In Fort Lee, Jack Alter will be remembered as a devoted mayor to this two and a half square mile town just across the George Washington Bridge from Manhattan.
During his term, he convinced Leona Helmsley to sell a tract of land for Centuria, what officials have said is the biggest development project in the town’s history. He ushered in new police station, a community center, park restoration, and stood up to the Port Authority about the impact the bridge was having on his little town.
But as local officials and politicians reflected on Alter’s term as mayor after his unexpected death this morning, not far from everyone’s minds was that inevitable question: who will take his place?
Alter had just squeaked by Councilman Michael Villano in a primary fight to keep his seat. He was about to face Republican Judith Fisher in November’s general election – a race with good odds in a high rise town where Democrats dominate Republicans in registration by a nearly 3-1 margin.
The decision of who will replace Alter is left to Fort Lee Municipal Chairwoman Kay Nest, as well as the nearly 40 other members of the Fort Lee delegation to the Bergen County Democratic Organization. They’ll have to choose a person to put on the ballot by September 17th.
Nest helped begin Alter’s political in the early 1980s, when she selected him to run for a council seat in the early 1980s.
Nest said that she’d like the next mayor to be someone from the Borough Council. So if the majority of the committee members agree with Nest, there are five possible successors: Joseph Cervieri, Jr., Armand Pohan, Michael Sargenti, Mark Sokolich and Michael Villano (Ila Kasofsky, the council president and acting mayor, said she did not want to keep the position).
“It’s too much of a shock and it just happened too fast. There wasn’t anything to think about. We never dreamed it was going to come to this. He was on the ballot and everything’s ready to go,” said Nest.
Indeed, nobody saw Alter’s death coming. As far as most Fort Lee residents knew, he was headed for “corrective surgery” when he left for the hospital on Tuesday – nothing to sneeze at, but fairly routine. But Alter never made it to the operating table. He died early this morning.
Some officials were hesitant to consider their own political futures before Alter was buried. After the mayor went to the hospital on Tuesday, Kasofsky thought she’d hold the position of acting mayor for a couple weeks at most. Now she finds herself as leading a town with an uncertain political future. One thing she knows for certain: she does not want the position for the next four years. But she can think of a lot of people who wouldn’t mind having it themselves.
“I think today there are about ten people who look in the mirror and see the word mayor looking back at then,” said Kasofsky.
Situations like this can lead to prospective successors jockeying for a position. But Kasofsky seemed confident, or at least hopeful, that no such thing will happen.
“Out of respect for Jack there will be no fight,” said Kasofsky.
The only other council member who could be reached for comment was Villano, who lost his recent primary against Alter by fewer than 200 votes. But despite their adversarial political history, Villano offered praise to the deceased mayor.
“The mayor spent 25 years in public service to the people of Fort Lee. He’s done a fabulous job,” said Villano, who campaigned against Alter because he refused to back him for re-election to city council.
Villano was careful with his language, but said that he would be interested in succeeding Alter as mayor.
“I’m still interested. I worked my tail off in that campaign. I’ve got people ready to go we’ve got money left over too…but I don’t know how that’s going to pan out,” said Villano.
Alter’s opponent in the general election, Judith Fisher, said she was as upset as everyone to hear of the mayor’s death, but that it would not change the dynamics of the race.
“I don’t know who they will pick but it doesn’t matter to my campaign. The issues that are important to the taxpaying voters, they stay the same. I think taxes and traffic are the two most important issues in Fort Lee,” said Fisher.
To Assemblywoman Joan Voss, Alter will not be easily replaced. He acted as a mentor to her, jumpstarting her political career, convincing her to join an ethics board. Soon after, she served on City Council until she was elected to the Assembly in 2003.
“I’ve known him for years and years and years and he said he wanted to die as mayor,” said Voss. “He just loved being mayor.”
Alter’s funeral will be held at 10AM tomorrow morning at the Fort Lee Jewish Community Center, 1449 Anderson Ave.