Council, which will vote on a candidate to be acting mayor. On Jan. 1, the acting mayor will be replaced by whoever wins the November election.
Since Elwell’s arrest, Deputy Mayor John Reilly, a 3rd Ward Town Councilman and Elwell ally, has been serving as temporary acting mayor.
If none of the three candidates put forward by the committee gets a majority vote from the council, the decision reverts back to the Democratic Committee, with Prieto at the helm.
“We’ll see if it comes to that. It may not. But if it does, the committee would carefully weigh each candidate and make the decision we think is best for Secaucus,” Prieto said.
He added that the committee will consider candidates who it believes “will work well with the current council.”
He stated that a number of potential candidates have approached him to express interest in being selected as acting mayor.
“At this point, nobody has been ruled out,” Prieto said. “But we expect to have the names of three people next week.”
Prieto, who also serves as the town’s construction code official, takes over for Elwell, who stepped down from the position and resigned as mayor two weeks ago following his indictment on corruption charges.
Prieto has been a state assemblyman since 2000 when he was tapped to run for the office by Elwell, State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-32nd) and Assemblywoman Joan Quigley (D-32nd).
In the Assembly he currently serves as Deputy Majority Whip, chairman of the Regulated Professions Committee, and is a member of the Transportation, Public Works and Independent Authorities Committees. He was also a member of the Secaucus Planning Board from 1998 to 2001.
Given Elwell’s resignation and the circumstances surrounding it, Prieto takes over as chairman at a critical time for the organization.
“Obviously these are difficult times for both the town and the Democratic party,” Prieto said last week. “But I think there is a strong desire to put this behind us and move forward in what will hopefully be a better and more positive direction.”
Elwell was among 44 public officials and religious leaders who were arrested last month after a massive sting operation spearheaded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Newark.
According to federal prosecutors, Elwell allegedly took a $10,000 cash bribe from a witness who was cooperating with investigators. In exchange for the payment, he allegedly agreed to help the witness get a hotel built in Secaucus, prosecutors said. He has been charged with “conspiracy to commit extortion under color of official right.” If convicted, he faces a maximum of 20 years in prison and a maximum fine of $250,000.
Elwell remains free on $100,000 bond and has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. Elwell resigned as mayor on July 28.
Until his resignation, the ex-mayor was leading a slate of candidates for the November election which included 1st Ward Town Councilwoman Dawn McAdam, who was running for her first full term; Frank Trombetta, who was running in the 2nd Ward; and Reilly, who was running for reelection in the 3rd Ward.
“It would be my personal preference to see a full [Democratic] ticket in the November election.” – Vincent Prieto
Gonnelli’s ticket includes 1st Ward candidate Rob Costantino and Bill McKeever, who is running in the 3rd Ward. Current 2nd Ward Councilman John Bueckner is running for reelection on the Independent slate.
Elwell was the most viable Democratic challenger to Gonnelli. With his departure from the mayoral contest it’s unlikely another Democrat can take over for him with just three months left before Election Day.
The Democratic Committee therefore may decide not to put up a candidate for mayor and may let McAdam, Trombetta, and Reilly run their council races with no candidate at the top of the Democratic Ticket.
“That’s a question we haven’t discussed yet as a committee,” Prieto said. “But it would be my personal preference to see a full ticket in the November election.”
If the committee does select a new mayoral candidate, it must do within 48 days of the Nov. 3 election.
Prieto declined to say whom the committee may consider to fill the void on the Democratic slate or who may be asked to become acting mayor until the end of the year.
However, there is speculation the committee may consider Peter Weiner, Susan Pirro, or Joseph Morano, who ran together unsuccessfully against Elwell’s slate in the June Democratic Primary. Reilly and fellow 3rd Ward Town Councilman John Shinnick, also a Democrat, may also be considered.
The committee is expected to meet this Monday to discuss candidates.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.