Nine years later, a clear winner in Union City’s civil war

Nine years after a civil war ravaged local politics in Union City and across Hudson County, there is no question who won and who lost. Robert Menendez is now a United States Senator and Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and Rudy Garcia is still working for a Trenton lobbying firm. Arrested on racketeering charges in 2007, a Monmouth County grand jury decided last year not to charge him in connection to a gambling ring sting by the New Jersey State Police.

Menendez and Garcia were once close political allies, but their relationship developed into a civil war between two Democratic stars from the same hometown. Menendez, a former Union City Mayor and State Senator before his election to Congress in 1992, was the key backer of Garcia in his first Assembly victory in a February, 1993 special election, and following the death of Union City Mayor Bruce Walter in January, 1997, was responsible for Garcia’s election as Mayor of Union.

In 1998, a slate of reform candidates for Union City Commissioner had Menendez and Garcia running scared. City Commissioner Brian Stack, a young community activist had won a special election the previous November, carrying 27 of 30 election districts; Stack was now heading the Change Team, which bitterly attacked Menendez for his ties to the political machine of onetime Union City Mayor, State Senator and political boss William Musto. In a tough and expensive campaign, Garcia’s Alliance Civic Association team backed by Menendez won all five Commissioner seats.

After the 1998 election, Garcia moved to solidify his own power base and made peace with Stack by backing him for the Democratic nomination for Hudson County Freeholder from the 6th district, which is dominated by Union City. The incumbent Freeholder, Democrat Neftali Cruz, was a close ally of Menendez, who strongly opposed the dumping of Cruz in favor of his archrival, Stack.

Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski who was up for re-election in 1999 and already facing a primary fight, decided to back Garcia over Menendez, and gave Stack the Hudson County Democratic Organization endorsement over Cruz. Garcia had threatened to back one of Janiszewski’s opponents for the Democratic nomination. Garcia also backed a political ally, West New York Mayor Albio Sires over incumbent Assemblyman Louis Romano. Stack and Sires both won their primaries by wide margins.

Another Garcia ally, Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo, narrowly lost his bid to put an ally on the Hudson County Freeholder Board. Democratic Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons defeated Hoboken Councilman James Fitzsimmons by less than 200 votes. Janiszewski, who won renomination with 70% of the vote, lost Hoboken in the primary.

Garcia has advanced the war even further by dumping a key Menendez ally, Donald Scarinci, as the City Attorney.

In April 2000, Garcia recruited Esther Gatria, a 25-year-old Rutgers graduate student and a Republican, to challenge Menendez in the Democratic congressional primary. Menendez has asked federal prosecutors to investigate allegations that supporters of Gatria misled people into signing her nominating petitions. The Menendez campaign produced 30 affidavits from people who signed Gatria’s petition who claim they were led to believe that it was for a different purpose. The circulator of nearly half the petitions was Mario Gonzalez, the 1998 Republican nominee for Hudson County Sheriff. Gatria served as Treasurer of Gonzalez’s campaign. Gatria is the daughter of Sergio Gatria, a Cuban American community leader with strong ties to Garcia and some Hudson County Republicans. Eventually a court tossed Gatria from the ballot.

Soon, the 36-year-old Garcia was history. Facing a recall, he resigned on October 25, 2000; four hours later, with the help of Menendez and Scarinci, Stack was elected Mayor. A year later, with Janiszewski out of power, Hudson County Democrats tossed Garcia from the Assembly.

In 2007, Nicole Harrison Garcia, sought the Democratic nomination for State Assembly in her husband’s old district. She was soundly defeated in the primary by Stack’s running mates, Caridad Rodriguez and Ruben Ramos. Nine years later, a clear winner in Union City’s civil war