When Jersey City Detective Sean Connors took on the task of running against North Bergen Mayor Nick Sacco for the state Senate seat in the 32nd District last year, he really had his eye on a different position: 4th District Freeholder.
Connors, 39, expected that he'd have the backing of powerful Union City Mayor/state Sen. Brian Stack in exchange for undertaking that kamikaze mission on Stack's rivals at the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO). But now, with a tenuous semi-peace holding between Stack and the HCDO, Connors is alone in his freeholder fight against incumbent Eliu Rivera. Even without that support, Connors has surprised local political insiders by running a truly competitive campaign.
As is typically the case in Hudson County, whoever wins the Democratic primary on June 3rd is virtually assured to win the general election in November.
Connors never actually told Stack that he had the freeholder seat in mind, instead just suggesting that he could help him with future political aspirations. And Connors allowed most people to assume that he planned to challenge Bill Gaughan for a Jersey City Council seat.
"I just kept going and never mentioned anything about the freeholder race, because when you do people put obstacles and blocks out there," he said.
As was expected, Sacco trounced Connors out in the state Senate race, winning 14,427 votes to Connors's 2,602. But while Connors was creamed in Sacco's stronghold of North Bergen, he won the majority of voting districts in his native Jersey City Heights. That could indicate a strong base of support in a neighborhood that makes up a large part of the fourth freeholder district.
Without any support from Stack's machine, Connors is out-funded and out-manned. Rivera has $42,712 cash-on-hand to Connors's $2,619, along with foot soldiers from the HCDO and even Jersey City Councilman Steve Fulop, whose own volunteers and staffers are helping Rivera in an effort to smooth over Fulop's adversarial relationship with the organization.
But Connors said he's not particularly troubled by the withdrawal of Stack's support.
"One of the things Gerry told me early on is you always have to go out and be you," he said. "If I actually did nothing and relied on Brian Stack, where would I be now?"
Connors, for his part, is aided on the ground by lifelong friend Gerry McCann – a former Mayor of Jersey City who's clawing his way back into local politics after leaving City Hall in 1992 to serve a federal prison sentence for fraud – and former Assemblyman Lou Manzo.
His campaign has also been indirectly bolstered by Senate candidate Rob Andrews, whose success in challenging a bracketed organization's right to the first ballot spot means that Connors's name won't be buried somewhere in the ballot's nether regions.
Connors's real political weapon has been a near omnipresence at little league games, senior citizen complexes and other community events. Rivera, Connors said, is not active enough in the community.
"He hasn't been a representative for the fourth district, and that's not just badmouthing him," said Connors. "You have to do this job, whether community relations or public meetings. I think he's lacked in those areas."
To Rivera, 64, that's an unfair criticism. While he acknowledges that he doesn't attend as many events as Connors, he doesn't have the same kind schedule.
Rivera has run the PACO Agency in Jersey City for 38 years, which provides services to the city's large Puerto Rican community. He said that he works 12-16 hours a day, helping his clients with affordable housing, employment and running a charter school.
"Sean Connors has one job — as a police officer. He has a lot of time, and I don't deny that he is everywhere," said Rivera. "I do make most of the events that I know of, and that I'm invited to… They just do not have enough hours for me to do what I need to do."
Rivera didn't even plan to seek reelection as freeholder, but was urged on by Jersey City Mayor/HCDO Chairman Jerramiah Healy and County Executive Tom DeGise, as well as his constituents. Moreover, he said, had he not run there would likely have been seven Hispanic candidates in the race, which could have split that vote and given the seat to a non-Hispanic freeholder.
While Rivera said that he respects Connors, he raised McCann's influence on his campaign, saying that he's affiliated with people who are "used to running this kind of dirty campaign."
"They've been plastering posters and stickers all over the city. ‘Dump Rivera,' ‘He's a crook,'" said Rivera. "That is so unfair, and you know what? Even though it bothers me a little bit, people know who I am."
In Bayonne-dominated District 1, another former Stack ally, Mary Jane Desmond, is a little more disappointed with the lack of support. The former Bayonne councilwoman is running against HCDO-backed incumbent Doreen DiDomenico and anti-tax activist David Longenhagen.
Desmond was acting county clerk when she ran on Stack's ticket and lost the seat to HCDO backed Barbara Netchert in what was perhaps the most civil match up of last year's Hudson County primary battles. Now she's running under the slogan of Stack's Democrats for Hudson County (DFHC), even if she's not sure that organization still exists.
When asked whether she'd have any support from Stack, Desmond said she wasn't sure.
"I respect Brian, I'm certain that he respects me, and we like each other. I think that he should answer that question himself so that all the world can know," she said.
But Desmond is critical not of Stack, but of Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, who's also the state chief-of-staff for Rep. Albio Sires. Turner brokered a peace that kept Sires's seat safe, but allowed several other Stack allies to fall by the wayside.
"I don't care if it's a bocce ball team, a political organization, a hospital or a community – you have to think of the many," said Desmond. "I'm certain that Brian probably wished this whole thing turned out differently. He's a gentleman, and I believe things would look differently if Rich Turner had not been the chairperson for the Democrats for Hudson County."
With less than a month to go before the election, Desmond is just beginning to raise money. She's campaigned across Bayonne with Rob Andrews, and has the endorsement of Lou Manzo and 31st district Assemblyman Anthony Chiappone.
Desmond said that the freeholders are out of touch with constituents' concerns. She plans to increase transparency by televising their meetings, which she says are usually planned out well in advance.
"I just think there needs to be a great deal more transparency and accountability – I'm willing to do that," she said.
Doreen DiDomenico could not be reached for comment.
In the fifth district, which is comprised of Hoboken and part of Jersey City Heights, Stack went through a couple of alliances — first with outgoing Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons, then with policeman James Fitzsimmons — before joining with the HCDO to support Anthony Romano. He's running against Hoboken developer Frank Raia and reformer Ines Garcia Keim, who's closely allied with councilwoman and potential mayoral candidate Beth Mason.