He has a reputation for forming alliances, both with the disparate factions in his own county and with the leadership of that other big city that stands two rivers removed to the west of him, but Jerramiah Healy still can’t escape the prize fighting references.
On Friday at a breakfast in Spring Lake Heights, the Jersey City mayor and head of the Hudson County Democratic Organization will receive the Jimmy "Cinderella Man" Braddock Award from Essex County political boss Steve Adubato.
It’s not actually a formal award, said Healy. Rather more of a tongue-in-cheek reference to his Irish heritage and his tough guy demeanor, which was reinforced by his run-in with the law last year in Bradley Beach. For a politician with such a reputation, who has inherited the leadership of Hudson County’s traditional Democratic machine in the midst of a political civil war, Healy is unfailingly diplomatic when talking politics.
"I was born an optimist, and I don’t rule out any peace being in the future of everybody here in Hudson County," said Healy, 56, the son of Irish immigrants who grew up in northern Hudson – partly in North Bergen, incidentally, home of the former heavyweight champion James Braddock, who has served as mayor of New Jersey’s second largest city for two-and-a-half years.
Now, after becoming party chair, he faces the Max Baer-like barrier of mending the county’s political split between Healy’s own organization and Union City Mayor (and Assemblyman/state Senate candidate) Brian Stack’s Democrats for Hudson County.
"We’ve just come off of a rather bloody battle in the June primary, so there are certainly more challenges now than there have been," said Healy. "But I don’t view it as insurmountable."
The peace process isn’t a far-fetched concept for Healy, a former municipal judge who arranged a successful political partnership between Sandra Bolden Cunningham and two of her late husband’s rivals, L. Harvey Smith and Tom DeGise. The team won the June primary, elevating Healy to the chairmanship of the organization. For now, the fractions will stay in their own corners – Healy hasn’t so much as talked with Stack since the primary.
"I think we need a little cooling off period, which oddly enough the hot summer months may allow," said Healy.
One way Healy might diffuse the tensions would be to endorse U.S. Rep. Albio Sires for reelection in 2008. Caught in the undertow of his county’s struggles, Sires endorsed Stack for state Senate in a particularly nasty race between Stack and HCDO-backed West New York Mayor (and Assemblyman) Sal Vega. Healy wouldn’t commit to endorsing Sires, but he wouldn’t rule it out either.
"I have to talk to all of the membership in the county Democratic organization. I have to talk to the congressman and the numerous candidates that want to run against him, but that’s something we’ll see in the future," said Healy. "That’s not outside the realm of possibility, but it’s premature to speak about that at this point."
There has been speculation that the HCDO is toying with the idea of fielding Jersey City Councilman Steve Fulop, one of Healy’s most vocal critics, to run against Sires, thereby eliminating a potential strong challenge for mayor in 2009. Fulop, who endorsed Lou Manzo’s ticket for state Senate against Sandra Cunningham, is not a friend to the political machine, and many doubt that he would become an organization ally. As for Healy, he flatly denied any intention of choosing Fulop, even if the councilman were game.
"That would be crazy for me to try to control that and cause another political war by endorsing one candidate against another candidate," said Healy. "Those things do not motivate me, and I think that anyone who would make decisions with those motives is probably going to make bad decisions."
As the HCDO and congressional challenges loom, Healy also finds himself in the middle of a New Jersey struggle involving presidential politics. He and Newark Mayor Cory Booker were two of the state’s first politicians to back the campaign of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama. And though not quite sure what his title is in the campaign, Healy can easily rattle off a number of reasons why Obama is the candidate for New Jersey’s cities.
Healy, who has made reducing crime one of the biggest issues of his term in office, instituting a gun-buy back program that took in about 900 weapons and increasing the police force by about 100 members, which he says helped accomplish last year’s drop in crime.
"First of all, he lives in Chicago," said Healy. By coming from a large city, Healy said, Obama is more in tune with urban issues like gun control and affordable housing. "We share the same concerns about illegal guns that we deal with every day here in Jersey City."
The Obama alliance further binds Healy to Booker. While Booker faces political turmoil due to the violence plaguing Newark, Healy remains one of the young Newark mayor’s staunchest allies.
"I think Cory Booker is a terrific person to lead Newark," said Healy. "Sixty years of neglect and other issues and problems, and he walks in and he’s supposed to solve them all in a year?"
Referring to the violent crime in Newark and the resulting political ferment around Booker, the Jersey City mayor said his city saw its own particularly brutal murders two and half years ago, when the entire Armanious family, including two children, were slain by their upstairs neighbor.
Moving forward, one thing he’s not worried about his conviction for resisting arrest and obstruction of justice in Bradley Beach last summer as a political liability. Refusing to pay a fine and let the case drop, Healy stubbornly continues to maintain his innocence and is continuing his appeal.
"It’s already happened. It’s been all over the newspapers. I’m sure whoever’s running against me in 2009 will probably try to trump that up and exploit it, but I’ve already stated my case about it… Does it have anything to do with being Mayor of Jersey City? I don’t think so."
A little like Jimmy Braddock, who beat Baer in the ring for the heavyweight crown in 1935, or the notoriously cantankerous Russell Crowe, who played him in a recent biopic, Healy keeps fighting.