They’re running again, but not together.
In fact, if ever two men were running straight at each other in a mayoral contest, it’s Jackson Mayor Mike Reina and Council President Mike Kafton.
The unabashed political animal Kafton, and the outwardly grudgingly political Reina formed an uneasy alliance last year when they took on their mutual political enemy Mark Seda, then the fast sagging mayor of Jackson Township.
They blended forces – Kafton as the charismatic Democrat and penitential former mayor looking to regain what he lost, and Reinaasthe straight-talkinglocalfirst respondernewcomerand one of thefounders of the Jackson Tea Party, a renegade Republican outfitopposed toOcean County GOP ChairGeorge Gilmore’s establishment.
“We shook hands,” Reina recalled. “I told Mike, ‘I will never stand in your way if you run for mayor, but when the time comes, when the train reaches the station, we’re going to go our separate ways.'”
They gritted teeth a few times around each other on the campaign trail last year,but in the end they stayed focused on their common goal and beat Seda’s candidates to land on the township council and accelerate the drum roll portending Seda’s exit. More than once the guy in the room throwing up his hands in exasperation along with the audience as Kafton went shrilly to war with the regular Republicans in debates, Reina was the top vote-getter, which slightly steamed his ever competitive and more politically seasoned running mate.
But making the argument that he had the experience in elected office, Kafton summoned the votes – including Reina’s backing and the backing of everyone elseon the governing body – to become council president, thus edging another step closer to becoming mayor.
Beset by talk of scandal, dwindling alliances and negative vibes whenever he walked in the room, Seda resigned late last year.
That leftReina and Kafton’smutual object out of the way – and the mayor’s seat suddenly open.
Revved up and ready to becomeJackson’s chief elected officialagain, Kafton said he was shocked when Reina conveniently decided it was time for the two of themto officially part company,according to the terms of their original agreement.
“He stabbed me in the back,” said Kafton, who bitterly cast the lone dissenting vote in December of2008 as thetownship council made Reina interim mayor at $29,500 annually.
Long a foe of the regular Republican Party, which Seda had tried to lead, Reina, asecurity officer at a nuclear plant who lost a brother on Sept. 11, 2001,stepped into the infrastructure which the failed mayor left behind. On his last day, Sedalingered in his office long enough to take a few keepsakes – beforevanishing from the public landscape.
Real estate business owner Kafton bristled as Reina retained those pieces of the Seda administration – including the township engineer and Township Attorney Gilmore – yes, the head of the Ocean County Republican Party – whichReina had criticized as the campaign trailembodiment of a new look Republican -bipartisan enough to lock arms with a Democrat like Kafton in a town where Democrats number 6,992 to Republicans’ 6,757, but where the bulk of registered voters – 17,328 – remain undeclared and lean Republican.
Reina said the complaint is foolish- and typical.
“Kafton agreed to all of it in a private meeting,” said the interim mayor. “I am not a political animal. I don’t know any township attorneys. I’m not politically connected. I’m going to put new people in to handle a reevaluation?”
But Kafton publicly maintains his contempt for Reina’sdecision to retain the features of the Seda era and become the latest incarnation of what Kafton argues is Jackson’s failed Republican Party.
“In government, there are a lot of people who are not there in their right mind – it comes with the territory,” said the council president. “If people I’m working with are not straight with me, I’ll keep it in the back of my mind. The mayor puts his team in place, the council advises and consents. Reina ran against the Seda team, including the professionals. He spoke out against them. But keeping Seda’s team in place was part of the deal, and that’s not the people wanted when they voted for a change.”
Last week, Kafton submitted his petition signatures on the day of the deadline, seeking to become the fourth man running for mayor on Nov. 3rd, an election that will enable the winner to serve the remainder of Seda’stenure before another contest in May of 2009 for a fresh, four-year term.
The clerk hasn’t yet certified the petitions.
Council Vice President Bobbie Rivere, a Democrat who ran on last year’s ticket with both men, supports Kafton.
“Mike (Kafton) has been around a very long time and he has done a great deal for this community,”Riveresaid. “Irespect Mike (Reina) and the work he has done but I think right now it’s Mike Kafton’s time.”
Former Councilman Angelo Stallone, a Republican and Seda ally,is also running, as is independent Republican Charles Gaskill. Reina allies say Gaskill serves no purpose other thanto add anotherRepublican body to the fieldto confuse voters and propel Kafton and the Democratic Party to victory.
As for Stallone,Reina’s peoplesay he’s there for revenge. He was on the council when Seda fired Reina as a special police officer. Now Stallone’s own son was just let go from the Department of Public Works as a seasonal employee – an act Reina backers sayStallone interprets as political payback from Reina.
Regardless of the Stallone-Reina back story and the potential for Republicans to damage one another and open old, intra-party wounds in this winner-take-all election,the main rivalry is Reina v. Kafton.
The former feels he’s done enough to absorb the bulk of regular Republican support, and proudly backs GOP gubernatorial candidate Chris Christie, whoswore Reina into office and hascalled him personally on his cellphone to build their relationship.Reina knows too there will be those purist Tea Partymembers who see him as a traitorfor retaining Gilmore and strengthening establishment ties, but as the mayor in this heavily Republican county in a gubernatorial election year,Reina is favored.
Although he benefits from three Republicans (of various stripe) in the race and can take some heart in the fact that the mayoral candidates will be bracketed in theirown place on the ballot and not directly under their parties’ respective gubernatorial candidates,Kafton has to contend with the reality of an unpopular Democratic incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine at the top of the ticket – in addition to his own local -and dredgeable – headline headaches.
“I really thought Mike changed,” said Reina,in an allusion to the 2005 DUI arrestthat sank the first installation ofKafton’scareer. “But in the last nine months, he has done everything you could imagine to undermine the government he helped set up. Mike, you championed this form of government, you’re the guy who got behind changing Jackson from a township committee to a township council form, and now you don’t understand the mayor’s power? Come on. He’s so deluded in his own mind, he attacks me constantly, issuing press releases in Kafton fashion. I drank the Kafton Kool Aid when I ran with him last year, but that’s over.”
Kafton allegedly twice passed a stopped handicapped school bus, which also rankled Reina.
“The difference between Mike and me is on Nov. 4th I’ll still be the same guy, win or lose – but Michael lives for this,” said Reina.
“The residents have stood with me through tough times,” said Kafton. “I have run on my accomplishments and everythingI have done and will continue to do.”
Since Kafton became council president and Reina became mayor, whateveruneasiness existedon the 2008 campaign trail between the Democrat and Republican has turnedcompletely sour as theyclose in on each other and Nov. 3rd; and this may only be their first encounter, as next year’s May election with no gubernatorial contest in play, also looms.