BAYONNE – Good feeling in Bayonne County Park for a vibrant native son who wants to be mayor, belied the fact that they’re gearing up for political war here in this fiscally troubled city.
A hero cop who followed his father into police work and served 25 years on the force, acting Police Director Mark Smith announced his candidacy today, surrounded by family and Hudson County Democratic Organization diehards.
“I always play fair, and I play to win,” saidSmith, who’s running against former municipal Judge Patrick Conaghan in a Nov. 4 special election for a seat left vacant by former Mayor Joseph Doria and now occupied by Acting Mayor Terrence Malloy.
“I grew up walking the streets of the City of Bayonne and playing in this very park,” said Smith, the youngest of four brothers, standing at a podium and flanked by his wife, Patricia, their two daughters, his mother, and a brother, Dr. Jack Smith, among other supporters.
The faces of Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise and West New York Mayor Sal Vega stood out in the mostly local crowd.
Bayonne residents today face a malaise “that has crept into our homes,” said the mayoral candidate, as the city faces a budget deficit of $22 million, largely wrought by what both Smith and his opponent, Conaghan, agree has been mismanagement of the old Naval base by the Bayonne Local Redevelopment Authority (BLRA).
In a town where the property tax-paying population is hardly begging for a bronze statue commission of Doria -who after nine years resigned as mayorin 2007 to becomechair of the state Department of Community Affairs, Smith told PolitickerNJ.com, “I’m not Joe Doria’s guy.”
An organizationrecruit nonetheless, whose political insulation includes a number of recognizable Doria allies, Smith acknowledged that Bayonne faces a budget crisis, but he refused to point fingers and insisted on labeling himself the candidate of change.
“The future’s coming like a freight train,” he said. “We need to pursue new rateables and cut municipal expenses. We need to make painful choices, and ask municipal employees to do more with less.”
Smith intends to take some vacation time starting in the fall whenhis campaign schedule grows more intense. If elected, heplans to take a leave of absense from his job as acting police director to focus full-time on being mayor.
Among the missing at Smith’s kickoff were Doria – and, of course, Conaghan.
In his law office on the southern end of town, a block away from where the Bayonne Diner on Broadway features not just selections by Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin but a full complement of “Rat Pack” standards, the latter shook his head incredulously at the mention of Smith’s efforts to incorporate change symbolism into his campaign.
“So he’s running as Obama,” shrugged Conaghan, the other, older Bayonne lifer, who’s known Smith and Smith’s family all his life.
“How can Mark be the change candidate coming after Doria? Smith equals Doria,” he said.
If anyone can rightfully wear the change mantle it’s himself, insists Conaghan, who says Doria blew the base redevelopment by rolling over in the face of Robert Menendez, and championing mixed use for the site, including residential housing. Conaghan favored converting the area into port shipping, which he says could have yielded millions annually for Bayonne in leasing fees.
“I was right, and Doria was wrong,” said the candidate, sitting in an office brimming with images of John F. Kennedy. “He screwed up Bayonne to a fare-thee-well.”
For his part, Smith admits the problems with the base started “when we (the City of Bayonne) became the developer. That was a mistake.”
A city establishment figure – formerly on the board of directors of two banks and a retired judge – Conaghan teamed up with Doria antagonist Assemblyman (and Councilman) Anthony Chiappone during his run-off with Doria in the 2006 mayoral election.
Conaghan lost – but not by much: 48-52%, as Team Doria blasted mailers at him tying his idea of port shipping to terrorism susceptibility.
Branded as the town cowboy by Doria and his allies, Chiappone said he and Smith make good political allies, in part because they can appeal to different general election demographics. Fighting the local machine here, Chiappone has thrived with the participation of independents and scattered pockets of Republicans to complement his anti-establishment Democratic Party constituents.
Meanwhile, their charismatic, people-person opponent has an advantage in being a recognizable and highly decorated officer, who oversaw Bayonne’s emergency response to New York on 9/11.
He also has public service family ties that stretch throughout the maritime city. One brother is a physician, and two other brothers hold administrative positions in the local school system. His daughters are in the school system. His mother works as a nurse at the hospital.
In the park on Thursday, Smith received an impassioned buildup from his older brother, Jack Smith, an Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran, and from retired Bayonne Police Chief Jim Sisk.
Reflecting on Smith’s early days as a police officer and detective, Sisk said, “he was a take-charge guy then, and he’s a take-charge guy now. He had that sparkle in his eye – he’d go out and come back with a couple of prisoners” as if it were no big deal.
The chief told a story about a troubled man holding his children hostage with a gun. Smith went up the fire escape, into the house and stared down the suspect without incident.
“That’s courage,” said Sisk. “And this guy has a heart that’s a foot wide. …He’ll get between a good guy and a bad guy and, believe me, the bad guy’s going to pay a price.
“His blood,” said Jack Smith of his brother, “is Bayonne blue.”
Conaghan knows he’s going to have to run hard against his younger rival, and while he won’t admit that he’ll be out-hustled in the streets, he insists he’d be the stronger, more knowledgeable executive.
“I was a problem-solver in business for many people,” said Conaghan. “If this election were for the chief of police, I’d say no question, Mark is your man. But what we need is a fiscal manager not a policeman.”
But today was Smith’s day, and as Bayonne figures young and old embraced him and congratulated him and backed him, he smiled and welcomed every one into the fold of his campaign. When he found retired Police Lt. Leo Valerioti in the crowd, he recalled how his elder supervisor used to have him out in Bayonne, walking the beat early in Smith’s career.
Now in the service of his mayoral campaign, he acknowledged with a laugh, Smith can reverse roles and put his old super on the beat.