It was less than a year ago that Sandra B. Cunningham won the Democratic nomination for state Senate in the 33rd District, aided by Jersey City Mayor and newly christened Hudson County Democratic Organization Chairman Jerramiah Healy.
But less than six months after she assumed the office, Cunningham is considering joining the crowded quadrennial field of Jersey City mayoral candidates to run for the seat that her late husband, Glenn Cunningham, held just four years ago.
Cunningham did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but some of her recent actions have suggested that she’s leaning towards making a run next year. First, she broke with Healy to endorse Rob Andrews for U.S. Senate over Frank Lautenberg — despite Lautenberg helping to kick start Glenn Cunningham’s political career by appointing him as a U.S. Marshall and being one of his first big name, non-Hudson County supporters for mayor in 2001.
Two weeks later, Cunningham wrote a letter to the Jersey Journal questioning the qualifications of the city’s new fire chief, Michael O’Reilly, and suggesting he may have been picked because his brother, Brian O’Reilly, is the city’s business administrator.
That letter was a sharp rebuke to Healy, who forged a tenuous ticket between Cunningham, former Jersey City Council President/Acting Mayor L. Harvey Smith and Anthony Chiappone in the 33rd District last year.
“I think maybe indirectly it could be interpreted as some kind of criticism,” said Healy. “But bottom line is that Mike O’Reilly not only finished number one on the test, but he got a perfect score, which I don’t think has ever happened before.”
Perhaps nobody is paying more attention to Cunningham’s moves than Healy, who has a lot of use for Cunningham’s support and has a lot to lose if she does run. But Healy said that he hasn’t talked with Cunningham about the prospect, while sources close to him downplay Cunningham’s intentions.
“She’d certainly be a solid candidate, but I haven’t heard from Sen. Cunningham anything about running so far,” he said.
Other major players seriously considering candidacies in the nonpartisan contest are: former Assemblyman Lou Manzo, who’s run for mayor four times and has already conducted polling (he lost to Cunningham in his state Senate bid last year); Ward E councilman Steve Fulop, who has a strong base of support in the city’s gentrified downtown and is working to improve his city-wide profile with a reform ballot initiative; former Acting Mayor and City Council President L. Harvey Smith; and conservative Bret Schundler, who served as mayor from 1992 to 2001.
If race plays a major role in the election, then Cunningham could be one of the strongest candidates. Some other prospective candidates’ polls show Cunningham extremely popular with the black community in Ward F and in the city’s southernmost section of Greenville.
Although Smith is also African-American, his past feud with Glenn Cunningham over a 2004 state Senate election soured his reputation with many black voters, and to this day he has not fully recovered. While Cunningham could count on most of a voting bloc that accounts for a little less than 30 percent of the city’s population, the other candidates may split the rest of the city’s ethnic groups. That could put her in a strong position to get a place as one of the top two candidates who would go on to compete in a runoff election if no candidate wins a simple majority.
Smith, who insiders say has had an icy relationship with Cunningham since he was ran against her husband in the 2004 state Senate election, said that he plans to poll on a potential mayoral run.
“I’m starting to get affixed on that point of view. I’m looking at it seriously,” he said, saying that his short term as acting mayor after Cunningham’s sudden death and 12 years on the council make him well situated for the position.
Smith also said that he doesn’t think his rivalry with Cunningham damaged him in the African-American community, noting that he split the black vote with Councilwoman Willie Flood in his 2004 run for Mayor.
Brigid Harrison, a Montclair University political science professor, said that she’s heard of polls putting Cunningham’s support amongst the city’s black voters at 90%.
“I think she’s really been successful in getting her name out there, particularly in the last 18 months,” she said.
Multiple sources say that Cunningham and her top political advisor, Joe Cardwell, are open to a deal with Healy, but on terms he may not be able to provide: control of who gets to run on the organizational line for city council and the decision on who gets to direct and staff the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency.
Healy said Cunningham never approached him with any deals regarding the city council, and that he often talks about appointments with Cunningham – including those regarding the redevelopment agency.
“We never had that discussion, nor would I be very likely to engage in that discussion. But I’m sure she wouldn’t ask for such a thing,” he said.
At this point, Healy has at least one major advantage over Cunningham: money. As of the last ELEC filing deadline, he had $944,620 cash-on-hand.
And some of dirt from Cunningham’s state Senate campaign could come back to hit her in a mayoral race, like having a convicted sex offender campaign for her door-to-door, and the revelation that she runs a charity that spends the vast majority of its donations on overhead — including her own salary.
But Cunningham has friends who could help her with fundraising and defense. Her endorsement of Rob Andrews demonstrates alliance she’s formed with state Sen. Ray Lesniak, a power broker who could help her on the fundraising front, and south Jersey boss George Norcross, who could also provide some serious resources.
Cunningham was one of the crucial north Jersey state Senators who cast a vote to elevate Norcross ally and Gloucester County native Stephen Sweeney to Senate Majority Leader over Bergen County state Sen. Paul Sarlo.
“She’s already cast her lot with Lesniak-Norcross alliance,” said Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray. “So that kind of thing leads to an indication that she’s trying to build up a pocket of support to take on the powers that be… Norcross definitely wants to expand his influence across the state. From that perspective, this looks like a good opportunity to do so.”
Lesniak said that he’s had a close relationship with Cunningham since her husband was mayor, but wouldn’t say whether he’ll support her if she seeks the mayoral seat.
“I don’t answer hypothetical questions,” said Lesniak. “I haven’t talked to her about anything in the mayoral race and I don’t really get involved on that level. It’s when the issues come to a head that people start picking up the phone and talk to me.”