When political operative Joe Cardwell walked past the television cameras and into F.B.I. headquarters in Newark early on the morning of July 23, New Jersey Democrats could almost see the thousands of Democratic votes following him into oblivion.
Mr. Cardwell holds sway over Ward F of Jersey City, by far the largest municipality in Hudson County and a ward that New Jersey Democrats depend upon, because of its large black voting bloc, to turn out their base in a big way every election day.
Coverage of the immediate impact of Thursday’s corruption busts on the state’s competitive upcoming gubernatorial race focused on the public’s perception of the two candidates in the wake of the scandal: Would Governor Jon Corzine, already trailing badly in the polls, be seen as weak on ethics and reform compared to his opponent, Chris Christie, a former U.S. attorney who built his campaign on a record of putting 130 politicians in federal prison? Would Mr. Corzine’s recent ad campaign accusing Mr. Christie of doling out no-bid federal monitoring contracts to friends, allies and former bosses seem suddenly irrelevant?
Things being what they are in New Jersey, though, insiders knew it hardly mattered: The real problem for Mr. Corzine is practical, not perceptual, and it’s in Hudson County.
“The corruption thing will fade from voters’ memories very quickly,” said Patrick Murray, a pollster and political science professor at Monmouth University. “Where it’s going to play out is among the party operatives who either want to keep their heads low because the feds are looking at them, or are not happy with the way Governor Corzine has handled this.”
“If you have 10 operatives who for whatever reason can’t do their jobs on Election Day, that can cost Corzine 30,000 votes—not because the voters care about corruption, but because nobody knocked on their doors,” said Mr. Murray.
Mr. Corzine’s problems in Hudson County were bad enough already: His support from two important northern Hudson County mayors, still left standing after last week’s bloodbath, has ranged from unenthusiastic to nonexistent. Union City’s Brian Stack and North Bergen’s Nicholas Sacco both also run powerful political machines and represent their legislative districts in the State Senate. (Running against Mr. Stack for State Senate in 2007, Cuban-born West New York Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega compared his control over Union City to the grip of the Castro regime.)
Mr. Stack has yet to officially endorse Mr. Corzine, and Mr. Sacco reportedly attempted a behind-the-scenes maneuver earlier this year to shift Democratic support for the governor to popular Senate President Dick Codey of Roseland, a former acting governor who, it turned out, did not want to run.
Meanwhile, Hoboken, already a political mess, is paralyzed with the arrest of 32-year-old Mayor Peter Cammarano three weeks into his tenure. Secaucus Mayor Dennis Elwell? He was arrested, too.
In Bayonne, Mr. Corzine forced Joe Doria, a former mayor and Assembly speaker, to resign from his cabinet position as commissioner of the Department of Community Affairs after the F.B.I. raided his home and office, but did not arrest him. An officeholder since 1975, Mr. Doria had developed a reputation as one of the straightest arrows in the state, let alone Hudson County, and over the years accumulated many friends and supporters.
And then there’s Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy, who heads the Democratic Party in Hudson County. Though he wasn’t arrested last week, he was not untouched by the scandal, having met twice with real estate developer Solomon Dwek—the government’s cooperating witness—over lunch with three local politicos who were charged with funneling Mr. Dwek’s bribes into Mr. Healy’s own reelection campaign, as well as taking a cut for themselves.
At their second meeting, after Mr. Dwek informed Mr. Healy of the $20,000 he gave to his allies and the $10,000 more he planned to give after the election, the complaint quotes Mr. Healy proposing a relationship that would be “mutually beneficial.”
“If you do not have 100 percent from Nick Sacco and Brian Stack going into election day, and you have the situation in Jersey City like you have today, where key players are hobbled, and the issue of Joe Doria in Bayonne, where people might feel like he’s slighted, the governor might have a problem in Hudson County,” said New Jersey Democratic strategist Julie Roginsky. “You cannot expect to win Hudson County marginally and expect to win this election. You need incredible turnout in Hudson County.”