Published reports that Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero has been subpoenaed as part of a federal criminal probe related to his ownership of a company that helps secure government grants could – and likely will — turn New Jersey’s political landscape upside-down. Bergen is still politically competitive, but Ferriero’s fundraising and organization has kept Democrats in the victory column. Some insiders suggest that Ferriero’s current legal woes will hamper his ability to raise money, and allow his rival, State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, to enhance her clout among Bergen Democrats.
Since 1998, Ferriero has been the key player in transforming Bergen from a Republican stronghold to a solidly Democratic political operation. Democrats now control the County Executive’s office, enjoy a 7-0 majority on the Board of Freeholders, have a Sheriff and Surrogate, and have made enormous gains at the local level. The last time a Republican statewide candidate carried Bergen was in the 2000 U.S. Senate race, and their last wins countywide were in 2003. But the EnCap development has cost them a considerable number of mayors and councilmembers in South Bergen, and Democrats were unable to oust Republican incumbents in District 39 last year.
Bergen Republicans continue to struggle. GOP County Chairman Rob Ortiz is facing a serious challenge in his bid for re-election to a second term, and the party is divided into a multitude of factions and has trouble raising money. But if the fledgling scandal gets worse, the Republicans could have an opportunity to win key races in 2008 – their lone countywide officeholder, County Clerk Kathleen Donovan, is on the ticket, as well as three Freeholder seats.