Bergen County Exec’s race: continuing Donovan v. Saudino rift still factor for Republicans before November election

HACKENSACK – In preparation for the Bergen County Executive race in 2014, the two long-standing pillars and rivals of the Bergen Republican Party, County Executive Kathleen Donovan and Bergen Republican Chairman Bob Yudin, publicly made peace in December 2013. Joining hands, Donovan and Yudin presented a united front, one they maintained following the emergence of Democratic Freeholder Jim Tedesco as Donovan’s challenger in the 2014 election.

As the campaign enters its critical final six weeks, political observers wonder if the other significant rift among Bergen Republicans can be repaired before Election Day: the feud between Donovan and Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino. 

Donovan and Saudino have publicly fought over policy issues in recent months. One key flashpoint centers on a contract that Saudino, first elected in 2010, negotiated for his more than 400 officers in 2011.

The contract provides 2 percent raises in each of the four years to those officers at the top step of the salary guide, according to police union officials. The contract also gives all officers two hours of compensatory time when they work on a holiday. Officers receive regular pay on those days.

Donovan, who has termed the contract “reckless spending,” has refused to sign the agreement. Donovan’s refusal to implement the contract led to a police union lawsuit after the contract was approved by the freeholders. The union filed suit when the county executive refused to implement the contract after it was approved by the freeholders. Although a lower court ruling required her to honor the settlement negotiated by Saudino, the matter remains in litigation.

Saudino and Donovan have also sparred over the potential use of two mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles, known as MRAPs, by his department. 

Saudino stated last month that he will delay deploying the vehicles until state and federal officials finish their reviews of the program under which police departments across the country acquired the surplus equipment free of charge.

Donovan agreed with the delay, but also called on the freeholders to reverse their vote from earlier this year allowing the sheriff to obtain the military-grade vehicles from the U.S. Defense Department. The county executive also called for a one-year moratorium on purchasing any other military vehicles so that the issue could be fully aired in public.

Saudino shot back that Donovan’s real reason for her reservations about the vehicles are tied to the ongoing debate over the merger of the Bergen County Police Department with the sheriff’s department. Donovan opposes the move, while Democratic-controlled freeholder board supports it. The merger matter also remains in litigation. 

The policy differences between Donovan and Saudino, centered on power and money, have reportedly led to personal strain between the two officials. But Yudin, who had a less-than-close relationship with Donovan for years, did not believe the intra-Republican rift would affect Donovan’s reelection campaign.

“While there is friction among some Republicans, it’s primarily insider politics. In no way is it going to adversely affect the reelection of Kathe Donovan,” Yudin said. “Disagreement on some issues is normal for us Republicans, because we do not go in lockstep. [Donovan and Saudino] are very passionate about their beliefs. This is healthy for our party.”

A longtime Bergen County political operative who requested anonymity called the rift between Donovan and Saudino “an unnecessary situation” rising from “a clash of egos.” 

“Part of the problem was that Alan Marcus created a lot of chaos back when he was involved,” said the operative, referring to the consultant and public relations executive who managed Donovan’s victorious campaign in 2010, who is now distanced from Donovan after a series of controversies. “Alan was probably the voice in Kathe’s ear telling her ‘you don’t need him,’ when it was just the opposite. Mike Saudino is the former police chief of Emerson, and he’s a very popular guy.”

“I generally do not respond to anonymous quotes. But I helped run Saudino’s [2010] campaign,” Marcus told PolitickerNJ. “I helped him get editorial and labor support. The [Donovan and Saudino] campaigns were fully integrated. Their rift came after the campaign. It has nothing to do with me. That is just a flat-out lie.” 

“The dispute between Donovan and Saudino isn’t personal at this point,” the operative added. “If she gets reelected, I think you’ll see a little bit of a detente there. The problem for Mike is that he can’t lose face with his guys. That’s the biggest issue. He’s a Republican. He’ll take the picture with Kathe. But in a way, he’s going to take a hit if his guys get [annoyed].”

The detente is not immediately visible on the horizon. When the Donovan campaign announced a list of 17 reelection campaign co-chairs on Tuesday, Saudino’s name was not on the list.

Donovan campaign spokesman Mark Campbell told PolitickerNJ that the campaign had asked Saudino to be a reelection campaign co-chair, but said that the sheriff had “respectfully declined.” 

Jeanne Baratta, Donovan’s chief of staff, remained optimistic that fences can be mended between the sheriff and the county executive before the November election.

“Just the fact that the Donovan campaign reached out to [Saudino] says they absolutely can sit down,” Baratta said. “I think all along, the county executive has wanted to sit down with the sheriff on many of these issues. The sheriff has reached out also. There is some back and forth. We work together in ways that the general public doesn’t see. I absolutely believe we could see [a public rapprochement]. Stay tuned.”

A written statement issued by Sheriff Saudino indicated that he and Donovan are not singing the same tune just yet.

“As I have made clear in each of my campaigns, I am a public servant before I am a politician. As the Sheriff of Bergen County, I head an office of 525 men and women, with 425 sworn officers. For the last four years, those officers have had a legally executed contract utterly ignored by the County Executive for petty political reasons,” wrote Saudino in a statement sent to PolitickerNJ. “Furthermore, by consistently promulgating the falsehood that the officers of this department are anything less than fully sworn police officers, Ms. Donovan unconscionably increases the risk that one day a citizen of Bergen County will fail to abide by a lawful order as a result of her continued misrepresentations. I have sent the Executive a letter on this second matter [last month], which I consider a vital matter of public safety. I have yet to receive a response.

“I would urge the County Executive to take a brief time out from her efforts to get re-elected to her position and make some time to actually carry out the duties of her position,” Saudino’s statement continued. “The County Executive has not contacted me in over three years on any matter whatsoever, be it one of public policy, or one of politics. I would invite her to respond to my letter, cease her misrepresentations, and honor a contract upheld unanimously by the Appellate Court. If afterwards she would like to contact me for my support, I would be as willing to take her phone call as I have been for the last three years.”