by MAX PIZARRO
Amid the trench warfare of a Democratic Party primary, Hudson County Excutive Thomas DeGise doesn't lose sight of a larger purpose.
"I'm in a fight now — Democrats versus Democrats," he says. "But the fact is, Republicans in Trenton or Washington are bad for urban areas, and when this is over we will close ranks."
As he runs for re-election in the riverside cauldron of hurt feelings, fiery tempers and frayed nerves called Hudson County Democratic Party politics, DeGise prides himself on being able to get along with everyone, yes even Republicans – he once endorsed a Republican (former Jersey City Mayor Bret Schundler) for governor over Jim McGreevey.
Among the various “isms” that pervade America's political culture, the affable Jersey City native moving through the mosques and labor union halls and senior communites of Hudson embodies that ages old Dick Codey-Tip O'Neill school of politics: enough good humor to make people feel relaxed, enough gravitas to get respect.
"I've been here for four and a half years and I didn't go to jail, there's been no hint of scandal as I have sought to return confidence to this government," says the county executive, a big open space and public parks advocate.
The proud Democrat who as a boy in 1960 saw President John F. Kennedy give a speech at Journal Square, and who later supported Sen. Eugene "Clean Gene" McCarthy for president, descries current Republican leadership at the federal level, which he says has cut county assistance dollars for programs, including 20% in Community Development Block Grant funding for five years, and sends as much homeland security money to Wyoming as it does to the cities of New Jersey.
The immediate trouble for DeGise in an election year is he sits within the wrappings of a Hudson County Democratic Organization about as loosely confederated as the Democratic Party in 1968.
And that's just his primary team, an assemblage of old, interlocking enemies, though DeGise says his commitment to the people he's running with is legit. "There's no question I feel allegiance to this fight," he says. "You see some people behind you in a fight, and you remember that."
Many of the campaign signs position DeGise’s name at the top or emphasize it in gold lettering, indicating the organization’s belief that’s he’s bankable. But the fact is DeGise's moniker will be stationed in the number four slot on the ballot, and while he may be better known than his opponent, Jersey City teacher Noemi Velazquez, he's in a team sport.
Velazquez did not return phone calls to discuss her campaign.
DeGise insists on running a positive campaign and says he is used to being surrounded by disparate forces, having handled multiple personalities while moving the mayor’s agenda when he served as Jersey City Council president for 8 years.
Now the county executive oversees a work force of between 2,800 and 2,900 employees, and manages a $400 million budget that includes administration of welfare, parks, security, maintenance of the courts and the county jail, and garbage disposal.
“It’s like being an orchestra leader for 12 towns, 12 mayors and 12 egos,” says DeGise, a teacher by training.
“I’m willing to stand on my record, and no one in this race has criticized my polices,” DeGise says. “There’s an election in Hudson County, you play the hand you’re dealt, but on June 6th, everybody’s got to wake up and go to work. If I’m still standing, I’ll go about doing my jobs.”
Reflecting on the changes he has seen over the course of his life here, the county executive describes the President's assassination as the first turning point he can remember in the evolution of his city.
"The town was a civil, parish-oriented community," says DeGise. "When Kennedy was shot, that shocked so many people because that didn't happen back then. It was more of an innocent age and there was opportunity to work in factories. The next shift came with the flight of the middle class, as the people I went to school with left and went to the suburbs. Politics broke down. There was corruption, and less economic opportunity. Now the third stage involves people moving back in, coming into the Heights and Weehawken seeking economic opportunity. You can't be a longshoreman anymore but there are jobs. Hudson County is always changing, by the nature of the waterfront."
"I've lived my whole life here," he says. "I've never lived anywhere else. The roots couldn't go any deeper. I'll be here my whole life."