Two sides take shape on the waterfront

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by MAX PIZARRO
PoliticsNJ.com

There is a limit to what mortals can attain, and where the mortal strivings of one group fall off, another group begins, so there is never a totality of human endeavor, only the approximation of something whole, captured in a contest of opposing sides.
Such is waterfront politics in Jersey City and Bayonne.

Gearing up for primary season, the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) presented a “dream team” ticket of district 31 Legislative candidates last Thursday that includes some diehard Sen. Robert Menendez supporters, and the widow of the late Mayor Glenn Cunningham, who warred with the Democratic Party machine.

But in reconciling onetime opposites, the ticket also fails to include some key players, who themselves are mobilizing this week to emerge as part of another “unity ticket,” headed by veteran Assemblyman Louis Manzo.

The organization ticket brings Sandra Bolden Cunningham together with her husband’s old rival, former Jersey City Council President (and interim Mayor and State Senator) L. Harvey Smith; and Bayonne Councilman (and former Assemblyman) Anthony Chiappone, a Cunningham family ally.

Two-term Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise, who lost to Cunningham in a bid for mayor in 2001, is also running with the team, which bonded over a series of phone conversations and diner powwows after Cunningham and Chiappone initially announced their intentions to run together.

Rather than having Cunningham and Chiappone out there on their own, the machine wanted to bring them into the fold.

“This ticket shows our ability to come to terms with the past, and a willingness to make changes,” said Sandra Cunningham, who’s running for a State Senate seat being vacated by the retiring Joseph V. Doria, Jr. “They wanted to make amends. I wanted a reconciliation. I saw what the fighting did to my husband.”

DeGise acknowledged the partnership, brokered by Jersey City Mayor (and likely, the next HCDO Chairman) Jerramiah Healy, a former municipal judge, isn’t only an exercise in sweetness and light.

“The alliance forged with Sandra means I can get votes in areas where I struggle to get votes and she can get votes where she struggles to get votes,” said DeGise. “We’re glad to able to work together.”

But when you’re dealing with people your dealing with human nature, and when you’ve got that you have the inevitable id-ego-super ego construct that even in one person can best be described as fragile. And here you’re dealing with three people — all coming out of different corners of the most ethnically diverse county in the State of New Jersey, with political baggage marked “district 31.”

About the worst anyone is willing to say about Cunningham’s widow is that she is a natural actress and elegant figurehead, without the street smarts of her Jersey City-born husband and beat cop turned federal marshal turned big city mayor.

But the two men on the ticket have been around Hudson County politics long enough to get into some pretty tough scraps. Chiappone has been the nemesis of Doria, the Mayor of Bayonne, almost since the two first took municipal office in the late 1990s.

A relentless community organizer who on the city council voted for a waste transfer station then turned against it on a wave of neighborhood resistance, Chiappone is the anti-establishment candidate, whom much of the establishment sees as more of an infuriating demagogue than a loveable gadfly. But having proved his loyalty to Cunningham and run and won state office with him, Chiappone easily came on board with the mayor’s widow. She feels comfortable with him. He was part of the deal. So the machine power brokers bite their tongues and live with him.

To a point.

The trouble is he’s the last person the retiring Doria would want on the ticket. Photo ops in the park are one thing, but the reality is the machine has lined up behind the Bayonne candidate whose very presence undercuts much of what Doria stood for.

“Joe Doria’s been terrific,” said DeGise. “But it was always understood that if Joe left, the seat would have to come back. (to Jersey City).”

Cunningham’s political task in no small part is to be that big vote-getter for Jersey City.

But Chiappone on the heels of Doria?

It would be akin to replacing Reggie Jackson in right field with Greg Nettles.

The net effect for Doria and company is the lawmaker’s legacy and Bayonne are arguably on the receiving end of some disrespect. Bayonne already has to battle for its rights within the district, as Jersey City comprises a solid 65 percent of the population served.

Then there’s L. Harvey Smith.

Sandra Cunningham may be able to put aside the past in a public forum, but the lieutenants and on-the ground guys and allies who worked for Cunningham, who watched their beloved mayor fight and suffer the effects of being on the outside of the power structure, and die – probably have a harder time measuring Smith into a loving spoonful.

The former council president repeatedly fought with Cunningham on the council, particularly on the issue of bonding. “Glenn and I had political differences that some people wanted to make personal,” said Smith.

So with all of the passions good and bad stirred up for this “dream team” is it any surprise that another group would emerge, with another mix of candidates locking arms with their own sense of self-confidence and destiny?

“There’s going to be a primary,” said Healy. “Of course, there’s going to be a primary.”

Those close to the action say this one will be a war.

Assemblyman Louis Manzo is going to run again, and all of the sources agree he’s running for State Senate and will announce this week — Tuesday, to be precise.

One of his running mates will be Nicholas Chiaravalloti, who resigned from his job as Menendez’s State Director last Friday.

The 34-year old Chiaravalloti went to Our Lady of Assumption Church in his native Bayonne, where he first met Doria. He came up in politics as a 14-year old filing papers in Doria’s legislative office, before becoming his chief of staff, then moving on to work for Menendez. The other Assembly candidate is likely to be a Jersey City resident and probably an African-American.

The party organization tried to work with Manzo and get him to remain on the machine-backed ticket, but they couldn’t strike a deal. It wasn’t that they didn’t want him, according to Healy. They tried, but Manzo — ever the self-financed, establishment-bucking loner in his own right, would only do it his way.

“Louis Manzo took himself off the ticket,” said Healy.

Manzo wasn’t available for comment this week.

Though the DeGise-Cunningham ticket has the momentum of a machine that has absorbed the energies of onetime opponents, Manzo can claim the liberating energy of independence, as Mayor Cunningham once did.

“Mayor Glenn Cunningham and I initially came together because he saw me fighting the establishment on the local level,” said Chiappone. “He was fighting the powers that be on the county level. I became the checks and balances on the council, over the course of three terms. I don’t look at this unity ticket as me becoming part of the establishment. I look at them being more flexible, allowing me to be part of the machinery. It’s good for both of us.”

Sandra Cunningham said she is ready.

“We’re going to give it an honest try,” she said. “We’re open to working together to help the community. We just pray it all works out. You’re really hoping people are being honest with you. You must go with your gut reaction. Your instincts. If it doesn’t work, you go back to fighting.”

But in the meantime there is that fight out there with Manzo and the other unity ticket.

Two sides take shape on the waterfront