Senator Paul Sarlo: The PolitickerNJ Interview

WALLINGTON – The sports bar on the side of Paterson Avenue has a parking lot that plants your bumper right against the wall, where inside, as many as five area mayors have shown up with separate Election Night entourages.

The owner is himself a local politician, who was kicked out of the Republican Party for, in his words, “talking too much,” and now he’s back as an East Rutherford Council candidate for the Democratic Party.

Sitting in the bar area with a mid-afternoon ballgame on in the background, state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) occupies his lifelong South Bergen environs with an eye to the coming statehouse session and to the November 4th election, when his ally takes, James Tedesco of Paramus, takes on incumbent Republican Kathe Donovan, another South Bergenite.

“It’s a dogfight,” said Sarlo, referring to the latter. “Kathe has great name recognition. But all eyes are on this race – statewide, everyone’s watching this race. You’re going to see resources come in here for Tedesco. The role county government plays in Bergen County will be the deciding issue in this race, and the impact of the tax structure on government as more towns are squeezed by the 2 percent cap.”

Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Sarlo sees four issues on the statewide table in the coming weeks.

“We need a plan for the state Transportation Trust Fund,” he said. “We need a plan for pension payments; we must consider the future of the Meadowlands. We sat back patiently and gave Atlantic City a chance and that didn’t work. We’re going to see gaming in North Jersey. We must not make the same mistakes made in Atlantic City. We’re looking at two casinos in North Jersey – one in the Meadowlands and one in Jersey City. The one in the Meadowlands will be the blue collar sports guy venue and the one in Jersey City will be the high end, exclusive Wall Street spot.

“The fourth issue is we must find a way to deal with the estate tax,” the senator added. “Everybody hears ‘the estate tax’ and thinks it only impacts the super wealthy. It doesn’t.”

Sarlo sees the need to confront the estate tax as part of a package of tax policy reforms. As long as Gov. Chris Christie is running for president in a 2016 Republican Primary, the senator said he does not see much possibility for advancement on the fourth front.

“My advice to the governor is you’ve been given a second term, let’s work together,” Sarlo said, but as long as Christie must tailor his views according to voters in a “Republican Primary where there are very extreme right-wing folks,” he sees an impassable impediment.   

Turning to the county executive’s race, PolitickerNJ asked the senator why people should want to vote out Donovan, the incumbent Republican.

“County government has become very divisive, very confrontational,” the senator said. “You know, Kathe grew up here, in Lyndhurst, and when she was the county clerk, she was never seen as confrontational. Now, it’s different. She’s always willing to undertake legal challenges.”

Divided in the Joe Ferriero era between the Ferriero wing of the party and state Sen. Loretta Weinberg’s (D-37) wing, Democrats now see the GOP fraught with similar divisions, most notably between Sheriff Mike Saudino and Donovan.

Democrats are trying to take advantage of rank-and-file sheriff’s office irritation with Donovan over her fight with Saudino and Democratic freeholders who back the sheriff’s request for two tank-like military vehicles known as MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected Vehicles) — from the U.S. Department of Defense.

But Donovan supporters are convinced the incumbent rightly got out in front of the issue with a letter she wrote to voters last month, decrying the “militarization” of the county’s police force, and accusing the sheriff and freeholders of “totally ignoring” her “strong objections” to the decision.

“These tank-like military vehicles … that Tedesco and company want, weigh over 50,000 pounds when fully equipped,” she proclaimed. “The upkeep, maintenance and training on these vehicles will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of additional tax dollars. They do not belong on the streets of our towns! They were designed for military use in war zones, not law enforcement use on our streets.”

Dismissing the matter, pointing out that Saudino decided to put the request on hold, Sarlo said the MRAP controversy won’t decide the race.

Sarlo says Tedesco can win as a Democrat in part because the demographics of Bergen – and specifically South Bergen – have changed and new voters, Hispanics and New York transplants among them – favor his party.

Sarlo acknowledged the base of Catholic blue collar workers in South Bergen who use their disposable income to pay for childrens’ needs or to build a finished basement or bathroom and feels his party still provides the better voice for those voters.

“Christie won’t have an impact on the county executive’s race unless the federal investigation [into Bridgegate] advances,” Sarlo said. “I’m not a big believer in endorsements, but the fact that [U.S. Rep. Bill] Pascrell is on the ballot in South Bergen and the fact that [U.S. Sen. Cory] Booker is on the ballot in Bergen, will help Tedesco. I think voters will stay in the Democratic column with those names on the ballot.”

Rumored to be positioned as a successor to Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) – who beat Sarlo in 2007 to become senate majority leader and set himself on course to succeed Dick Codey as senate president – Sarlo said, “There’s no opening for senate president right now. We have a strong working relationship.”

Senator Paul Sarlo: The PolitickerNJ Interview