Over the last decade, Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferrerio has consolidated power with help from a group of unlikely allies: The Bergen County Republican Organization.
Ferriero developed a fundraising machine and got most of his party in lock step behind him. But bickering and internal disputes in the GOP hurt that party’s ability to provide a counterweight, as did anemic fundraising.
Bob Yudin, who was elected as county chairman last month, hopes to change that.
“Since the day I was elected, I have been reaching out,” said Yudin. “In my acceptance speech and every day I reach out and try to counsel people. We have to stop the fighting, we have to work together, and it has been effective to some degree already.”
Yudin’s race for chairman was contentious and, at times, vicious. Unfounded rumors were floated that he was under state investigation for his appliance store’s business practices, while supporters of his main opponent, then-chairman Rob Ortiz, pointed to Yudin’s candidacy as another example of infighting. During the course of Ortiz’s chairmanship, the two men developed an adversarial relationship over what Yudin saw as a lack of commitment to his freeholder race.
Ortiz, who was elected less than a year before he lost the post to Yudin, had also pledged to halt the infighting. He replaced Guy Talarico, who fielded and backed a legislative slate to run an expensive primary against a ticket headed up by Assemblyman – and now State senator – Kevin O’Toole. That was a year after another expensive primary battle for county executive, which ultimately resulted in a lopsided loss for the GOP.
Republican consultant Thom Ammirato was once one of Yudin’s loudest critics. In November, he wrote a letter to PolitickerNJ.com denouncing Yudin as “no more capable of running the BCRO than Paris Hilton is capable of running a driving school.” But Ammirato has since changed his tune.
“I think Bob Yudin has done a very good job of opening doors and letting people have their say,” said Ammirato, whose close friend and ally, Joe Caruso, was tapped as Yudin’s finance chairman. “It certainly shows that he’s willing to not hold grudges and he’s working with people who will be effective.”
Ammirato acknowledges that infighting has hurt the party, but also places part of the blame on the state party for not paying attention to Bergen, a must-win county for statewide Republican candidates.
Ferriero came in with a game plan, said Ammirato, but also had a state party willing to dump money where it was needed.
“Wealthy counties like Morris and Somerset can probably raise millions more than they do,” he said. “The state chairman doesn’t demand that they do it, and the state doesn’t wield money around to help people.”
Now several events look like they could work in Republicans’ favor. Federal authorities are investigating Ferriero’s connection to a grants writing firm he set up with Bergen County Democratic Organization Counsel Dennis Oury and Republican Bergen County Utilities Authority Executive Director Leonard Kaiser. Meanwhile, incumbent Freeholder David Ganz went through a three-hour interview with the FBI related to the Ferriero probe, although he said he’s not a target.
Republicans’ hopes of capitalizing on the Democrats’ misfortunes are bolstered by the fact that all three incumbent freeholders who are up for reelection – Ganz, Bernadette McPherson and Vernon Walton – were all recently ousted from municipal offices: Ganz as mayor of Fair Lawn in 2005, McPherson as mayor of Rutherford last year and Walton as an Englewood councilman last year.
“They are very, very weak,” said Yudin.
The Democrats have held complete control of the freeholder board since Lisa Randall lost her reelection bid in 2006. This year, Republican Paul Duggan, who ran last year, is seeking Walton’s seat (Walton was appointed to fill the unexpired term of Connie Wagner, who was elevated to the state Assembly). Chris Calabrese from Upper Saddle River and Jeff Heller from Ramsey are running against McPherson and Ganz.
Yudin won’t talk about how much money he’s raised so far, since he wants to keep it from the press until he briefs BCRO members on it later this month, instead saying that they’ve had “financial success” in the last month.
But while some local events may be working in Republicans’ favor, they have to work against a trend: Democratic margins of victory in Bergen County have been greater during presidential years.
Yudin, however, insists this year is different, and points out that County Clerk Kathleen Donovan – the most popular Republican in the county – will head up the local ticket. Moreover, Hillary Clinton trounced Barack Obama in the county, and Republicans suspect that that Obama won’t perform as well as she would have in the general election amongst South Bergen’s more socially conservative Democrats.
“McCain has an excellent chance to carry Bergen County,” he said.
Bergen County Democratic Organization spokesman Bill Maer said that the probe of Ferriero isn’t likely to influence local races, and drew a distinction between the issues that hurt the three Freeholders on the municipal level and their countywide prospects.
“Every year the Republicans tell people why they’re going to win and point out a scenario about why they’re going to be successful, and on election night they fall short because they lack vision, they lack a message, and the voters don’t feel confident in their ability to deliver,” he said. “I think the Democratic candidates on the ballot have really good records of delivering for the local taxpayer, of reducing taxes, the size of the county workforce, increasing the amount of acres for open space.”
Ganz noted that, although he lost the mayor’s seat in Fair Lawn by 1,000 votes, he still won the freeholder race handily. He listed a few of his accomplishments on the freeholder board, like the creation of programs like the municipal bank, which allows towns to bond at little cost, a road paving program with the Bergen County Improvement Authority and the Bergen Wellness Program.
“My legislative record has been highly innovative – we’ve done some great things for the people of Bergen county, he said.
Ganz said the FBI agents who interviewed him made it explicitly clear that he was not a target of the investigation, and said he expects at least one more interview with the FBI along with a document request. He went on to deny speculation that Ferriero could switch him out before the general election.
“I can tell you categorically that I’ve had no conversation with anybody suggesting that I won’t be a candidate in November,” he said.