The strange disappearance of Sean Cotter

by MAX PIZARRO
PoliticsNJ.com

Add to that list of New Jersey disappearances including the arm of Chad Pennington, the glassworks of Trenton, and the Haunted Mansion of Long Branch the mysterious 2007 district 31 Senate candidacy of Sean Cotter.

Assemblyman Louis Manzo, himself a candidate for state Senate in district 31, says real estate developer Cotter told him Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy offered Cotter jobs in exchange for Cotter’s help in entering the Senate race as a spoiler. Healy — who along with the Hudson County Democratic Organization — backs Manzo’s chief rival Sandra Bolden Cunningham, calls the charge an outright falsehood.

Last Friday, on the same day Manzo said his legal team was going to make the information public in a Newark courtroom where Manzo was challenging the legitimacy of Cunningham’s primary petition, Cotter abruptly exited the Senate race with a fax to the state Division of Elections Office.

But not before he evidently spoke to former Jersey City Mayor Gerald McCann, a newly elected Jersey City School Board member who was removed from the mayor's office during his second term in 1992 and served over two years in a federal prison after being convicted of fraud and tax evasion.

Manzo suggests Cotter was a creature of the Cunningham camp. Cunningham’s people say the candidate was a shape-shifter wrought from the workshop of the fallen McCann. Whether his own man in the world of politics or a functionary strawman of one campaign or the other, Cotter had contact with people who are in both camps.

Bayonne Councilman Anthony Chiappone, who is running for state Assembly on the Hudson County Democratic Organization ticket topped by Cunningham, worked with their would-be rival and his racquetball partner Cotter in connection with Cotter’s campaign.

Chiappone said his people gathered signatures for the doomed candidate to boost the recognition of the young Bayonne resident, while providing a name at the top of the line on the ballot for those candidates Chiappone supports for the Bayonne City Council. Chiappone said his petitions for Assembly contain about 40 names that are the same as names on Cotter’s petition.

There is the politics of district 31 and then there is the politics of Bayonne proper, where Chiappone has long warred with Bayonne Mayor (and current district 31 state Senator) Joseph Doria. Without a line, candidates are free-floating on the ballot. With a line, at least they can make a stand. Chiappone’s local candidates were to be visible under Cotter on the New Frontier Democratic Party line.

Yesterday Chiappone told PoliticsNJ that a regretful Cotter had decided against running for public office because he doesn’t want to put his family through the turmoil of a campaign.

As for what Manzo says Cotter told him about Healy offering jobs, "It’s insanity, it’s absurd," said Bill Matsikoudis, the city’s corporation counsel. "First of all, the mayor doesn’t do business this way. Second, the mayor never met the guy."

"Healy never talked to Cotter," said Paul Swibinski , spokesman for the Hudson County Democratic Organization. "If there is an investigation, they will find it was Lou Manzo through a combination of intimidation and lies involved in manipulating this guy (Cotter)."

Then there is that one name the Cunningham people mention repeatedly as a stimulus of intrigue around Cotter and Manzo, and that is the name of McCann.

Manzo bristles at Healy’s suggestion that he is in league with the former twice-serving mayor.

"He tried to link me to McCann," Manzo said Sunday. "Anytime there’s something wrong he associates me with McCann. McCann is not involved in my campaign."

But on Wednesday, McCann huddled with Manzo in the Newark chamber of Judge Jospeh Paone while Manzo’s legal team attempted to dismantle the primary candidacy of Cunningham.

As they watched him operating on a cell-phone in the hallway outside Paone’s courtroom, the Cunningham contingent jeered playfully at the former mayor, who played along. At one point, Manzo emerged from the chamber with McCann’s nephew, Sean Caddle, and the three men walked away from the Cunningham crowd down to the other end of the hall. Back-peddling away from the hecklers, McCann channeled Al Haig with a whimsical, "I’m in charge here."

"That’s right, Gerry. You’re in charge all right."

When Manzo and Caddle returned to Paone’s courtroom, McCann lingered.

"I’m helping him," McCann said of Manzo. "I don’t charge anybody anything. I did a similar case for Glenn Cunningham. I’ve done this on a number of occasions for other people. The first time, I did it for her (Sandra Cunningham)."

What about the disappearance of Sean Cotter from the race?

"I have no idea what he looks like," McCann said. "If he walked past me right now I wouldn’t be able to identify him."

But Cotter called McCann hours before he officially dropped out of the district 31 race last week, according to McCann. The candidate told the former mayor he had always admired him, in McCann’s words, and asked for his advice.

"I told him, €˜look, I don’t know what you said,’" McCann said. "I think you should get a lawyer. Get legal advice. I don’t know the circumstances. What I do know, and I told him this, is if he drops out of the race, they can’t subpoena you. That was the end of the case."

Cotter was unavailable for comment.

The strange disappearance of Sean Cotter