As tornado watches flashed on TV screens, supporters mingled in Rutherford last week to open Bergen County Clerk Kathe Donovan’s campaign headquarters.
Donovan is preparing for a face off against Democratic incumbent County Executive Dennis McNerney and the might of the Bergen County Democratic Organization (BCDO).
Since showing cracks early, her Republican ticket, including Freeholder candidates John Felice, Maura DeNicola, and John Mitchell and Congressional candidate Michael Agosta, has been making a point to work together.
“It’s very cohesive,” she said in a follow-up interview with PolitickerNJ, but with such a large county, “You rarely will see us all together.”
South Bergen, like the Rutherford headquarters, is her home base, but she said, “I want to reach out to everybody.”
“We’re getting nice endorsements,” she said, including the Bergen County Police Chiefs Association and the Bergen Grassroots good-government group, who approved her with 67 percent of the vote. Those follow her early organized labor endorsements, which supporters say show she can play in any sandbox in the county and opponents say mean she is not a true Republican.
In Rutherford, the town council – like the Bergen County Freeholder board – was until recently locked in the Democrats’ clasp.
Over the past two years, the grip has slipped for the Dems. Just ask Rutherford Councilman John Genovesi and Bergen Freeholder Rob Hermansen, both of whom claimed seats for the GOP in 2009 and both of whom talked to PolitickerNJ at Donovan’s HQ last week.
“I just saw the first Donovan (lawn) signs go up today,” Genovesi said. “The last few years have been trending Republican. She’s got great support here (in Rutherford).”
Hermansen said, “Turnout’s great,” considering the roving and violent storms passing by.
He told the crowd, “This is our army. Look around. These are the people who have to get this done.”
The group was as amped as an elbow-tight rain-wet crowd could be when Donovan spoke. “You’re not going to see the corruption and the wild spending that you see now.
“You all pay too much for the excesses of past years,” she told them.
Listening was Rocco Mazza, former BCDO executive director and fulltime aide to lieutenant governor candidate State Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-Teaneck) last year.
“I think I turned quite a few heads when I first walked into the gathering,” he said in an email. He worked on Donovan’s successful campaign for state assembly in 1985, “when she was swept into Trenton on Governor Tom Kean’s coattails,” he said.
“(B)oy does Bergen County need her brand of integrity and honor now,” Mazza said, unabashedly in her corner.
“After years of bitter Bergen Democratic intra-party battles, investigations, indictments, convictions and resignations in disgrace,” he said, “it is appalling to me that the Democratic Bergen County Executive (Dennis McNerney) has spent this entire period with his head buried in the ground like an ostrich. Even though he was well aware of the federal investigation into his BCIA Chairman Ron O’Malley before the indictment, it wasn’t until the indictment came down and hit the front pages of The Record newspaper that he finally decided to look into what was going on only two floors below him in his own administration building.
“Thankfully, (Donovan) transcends partisan politics (…) I am certainly not the only Democratic voter out there prepared to cast a ballot for Kathleen Donovan.”
Mazza’s political ad for Donovan aside, Donovan said this week, “I’m delighted Rocco’s a part of it.”
“I have other people who are voting for me from the BCDO,” Donovan said before backtracking a little. “Well it’s hard to know about the BCDO (affiliation),
She’s also targeting the unaffiliated voters, many of whom are voting with their wallets and tax bills in mind.
A rampant criticism has been that, for years, the County Clerk’s Office has spent more than the budget called for. But wait, Donovan said, “Dennis and the Freeholders have traditionally underfunded” her department, then pay the bills at the end of the year.
“I did not overspend the budget,” she said. “That would be a criminal offense.”
It’s just one in a series of political attacks, Donovan said, from the Bergen County Democratic Organization that includes allegation that her departmental audits haven’t been kosher, or complete.
“I’m being invited up to the Freeholder board (to explain the situation),” she said. After over 20 years in elected office, she said, “I’ve never been invited up for anything,” until now.
Once she declared she was running, “Twice in the last six weeks” she’s been invited before the governing body.
Check the audits of other departments, she said, and the same discrepancies are there. But, she asked, “Are any other summoned up to discuss the audit?”
A sort of political intimidation, she said, but the not the only kind.
“(S)ome county employees who are supporting me have been ether invited upstairs to talk to (the administration) or have county employees who watch them,” Donovan alleges. “I know of at least four,” she said.
But, Donovan claimed the workers couldn’t come forward because they fear retribution, so her claim is unsubstantiated, and certainly biased.
“One was summoned upstairs to have a conversation with the management on the fifth floor (county administration) to discuss their support of me,” she claimed. Since then, “They’ve sort of been watched,” she said.
Brain Hague, McNerney’s chief of staff, said, “I’m assuming she’s not going to produce anyone (to verify the claim).”
He denied dragging any Donovan supporters into the office for a talking-to, and as for watching employees: “The only reason to watch someone is to make sure they’re doing their work.”
In fact, Hague said he could produce a Clerk’s Office employee who thought they were being treated unfairly for being a McNerney supporter.
“We’re playing chess,” Hague said, “and when she does something like this, we realize she’s playing checkers.”
When November 2 comes, will Donovan be in check or yelling, ‘King me’?