No white smoke yet from Hudson County’s College of Cardinals

Over the past two decades a somewhat balanced system of politcal power apportionment developed in Hudson County, where the powerful Democratic machine is run by the county’s mayors. The mayors of all the towns met regularly to discuss issues, select candidates for jobs and offices, and generally work things out behind the scenes. The mayors with the most clout were the ones from the largest cities — Union City, North Bergen and Bayonne — but not always Jersey City. Back in the early 1980’s, Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann was part of the power-sharing systen, but he was a maverick and not always reliable — or loyal — so after a while, the group stopped letting McCann in the room. Robert Jansizewski, the Hudson County Executive and a Jersey City resident, stepped in to fill the void. With no opposition from the others, he claimed to represent Jersey City’s interests. As the so-called “Mayor of Hudson County,” he became a bonafide power broker. Janiszewski’s clout was enhanced in 1992 when Republican Bret Schundler was elected Mayor of Jersey City; this made Janiszewski the only Jersey City voice at the table. That changed in 2001, when Glenn Cunningham was elected Mayor in May and Janiszewski, who had been wearing a wire while cooperating with federal investigators, suddenly resigned his post in September. Cunningham not only claimed a place at the table, but he demanded to be the first among equals. That did not sit well with the others, who had become somewhat cliquey and worked well together without having to deal with an 800-pound gorilla from Jersey City. When Janiszewski went away (although not literally at that point — just to a ski lodge in upstate New York), Robert Menendez, who had been Mayor of Union City before his election to Congress, stepped into Janiszewski’s role as the referee among the Mayors. Menendez tried to explain to Cunningham that the old (pre-McCann) days were over and the Mayors acted as a sort of semi-democratic council. Cunningham viewed this as a personal afront, believing that as Mayor of Jersey City, he was entitled to more than the same vote as the Mayor of Guttenberg. The others, led by Menendez (who had succeeded Janiszewski as Hudson County Democratic Chairman), refused to change a system that had worked well for them. Then it became personal between Menendez and Cunningham. The two went to war over the County Executive post. Cunningham wanted to retain Bernard Hartnett, who won a Special Election Convention to replace Janiszewski as County Executive; Menendez wanted former Jersey City Council President Thomas DeGise, a onetime Schundler ally who had lost the ’01 mayoral runoff to Cunningham. DeGise won the 2002 Democratic primary with 75% of the vote. When State Senator Joseph Charles declined to seek re-election in 2003, Menendez and the HCDO backed Jersey City Council President L. Harvey Smith for the Senate. Cunningham ran anyway and won, knocking HCDO Assembly incumbents Joseph Doria and Elba Perez-Cinciarelli out as well. Then in 2004, Cunningham died unexpectedly. The Democratic powerbrokers picked City Councilman Jerramiah Healy, a former Municipal Court Judge who had run a strong race against Schundler in 1997, as their new Mayor. Doria, the Mayor of Bayonne, returned to Trenton as a State Senator. The Mayors did not feel especially threatened when Healy took over as Mayor, despite his past penchant for independence. They had all supported him in his campaign and believed Healy knew his place: at the table, but not at the head of it. The problem was there were only thirteen chairs at the table — with DeGise’s representative, triple-hat-wearing William Gaughan (who at the time served as Chief of Staff to DeGise, Jersey City Councilman, and Jersey City Democratic Municipal Chairman) sitting in the Jersey City Chair and not excited to get up so that Healy might sit down. Healy, it turned out, was not about to let anyone tell him what to do — especially DeGise and Gaughan. At first, the County Executive let Healy win what he thought were small victories. But in time, DeGise and Gaughan became less willing to allow Healy to get his way. A series of trash-talking and bar arguments escalated over who really runs Jersey City. The two engaged in a very public fight over the PJP landfill site. DeGise and Gaughan wanted it to become a golf course, while Healy pushed for a industrial warehouse that would generate tax revenues for the city. This became a classic struggle, especially since Gaughan controlled half the votes on the City Council — coincidentally, the half that held county jobs. Healy won that fight, and succeeded in ousting Gaughan as the local party chairman. But Gaughan continued to flex his political muscles, actively seeking to oust Jersey City Assemblywoman Joan Quigley so that he could take the seat. Healy stuck with Quigley, and the other Mayors continued their twenty-year “your town, your seat, your choice” philosophy. With Quigley virtually assured another term in Trenton, stay tuned for the next fight — for Hudson County Freeholder Chairman. (The incumbent, Sal Vega, is now the new Mayor of West New York and a new State Assemblyman.) Healy wants one of the Jersey City Freeholders to take the chairmanship, while DeGise seems to want anybody but a Jersey City candidate. While Healy seems to be in control of his hometown, he faces a tougher challenge if he wants to flex his muscles countywide.

No white smoke yet from Hudson County’s College of Cardinals