By MAX PIZARRO
UNION CITY – Those who celebrate Union City Mayor (and Assemblyman) Brian P. Stack liken him to Emiliano Zapata or Juan Peron — system-bucking heroes who were as good in a fight as they were at revealing a tender side for the poor.
But Stack’s detractors say the more apt metaphor involves making that dreadful trek back to the Soviet Union. Count West New York Mayor (and Assemblyman) Sal Vega among those who choose the latter description.
"You go through Union City and it’s like Red Square," Vega complains, referring to one block after another surfeited with Stack-for-Senate signs – in storefronts and on apartment windows. "This guy is like Lenin."
If it sounds like a guy crying uncle a month before Election Day, Vega, who is challenging Stack to represent the 33rd district in the State Senate, today attempted to back up the totalitarian strong-man characterization.
At a press conference in Union City at party headquarters on 39th Street, he presented tape recordings that he says offer conclusive proof that Stack attempted to bribe people out of running against him and his candidates in the June 5th Democratic Party Primary. Vega says his opponent’s supporters attempted to bully numerous Union City residents who wanted to register to represent Vega and his team as county committee people. When some of these residents spoke to Stack surrogates, Stack allegedly went on the offensive with tactics that Vega says were a violation of the law.
He’s not surprised.
But he said he is deeply concerned for a city that appears to him to be run like a "police state," which is why he said he and the Hudson County Democratic Organization turned over the recordings to the FBI.
"At least 40 of these average citizens, many immigrants who speak little English, wanted to take part in the Democratic process by running for volunteer positions representing their neighborhoods," Vega said in a prepared statement. "They wer subjected to a campaign of intimidation by top Union City officials and coerced into signing affidavits withdrawing their candidacies. We believe that Brian Stack is orchestrating this conspiracy to violate their civil rights and we are demanding a full criminal investigation."
Stack denies he ever offered money or aid in exchange for political subservience.
"Anybody who comes to me for help, I help them," the Union City mayor said. "I help people pay their rent and their PSE&G bills out of my civic association because we’re in a poor community. If the HCDO did more work helping people instead of negotiating in backrooms and holding desperate press conferences, we’d all be better off."
At Vega’s Wednesday press conference, the candidate played a recording of an episode he and the HCDO say took place on Apri 11th. On the recording, a voice Vega says is Stack’s offers candidate Delcia Alexander about $2,000 to drop out of the race. "If I can help her with the first month’s rent and the PSE&G bill, I would be happy to do that," the Stack-voice tells Union City Commissioner Chris Irrizary, who is translating for Stack.
In a separate charge, Vega says Freddy Gomez, a Board of Elections inspector, Spanish-language newspaper publisher and Stack backer, attempted to strong-arm committee candidate an hair salon owner Angie Espinal out of the race by getting her to sign an affidavit stating that she was not in the State
of New Jersey on the day she filed her petition to run. According to a transcript, Gomez told Espinal to write on the affidavit that she was "out the state on that day."
"It’s a serious matter," said HCDO spokesman Paul Swibinski. "We’re not trying to sensationalize it."
In the first case, Alexander said she decided to run for the committee after she became convinced she wanted to support Nicole Garcia of Union City, who is running for the Assembly with Vega on a ticket that also includes former Hoboken Councilwoman Carol Marsh. Alexander told reporters Wednesday that Irrizary went to her home on a Friday night trying to pressure her about her candidacy. She told him she was tired and couldn’t talk. When he returned the next day she recorded the conversations to protect herself. Like Espinal, Alexander said she signed the affidavit out of a sense of fear. In Espinal’s case, she lives in a building owned by Gomez, so felt particular pressure to kowtow to the demands.
No one ever filed the signed affidavits, Vega said.
"We believe the reason they have not filed the affidavits is because they found out that this leaked out," he explained.
Vega and Garcia said they had never met Alexander and Espinal before this week. Neither woman has removed herself from the ballot.
"I have no awareness of what they’re talking about," Stack said of Vega’s charges. "What I know is someone is running against me. …If they presented this material to the FBI as they say they have and the FBI thought it was something they needed to investigate, do you think they would be having this press conference?"
Stoking the outsider image, Stack says it’s the same old Hudson County machine trying to win an election with press conferences: one per week; and worse. He had a letter at the ready, addressed to Attorney general Stuart Rabner, which requests the presence of state troopers and deputy attorney generals in Union City on Election Day.
"I have reason to believe," Stack says in the May 7th letter to Rabner, "that my opposition may compromise the integrity of th election."
But Marsh, who built a reputation in Hoboken as a reform-minded councilwoman who bucked the HCDO and is now running against Stack and his ticket in the 33rd, says it’s a mistake to cast Stack as a figure of folklore running against an old, corrupt structure.
"I think the organization has changed for the better," Marsh said of the HCDO. "The fact that they came to me, for example, and asked me to run indicates their willingness to change and become more representative."
On Wednesday afternoon, there was Stack in a suit and tie in Doric Park with the New York skyline in the background in the midst of a crowd of women, some of the younger ones bouncing babies on their knees, some of the older ones looking despondent with age. Stack rose out of his chair with a warm handshake and said welcome to his constituency outreach event. There was a hot dog stand at the entrance to the park and tables with Stack paraphernalia laid out on them and the mayor in the middle of it all intent on mayoral matters, the very portrait of public servitude.
Did he offer Alexander money in exchange for withdrawing her candidacy?
"Absolutely not," said Stack. "Absolutely not."
The women in the park were waiting.
"The reason you can’t get in touch with me is because I’m here with the people," said the mayor. "Everyone in Union City know where I am." He offered his cell-phone number, said call anytime.
"I get 200 calls a day," he said.
"We're here to talk to the mayor," a woman in the crowd said by way of explanation.
Talk to the people here and it’s a well known fact that if you’re poor and in search of housing you go to Stack.
"I told a friend of mine I was looking for a place to live that’s
affordable and she told me to get in touch with the mayor," one woman said. "I called his cell-phone number three times and he always called me back. But he always told me the same thing."
No housing yet.
One of the mayor’s handouts Wednesday was a sheet in Spanish and English explaining to residents that Stack and the commissioners are considering affordable housing sites on 10th, 8th,, 9th, and 27th streets.
Later, near the imposing Hudson Presbyterian Church several blocks from the park on Monastery Place, a woman confirmed: If you need an affordable place to live, "You’ve got to go to the mayor. Mayor Brian Stack."
But another pedestrian in the shopping district, on Summit Avenue near Stack’s civic association, said some residents talk to one another about how there’s empty housing space in the city and no one knows why the rooms can’t be occupied now, or at least before June 5th. The woman was asked if she believes Stack is trading votes for housing.
"I don’t know," she said. "Maybe for his friends."
Unsmiling on Wednesday was Vega, who faces the prospect of trying to win votes in Union City – the biggest city in the district – almost utterly plastered over with Stack signs. Pounding a table for emphasis, Vega insisted that like Espinal and Alexander, whom he heralded as brave for standing up to Stack, he will not be intimidated.