The conviction of former Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero on federal corruption charges ends the political career of a man who led Democrats from perpetually minority party status to one that completely dominated politics in New Jersey’s largest county. Ferriero, 52, a onetime political prodigy who won a Dumont Borough Council seat when he was just 20-years-old, has resigned to fight a federal corruption indictment. A conviction will mean a permanent end to his political career; an acquittal could – and likely would – mean a return to his position as one of the state’s most powerful politicians.
When Ferriero, wrestled the county chairmanship from Gerald Calabrese in June 1998, Bergen County Republicans had a 7-0 majority on the Board of Freeholders, and Republicans in the offices of County Executive, County Clerk, and Sheriff. The only countywide Democratic official was Michael Dressler, who had won election as Surrogate in 1996. Republicans held three of the five State Senate seats, and eight of ten State Assembly seats that included parts of Bergen County.
In a campaign largely engineered through Ferriero’s strategic and fundraising skills, Democrats scored an upset victory in November ’98. Joseph Ciccone ousted GOP Acting Sheriff Jay Alpert, and Dennis McNerney and Douglas Bern were elected Freeholder. (Barbara Chadwick, a Freeholder for twenty years, was re-elected, as was County Executive William “Pat” Schuber, who defeated then-Assemblywoman Loretta Weinberg, and County Clerk Kathleen Donovan.) Ciccone gave Ferriero some of the patronage he needed to build a county organization. And the Freeholder Board moved from 7-0 to 5-2.
Republicans survived 1999, with incumbents James Sheehan and Anthony Cassano pushing back Ferriero’s challengers, David Sivella and Jane Reilly. But in 2000, Democrats won control of the Freeholder Board (4-3) for the first time since 1984. Valerie Huttle, who had run an aggressive campaign for State Senator three years earlier, and Fort Lee Mayor Jack Alter defeated longtime incumbents Richard Mola and Bill Van Dyke.
For Ferriero, 2001 — the year he opened his grants company with attorney Dennis Oury — was a political setback at the county level, but a success in his bid for clout at the state level. Ciccone resigned after pleading guilty to illegal fundraising (he sold Deputy Sheriff badges to donors) and had to forfeit $226,000 he had raised fro his re-election campaign. His replacement, Assemblyman Ken Zisa, lost the general election to Republican Joel Trella. Bern was defeated; only McNerney survived. This returned the GOP to a 4-3 majority. A Ferriero ally, Joseph Coniglio, ousted three-term Republican State Sen. Louis Kosco in the 38th district, and Democrats picked up one Assembly seat in the 36th (Paul Sarlo) and another in the 38th (Matt Ahearn, who unseated veteran Republican Nicholas Felice.)
2002 was Ferriero’s big year. He raised (and imported from other county Democratic organizations) an enormous war chest and elected McNerney County Executive over Republican State Sen. Hank McNamara after Schuber declined to seek a fourth term. Democrats also picked up two Freeholder seats, giving them a 5-2 majority.
In 2003, Ferriero picked up a State Senate seat (Sarlo moved up after Garry Furnari, an Essex Democrat, became a Judge) and a second Assembly seat in the 38th (he had dumped Ahearn, who switched to the Green Party, and picked up the open seat of Republican Rose Heck, who lost a Senate race to Coniglio), and held his Freeholder seats. His only losses were the County Clerk’s race, where Donovan beat Linda Baer, the wife of then-State Sen. Byron Baer, and the race for Alter”s Freeholder seat, which went to former GOP Assemblywoman Lisa Randall. (She beat Tomas Padilla, who had been appointed to fill the vacancy.) That reduced the Democratic majority to 4-3.
The following year, Ferriero picked up two more Freeholder seats — he beat incumbent Mola, again, and an open seat after the GOP dumped Louis Tedesco, who had been accused of spousal abuse. That gave Democrats a 6-1 majority. More importantly, Ferriero won the Sheriff’s race: Leo McGuire ousted Trella.
Ferriero suffered a huge loss in September 2005 after the resignation, for health reasons, of Baer. The County Chairman backed Zisa for the seat, but Jon Corzine, then a U.S. Senator running for Governor, endorsed Weinberg for State Senator. (Corzine’s endorsement came just a few months after Ferriero backed Corzine over incumbent Richard Codey in the gubernatorial race.) In a special election convention of District 37 Democratic County Committee members, Zisa beat Weinberg 114-110; in a separate vote, for the party’s nomination to run in a November 2005 special election for the remaining fourteen months of Baer’s term, Zisa won 112-11. Weinberg challenged the election, and won after a Superior Court Judge ruled that several contested votes for Weinberg from Tenafly must be counted. Also in 2005, Democrats picked up another Assembly seat in the 36th district after Republican Paul DiGaetano ran for Governor.
In 2006, McNerney was re-elected with more than 60% of the vote over former Freeholder Todd Caliguire. Democrats won a 7-0 majority on the Freeholder Board after the lone Republican, Randall, lost the GOP primary. Democrats kept their 7-0 majority in 2007, although Ferriero failed in his bid to beat eight-term Republican State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, a longtime nemesis.
Ferriero’s indictment in the fall of 2008 had little impact on the fate of the Democratic ticket: his three Freeholders were re-elected, and only County Clerk Kathleen Donovan, a four-term Republican Ferriero tried to recruit to his team, won.