In Teaneck, council races underscore Ferriero-Weinberg rift

One of four orthodox Jews who sits on the Teaneck Township Council — including Mayor Elie Katz — Councilman Elnatan "Rudy" Rudolph smothered any potential criticism that one religious group would dominate local government by announcing plans to run on a ticket with a Muslim, Mohammed Hameeduddin, and African American Minister, Rev. Robert Robinson.

"We're running on a message of diversity," said Rudolph.

But there remains another rift in this town of 40,000, inevitably a flashpoint in Bergen County politics as long as State Sen. Loretta Weinberg continues her rivalry with Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero. Now it's hard for any local official to make a move without his or her actions being ascribed to either one or the other. Thus, while municipal elections in May are nonpartisan, they still carry tacit designations of "F" or "W" in place of the more traditional "D" and "R" tags.

In this case, it's Rudolph on Team Ferreiro, running for his first full four-year term on a slate that in part targets Councilwoman Monica Honis, widely perceived as a Weinberg ally. A third councilperson, Jacqueline B. Kates, has told other local officials that she does not intend to pursue re-election.

Rudolph, 26, who makes $96,000 a year as deputy director of the Bergen County Improvement Authority, still has to confront the notion among skeptical portions of the public that he's too tight with Ferriero. He doesn't deny he's close to the party's county chairman. But what people have to understand, he says, is how his connections have paid off for Teaneck.

"I've never hidden the fact that I'm a Bergen County Democrat," Rudolph said. "And that's helped the town. We were able to secure a $200,000 grant for a handicap accessible playground – the largest in the county. We received a $675,000 federal grant for a new fire truck. In two years on council, we've gotten over $1 million."

Part of reformer Weinberg's problem, the councilman maintains, is she doesn't bring home the bacon to her hometown.

"We don't get our fair share of state aid," said Rudolph. "We got zero extraordinary aid last year. I've been a vocal critic of hers."

A former Teaneck councilwoman, Weinberg said her hometown didn't get any extraordinary aid in the most recent fiscal year because its budget surplus was too big. It simply didn't qualify. But the district 37 Senator also pointed out that the town did qualify a year ago — for $1 million in pedestrian improvement projects.

"Maybe he should run for Senate," Weinberg said of Rudolph. "If he'd like to have a discussion with me, I'd be happy to talk to him, but I'm not going to dignify these remarks. I understand my devotion, which is to the district. The only master I have are the people here, and that includes the town where I work, where we raised our children."

Weinberg said she has not endorsed any of the candidates in the race.

For his part, Katz said he tries to keep his head down and removed from the longstanding Weinberg-Ferriero conflagration. Initially he didn't think much of Rudolph when the new Teaneck resident joined the council two years ago to fill an unexpired term. Over time, however, he said he watched the councilman prove himself, and now claims he backs Rudolph's re-election bid "120%."

Of course, it still stings when his he's depicted by town gadflies as a Rudolph-Ferriero enabler.

"They try, but it's difficult to paint me as Ferriero guy," said the mayor, a restaurateur and businessman. "The fact is I've had a relationship with Loretta for eighteen years, and she's been an excellent representative of her district. In this line of work, you have to get along with all of the power brokers."

Rudolph's talent on that front went a long way in convincing Katz to back him.

"You're talking about a guy — Rudy — who went out and found the avenues that could produce playground equipment, and that turned out to be a county block grant," said Katz. "This guy works other agencies – other non-profit agencies. You have to have relationships in politics, and Rudy does."

Katz said he's proud of some of the shared services the council has been able to achieve, including joint communications with Englewood, and an ongoing effort to perform joint vehicle maintenance with Hackensack.

Even as Rudolph's star was ascending in the mayor's eyes, Honis was taking a nosedive, which culminated during the budget process when she refused to support what the mayor describes as his zero-based proposal and instead backed the town administrator's spending increase of 6.9%. The way she did it too, according to the mayor, scolding him in front of town employees over deferred legal costs- left Katz hardly groping to find the willing hand of Rudolph, who was pleased to be able to join in the criticism of Honis.

"We're the only town in the state with a zero increase in our budget and she'd rather see an increase," said Rudolph. "What does it tell you about a councilwoman when her own cousin is challenging her?"

The filing deadline for municipal elections in Teaneck isn't until March 20 and a scatter shot of candidates has requested petitions, including Honis and Rudolph. But only the latter has to this point presented himself as part of a slate – one, he and his running mates hasten to add, that is ethnically diverse.

"Bergen County is a melting pot," said Robinson, 58, a deacon at Mount Olive Baptist Church in Hackensack, Vietnam Era Marine Crops vet, and consultant for the county with the veterans internment program. "If we're a melting pot, we've got to deal with the whole town. We've always prided ourselves on being racially diverse. The fact that you have four Orthodox Jews in the majority is not in and of itself an issue, but we (African Americans) need to be at the table."

The past president of the Bergen chapter of the NAACP questioned Weinberg's willful resistance to Ferriero, and got in a dig at the staff composition of the state senator's office as a contrast to his own racially diverse municipal ticket.

"Loretta has ties to the African American community," he acknowledged, "but who's in her office that looks like us? That's a genuine question. Look, she tries to paint me as a Joe Ferriero person, but I support the Democratic Party.

"Pay-to-play, that's been in politics for the last 100 years or so, he didn't invent it," Robinson added of Ferriero. "He's consolidated the county as a Democratic Party stronghold, certainly. He's not done it all for him and his friends. He's appointed diverse people to positions. This ticket is a prime example of what he can do."

Weinberg said Robinson was wrong to presume that her office lacks diversity, or specifically African American representation.

"We have one African American who is primarily in the Teaneck office and one Afrian American and two folks of Hispanic background who are primarily in the Englewood office," said the senator. "We also have staff members of irish and Italian descent and young interns from the Muslim and the Orthodox Jewish religions. I represent the older Jewish women population myself!"

Hameeduddin, a 34-year old member of the Planning Board who owns his own title agency, said he joined the "Team Teaneck" ticket after receiving a phone call not from Ferriero or Rudolph, but from Katz, whom he explicitly respects.

"For me, I'm not running as a Muslim candidate, I happen to be Muslim," said Hameeduddin. "We have a tremendous job in front of us as we try to determine how to consistently reach the goal of fiscal responsibility. As I see it, there are three different options. We can cut services, bring in ratables, or bring in more county, state and federal money into town. I tend to look at the third option. Is Teaneck getting its fair share?"

Hameeduddin admits the Ferriero-Weinberg war plays a part in the perception game, but he maintains that his loyalty to Katz is one of his prime calling card to credibility.

"The mayor is a selflessly giving individual," said Hameeduddin, a graduate of Teaneck High School. "People take sides. The divisions have been creeping up, and how they affect Teaneck is a shame. You don't want Teaneck to be collateral damage."

But even as Katz swatted away another question about Rudolph's lack of longevity as a Teaneck resident – "No, he wasn't planted here by Ferriero," said the mayor, "he was planted in town by his wife, his wife lived in Teaneck. Teaneck is Rudy's home," the implications of the bigger battle remained.

Honis didn't return calls seeking comment on her re-election campaign.

In Teaneck, council races underscore Ferriero-Weinberg rift