by MATT FRIEDMAN
There’s little physical difference between the North and South sides of 49th street, the border between Union City and West New York. But when Sal Vega, the current Mayor of West New York and a 33rd district Assemblyman, looks south at Union City, he might as well be looking at the Berlin Wall.
”I come from Cuba. Union City reminds of Red Square or Plaza de Revolucion, where everywhere you look is Lenin or Che Guevara,” said Vega, who likens Mayor and fellow-Assemblyman Brian Stack’s political grip on Union City to that of a totalitarian dictator.
On Wednesday, Vega first crossed that border in his newly christened “Freedom Wagon,” a rented RV that he uses to campaign by day all over the 33rd District in and sleep at night in Union City, in an attempt to take some of those votes from Stack, his rival in the State Senate race. It’s been a nasty fight so far, with both candidates accusing each other of being corrupt machine politicians. Vega is backed by the Hudson County Democratic Organization, while Stack runs a powerful organization of his own.
On Monday morning, the Freedom Wagon’s first stop was a ribbon cutting ceremony for a new culinary school building at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City’s Journal Square. Vega missed the actual cutting of the ribbon, but made it on time for the hors d’oeuvres. Jersey City Councilman Steve Lipski, who also used an RV for his 2004 Jersey City mayoral race, took special notice of him and cheered him on. From there Vega was off to see Barack Obama at a private fundraiser at the Liberty House restaurant in Liberty State Park.
“Park the van right out from,” Vega told Rich Acoste, his volunteer driver. “Don’t move it unless the Secret Service tells you.” And so the van sat, with its Vega campaign signs visible to all the donors exiting the Obama fundraiser. And some were happy to see it – one donor exiting the event pumped his fist in the air and yelled “Freedom Wagon! I love it!”
The rivalry between Vega and Stack goes back two decades, and they’ve usually found each other on opposite sides of local elections despite their shared Democratic Party affiliation. In 1986, when Vega was starting his political career by working on Robert Menendez’s Union City Mayoral campaign, the much younger Stack, Vega recalled, was working for the campaign of the incumbent mayor, William Musto.
“We spent a lot of time just knocking each others’ signs down. What purpose that served, I don’t know,” said Vega.
Stack, the mayor of a more populous city with the most votes in the 33rd district, is the clear frontrunner in this race. And last Tuesday’s Hoboken City Council election results boded well for Stack, whose candidates there had a strong showing. One Hudson County political observer who did not want to be named disparaged Vega’s use of the RV.
“All he’s doing is making it easier for Stack to keep an eye on him,” said the observer. “I mean, he’s not going to take any votes away from Stack in Union City.”
And there is, of course, the sticky issue of Vega’s taped endorsement of Stack in January, in which he said “Brian Stack is my friend. And today I say – Brian Stack, the next Senator from the State of New Jersey.” Stack has used the tape as campaign fodder, prompting Vega to release a commercial today explaining that the endorsement was a mistake and that he withdrew it.
“Oh yeah, I endorsed him. But that was before I knew he was crooked,” said Vega, adding that Stack “abused Senator Kenny, trying to make him step down before his term is up.”
Vega’s strategy is to take as many Union City votes away from Stack as he can, and then win handily in the rest of the district. Most say it’s unlikely, but Vega still finds cause for optimism and relishes his status as an underdog. He added that 10 of 12 Hudson County Mayors endorse him, even if not all of them govern cities within his district.
“I’m the most optimistic guy in the world,” he said. “I’ve never lost an election – I’ve been in re-counts, been recalled, been in very close races, but I’ve never lost since I started running in 1991.”
And it’s not hard to see how Vega remains so optimistic in his own territory. He took the RV through West New York, the one place where Vega signs vastly outnumbered Stack’s. Friends took tours of the Freedom Wagon, and people on the street waved. Vega was about to be sworn in for his first elected term as Mayor, and Town Hall was decorated for the occasion.
As he made his way inside Town Hall, a friend, Joe Coastal, approached him with a story: Stack’s people were campaigning at his mother’s senior citizens’ home and came to her door with a potted plant.”She said ‘thank you very much, but I already have got a better plant from Mayor Vega.”