Since taking over one of the most powerful county political parties in the state just ten weeks ago, Bergen County Democratic Chairman Michael Kasparian has brought a leadership style to the job that's drastically different from his predecessor, Joe Ferriero.
"I think in general in politics, the catalyst for conflicts is people or factions feelings alienated," said Kasparian, who served on Barack Obama's National Finance Committee and said that Obama's "no drama" slogan resonated with him. "If you don't have the ability to sit down with someone and listen to a contrarian view without getting emotional and excited to the extent you can't be constructive, then you don't deserve a seat at the table. That's the kind of discipline I want our party to implement."
Ferriero, who supported Kasparian to take over the party several months after his indictment for alleged corruption, was flamboyant, high profile and autocratic. Kasparian is quiet, plodding and open to compromise, according to members of both sides of a major party schism.
"It's a very different party today than it was a year ago. It's not focused on any individual. It's focused on the party itself," said Democratic Freeholder David Ganz, who was loyal to Ferriero and supported Kasparian's ascendancy to the post.
With the different personality traits comes a trade off, however. Party members are happy to have more input, and some of Ferriero's fiercest critics do not sense that the former chairman remains influential in the party – something they originally feared in Kasparian's candidacy. But on background, party members on both sides of the divide complain about the relatively slow pace of reforms, Kasparian's hesitance to put himself in the middle of some conflicts, and are anxious to get the party's fundraising apparatus functioning again.
Insiders do tend to give Kasparian high marks, however, for seeking to instill a sense of unity in a party that was split between a Ferriero loyalist majority and the reform faction led by state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck). One of his first actions after taking office was quelling primary and committee challenges to Assembly members Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood).
"I think Mike Kasparian has brought a sense of peace to the BCDO through his leadership style," said Johnson, a Weinberg ally who, before Kasparian warded off his rivals, faced a potential primary challenge from financial analyst Cid Wilson and an intra-party committee battle from Teaneck Councilman Adam Gussen, who was encouraged to run by Hackensack Police Chief Ken Zisa.
"He's still in transition. I know there are some people who want this stuff to be done yesterday,but I think Mike Kasparian being a businessperson is developing a plan to run the BCDO in a way that will be best for the Democratic Party," Johnson said.
The party split is far from mended, however, and now Kasparian faces a new flare up in Bergenfield, where the municipal committee threw two incumbent council members who belong to the reform faction of the party — Thomas Lodato and Rob Gillman – off the party line in favor of newcomers Fernando Vargas and Fedra Lolos.
Some party members would like to see Kasparian step in personally to resolve that conflict, rather than delegate the responsibility to someone else.
"I would say he's got a lot to deal with, and a lot of things to straighten out after the conflicts and the inappropriateness of the last number of years," said Weinberg. "But his first responsibility is to put together an organization that can function in a unified matter to elect good Democrats to office."
Kasparian, however, said that he's still trying to get a bead on the situation.
"At this point in time I'm trying to determine exactly what happened and why," he said. "I will continue to reach out to the individuals involved. I'm setting up a meeting between myself and the newly anointed candidates by the county committee.
Kasparian has to deal with these intra-party struggles while seeking to implement the six-point reform package he issued as part of his campaign platform in January, and plans to replace the party's executive director, treasurer and chief fundraiser. Dumont Mayor Matt McHale is expected to replace Daniel Ortega in the executive director spot.
On ethics training, Kasparian is setting up a program with former Bergen County Superior Court judge and party activist Dan Mecca that county committee members will be able to either take online or in a one-day seminar in person (elected officials already undergo mandatory ethics training). Kasparian did not have the authority, however, to make it mandatory.
Kasparian said that the party has begun posting more information on the Web than it previously had, starting with its bylaws — the link to which is not working today — and that more information, including a list of all county committee members, is forthcoming.
Weinberg also wants to change the party’s bylaws, which she called “outdated and somewhat confusing.” She would like to see county employees barred from serving as municipal chairs – a bulwark against the kind of power that Ferriero exercised over county committee members who owed him their jobs.
Kasparian has not, however, publicly signalled that he's open to tweakin the bylaws.
An independent audit of the party books is in progress. Kasparian hired Mark Mazza, a CPA with Bederson & Company, for the job.
The Executive Committee, which rarely met under Ferriero, convened last night for the first time since Kasparian was elected.
As for charitable outreach, Kasparian encouraged county committee members to donate blood at a Red Cross truck that was parked in front of their last convention space, and has sent out letters soliciting money for the Ridgewood YMCA.
The YMCA solicitation led to some snickering by party insiders, who noticed that Kasparian is set to be ceremoniously honored for his service to that organization. Moreover, some complain that Kasparian is looking for donations to a charitable organization before his own party.
Indeed, fundraising is the top concern within the party right now. Kasparian addressed it at the executive committee meeting last night, according to sources present, introducing some new ideas for fundraisers at the Xanadu development or Izod Center as opposed to the party's usual golf outing and Hudson River Cruise. The fundraising goals he set, which sources put at about $1.5 million, were modest compared to Ferriero's, who did not have to contend with a major economic crisis.
Ganz said that many of the party members may have been lulled into a sense of complacency by the money-raising prowess of Ferriero, a legendary fundraiser.
"For all the criticism that people have of Joe Ferriero, he made fundraising look easy," said Ganz. "
When asked if the party's fundraising apparatus is suffering, Ganz said that he would describe it as "getting its sea legs."
Kasparian noted that he has a history as a major fundraiser for the BCDO, and argued that he knows what he's doing. .
"I think one of the reasons I was asked to pursue this chairmanship is because of the fact when it came time to raise fundraising dollars we were capable of raising," he said.