The 1988 political landscape in Bergen County bears little resemblance to today’s.
Former President George H.W. Bush carried the county against Michael Dukakis. Bill McDowell, a Republican, was the county executive, having been elected to the newly created office of two years earlier. Republicans controlled the freeholder board 7-0, and Republican Assemblywoman Kathleen Donovan had just been elected to her first five-year term as county clerk.
Times have changed, to say the least. Democrats have a popular incumbent county executive and hold all the freeholder seats. Only Donovan has managed to stay on top of the rising Democratic tide, and stands today as the only Republican county-wide officeholder in a place where the GOP has become the perennial minority party.
After 20 years in office, Donovan is the sole obstacle to County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero’s quest for complete county-wide domination – even if she holds an unglamorous office, where the primary responsibilities are overseeing election ballots, issuing passports and recording deeds and mortgages.
“I am the last Republican, but I am very hopeful this year that will change and the three Republican freeholder candidates running with me will win,” said Donovan, referring to
Paul Duggan, Chris Calabrese and Jeff Heller who are running long-shot campaigns against incumbent Democrats. “I take every election as if it is very difficult. I assume nothing and take nothing for granted.”
Late last year, Ferriero figured that, if he couldn’t beat Donovan, he could at least get her a superior court judgeship and, therefore, get her out of the way. But the nomination didn’t materialize, and now the Bergen County Democratic Organization has to attempt to oust Donovan through the ballot box.
Donovan, for her part, would still probably take a judgeship if nominated. But a compromise group of judges being sworn in this month does not include her, and she doesn’t anticipate getting nominated in the near future.
“If I was offered a superior judgeship I would certainly consider it. It would be quite an honor,” said Donovan. “You have to get all the senators on the same page.”
So with Donovan staying in office for the foreseeable future, the BCDO has fielded Diane Testa, who works as Fairview’s borough attorney and administrator, touting her as an articulate lawyer (Donovan is also an attorney) and certified municipal clerk who, though pretty much unknown on a county level, will prove to be a formidable candidate.
“Diane Testa has the technical knowledge and professional experience to professionalize the Bergen County Clerk’s office,” said BCDO spokesman Bill Maer. She will work towards making sure the office is more customer friendly and flexible for the public to utilize its services, and she will use her government experience in those areas to not only cut expenses, but also increase revenues.”
Maer said that county-level candidates perform best in presidential election years, when the top of the ticket helps turn out local Democrats. He also said that Donovan is starting to show some cracks in her popularity, having narrowly lost a 2006 primary for county executive to former Freeholder Todd Caliguire, who went on to lose to incumbent Dennis McNerney.
Over her 20 years in office, Donovan said that she’s turned over $1 billion for the county. Her office became so adept at issuing passports that many even came from New York for the service.
“Stewardship is a word that comes to mind when I stalk about the things we’ve done over the last 20 years,” said Donovan.
Donovan is just beginning to raise money for her reelection bid, and so far has raised only $4,500 to Testa’s $12,800. But Donovan said the number is so low because she didn’t raise money during her uncontested primary.
Her re-election battle also comes as the Republicans change leadership, from Rob Ortiz – whom Donovan quietly supported – to three-time freeholder candidate Bob Yudin. Donovan and Yudin have recently been on different sides of the county’s Republican divide, not just in the chairmanship battle, but also in 2006, when Yudin ran on Caliguire’s slate against Donovan’s slate.
“We have recently not been on the same side of inter-party discussions, so to speak,” said Donovan, who added that she has no hard feelings.
Yudin also said that past political difference will not be an obstacle.
“At the county committee election, I made it absolutely clear in my speech that no one will work harder to get Kathe Donovan reelected than me. I am fully behind her,” he said.