Anti-establishment Union County mayors find Christie in no man’s land as they fight back

ROSELLE – Mayor Garrett Smith refused to get pinned down in Roselle. 

Rather then let the Union County Democratic Organization go unchallenged elsewhere and allow them to focus all of their energies on re-electing Roselle Council President Jamel Holley, Smith teamed with Hillside Mayor Joe Menza and other countywide outcasts and went on offense with multiple primary challenges under the same slogan: Democrats for Change.

On a June 8th collision course with the regular Democratic Party, Smith’s grassroots alliance today put him in the political comfort zone of Gov. Chris Christie, an outcast by definition here as a Republican who visited 10-1 Democratic Party dominant Linden to sell his constitutional amendment proposal while simultaneously throwing a power presence lifeline to Smith and Menza. 

Smith trusts in his own brand enough to feel mutuality in Christie’s version of no man’s land.

“We have 23 candidates throughout Union County on the June 8th Primary ballot,” said the independent Democrat, who hears anti-big government phrases from Christie that hearten him. “We have a candidate for sheriff, for county clerk, we have six candidates in Elizabeth, we have a candidate for mayor of Linden, mayor of Rahway, two council candidates in Union and, yes, our two candidates in Roselle.”

The two local candidates are the Rev. James Moore, running against Holley for the at-large council seat, and incumbent 4th Ward Councilwoman Samantha Dow, who’s trying to hold off Holley running mate Kim Shaw.

Surrounded by Democratic Party establishment infrastructure, Holley launched his re-election bid with state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) plugging him as a future mayor.

Smith’s allies know that if Moore doesn’t beat Holley, the council president will have momentum to challenge the mayor next year. 

Civil war firefights launched everywhere fold into the main battlefront here in Roselle, where a victory by both Moore and Dow would not only eliminate Smith’s most visible rival but deadlock the council 3-3 and give the mayor the tiebreaking vote.

Asked if his vision for the borough is on the June 8th ballot, Smith nodded, “Yes.”

Still, the mayor refuses to acknowledge that any of the other contests resonate with less force or importance than the Roselle race.

“We have an excellent opportunity to win all of the races all over the county,” said Smith of his Democrats for Change candidates.

An independent who last year defeated the regular Democratic organization in Chairman Charlotte DeFilippo’s hometown of Hillside, Menza also joined the effort.

“I like people who think on their own,” said Menza. “The freeholder board right now is composed of nine people who all blink at exactly the same time. I was part of interview process right from the beginning. I helped recruit the candidates.”

Smith and Menza leaned on Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka to join the countywide ticket as their candidate for sheriff, but the incumbent mayor refused. A fierce independent distrustful of organizational ties in both parties, Gerbounka decided to stay neutral rather than endorse the full slate of candidates backed by Menza and Smith.

He couldn’t very well endorse what on paper at least is a mayoral opponent in the person of Linden Councilman Derek Armstead, whose rumble strip candidacy is more specifically designed to disrupt Gerbounka’s Democratic establishment rival, Council President Robert Bunk.

In their mutual political embrace, Smith and Menza joined Gerbounka today in Linden to welcome Gov. Christie.

“It wasn’t a campaign rally,” explained Smith in anticipation of those regular Democrats who will try to brand him as a Republican for seeking out the same room as the governor. “It was a town hall meeting. I’m supposed to be there. I’m supposed to be in a room where the governor is talking about things that impact my county and my town. 

“I think the governor’s proposal for a constitutional amendment limiting local annual spending to 2.5% is a great idea,” the mayor added. “I’ll be signing onto that. We need to cut expenses. We have no new revenues coming in, no cash cows. I thought Governor Christie’s presentation was excellent.”

Smith doesn’t agree entirely with Christie’s agenda.

“I totally disagree with his decision not to re-appoint Judge (John) Wallace,” said the Roselle mayor. “But the point is it’s healthy to have a relationship with someone you may regularly disagree with.”    

An outright Christie backer during last year’s gubernatorial election, Menza said he went to Christie’s town hall meeting in full support of the governor’s proposal for a 2.5% cap on local spending.

“I don’t think it’s gutsy to be there, I think it’s morally right; I have an obligation to put Hillside first,” said the independent mayor, whose support for Smith’s Democrats for Change slate is complemented by the Roselle mayor’s positive statements about Christie.

If the outcast Democrat can back Christie’s spending cap, the independent whose candidacy last year received aid from Christie can back Democrats for Change. 

“I have to say, I was a little surprised not to see other mayors there,” Menza added. “What they need to understand is that you can exceed the cap, but if you want to do that, you have to take it to the public for a vote. I’m all for it. Machine politics exclude the people every year. This gives power to the people.”

As they try to deliver the same message countywide against the regular Democratic Party with the added incentive to protect Smith and Gerbounka and slow down Holley and Bunk in Roselle and Linden respectively, their outsiders’ axis overlaps with Christie, and so far, that’s fine with them.

Anti-establishment Union County mayors find Christie in no man’s land as they fight back