BERGENFIELD – Mayor Timothy J. Driscoll took another sip of his coffee and considered the political terrain.
With thebattles he’s weathered at the local level here the fact that the gubernatorial campaigns are storming through his town now comes with no particular irony. It’s just a naturaloutgrowth of personalities that have been converging in Bergenfield for years, some of whom arenowtrying to connect with the 13,387 registered voters in this compact town, while others- pending appeal – appearheaded forthe federal pen.
How does it all play into the statewide race with seven days remaining?
“I don’t think much at all,” said the retired engineer, sitting in his second floor mayor’s office in town hall. “It’s all about the economy. The economy is the problem.”
Days after ajury found former Bergen County Democratic OrganizationChairman Joe Ferriero guilty of defraudingBergenfield of the honest legal services of former attorney Dennis Oury (who had already pleaded guilty to fraud), the two candidates for lieutenant governor scrambledinto the same senior daycare facility on the main drag, local state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck), running mate of Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine,first; followed by Monmouth County Sheriff Kim Guadagno, theRepublican running mate of former U.S. Attorney Chris Christie.
Weinberg was a Ferriero pariah who walks these suburban streets of her home district witha certain degree of pride now as the onetime leader of arenegade wing of the Democratic Party that helped topple the former county boss, who ownedGovernmental Grants Consultingwith Oury, a companythat bilkedthe mostlyunsuspecting residents of Bergenfield.
“The governor chose me, knowing full well my feelings about Joe Ferriero,” said Weinberg, moments after calling the numbers for a game of Bingo to a late morning crowd mostly made up of Indian-American seniors in this critical, battleground county. “The governor stood beside me in my 2005 campaign when Joe Ferriero tried to silence me.”
Runningagainst the Ferriero-backedcandidate in 2008 with Weinberg’s assistance in this largely Democratic town, Driscollwon by fewer than 400 votes in the Democratic Primary, then easily won the general election. He promptlythrew Oury out as township attorney and supplied information tothe U.S. Attorney’s Office(then run by Christie)about the goings-on in the town wherethe mayorhas lived since the late 1940’s and where Oury served as town attorney since 2002.
“Oury had to go,” said Driscoll,describing annual legal feesthat climbedupwards of $200,000. “He would call council people and charge $75-$100 for a conversation.
“Loretta is very popular here, he added, fingering an embroidered jacket Weinberg and her running mates gave him when he was sworn in as mayor.
“She’s popular inBergenfield and in Bergen, because she’s fought corruption. She supported us and fought Ferriero tooth and nail. That’s the shame of it. If you’re lucky and living in a good economy, you walk back into office. But if you’re not lucky, you get a situation like Corzine has here. He has reduced two state budgets by 12 and 14% – that’s a phenomenon in New Jersey, but the economy has gone downhill, and Christie has used that against him.”
Down the street, Weinbergtoday made the case for Corzine based on his advocacy of state-supported adult medical daycare.
“Sen. Weinberg is a great senator, I wish all elected officials were like her,” said Yaakov Friedman, who owns the daycare facility.
If the remark carried a cryptic tone directed at all other electeds, including Corzine, it was probably not an accident.While embracing Weinberg as a local hero, people here blame thegovernor for cutting funding to the facility by ten percent. The attitude expressed bitterly by at least oneothermember of management was theywant Christie to win the governor’s race, in part because they wantWeinberg to remain state senator.
But Weinberg, with running mate Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood) by her side,received a big round of applause and a bouquet of flowers from an elderly Indian woman when she said, “I am humbly asking for your support (to be the state’s first lieutenant governor).”
Guadagno stumped here in the afternoonamonga crowd of Korean seniors – there are three different catering companies at Sunshine, by the way, each one specializing in Indian, Korean or Spanish cuisine. Brushing aside the local political travails undertaken by Weinberg and Driscoll, the sheriff said, “She wants to now stand up for that, fine, but the hard work is prosecuting and convicting someone,” which is what Christie accomplished when both Oury and Ferriero collapsed, one after another.
The sheriff didn’t see anything symbolic about campaigning here today, less than a week after the jury’s guilty verdict in the Ferriero trial.
“This is one scene of 132 crimes,” she said, referring to Christie’s record of convictions as U.S. Attorney, which stretched across a broad swath of the state’s political landscape.
Addressing the seniors parked in straight backed plastic chairs in front of the same clearing that Weinberg occupied hours earlier, Guadagno in bashing Corzine competed with an elderly woman yelling into a cellphone.
“This governor says he would be ‘happy’ to increase taxes again,” said Guadagno. “His answer is another $1.2 billion tax hike. …He says that this economy is the necessary result of a global recession. The fact is, New Jersey has the highest unemployment rate in the region, and the highest foreclosure rate in the region. We’re paying too many taxes.”
Pressed on the issue of tax relief when Christie’s promises target upper income earners and small businesses, Guadagno said, “These people’s sons and daughters are in businesses. …We have the worst small business climate in the country. These small businesses are hurting.”
Back at town hall, Driscoll admitted he still sits in the crosshairs.
As the target of another investigation, formerDemocratic Municipal Chairman Kevin Clancy turned overoperation of the local, Ferriero-affiliated party organization to hisgirlfriend,former Councilwoman Elaine Rabbitt, who was in turncharged with forgery by the the state Attorney General’s Office.
Ruffled, Rabbitthas told local Democrats she can’tdo GOTVfor Corzine because she’s prepping for trial.
And although Oury and Ferriero are now gone, Driscoll said with a mixture of misery and humor in his voice that an old farmhouse Oury fooled the town into buying is a money pit that state and federal grant dollars can’t mitigate.
“This year – and some of it’s county money – we’re spending $400,000 just to keep the thing from falling down.” said the mayor.
That’s about the same amount of money Corzine gave Ferriero’s county organization, Guadagnoreminded a reportertoday at the senior care facility, but it was Weinberg’s ally, independent Democrat Driscoll,who beat that organization on the ground, who with great anxiety given the economy, now backs Corzine’s reelection.