PARAMUS – With a handful of tussles under their belts, County Executive Dennis McNerney (D) and County Clerk Kathe Donovan (R) still saved the best performances for last.
All of the barbs had been sharpened along the way and their debate tonight at Bergen Community College didn’t disappoint.
“You go in to get a passport and then Kathe’s there trying to sell you law practice work,” McNerney said, reaching back into the vault from 1994.
“He thinks the BCIA, with its criminal indictment, is a well run agency,” Donovan slung across the stage, even though the crimes originated from a private mortgage firm.
Alfred Doblin, editorial editor from the Record, moderated the forum, and questioners Charlie Stile and Mike Gartland stole the show from time to time.
“Those are your tax dollars going to his cronies,” Donovan kicked off opening statements. “He’s plundered Bergen County.”
She latched onto her go-to stat – $300 saved per family by her office – even though Stile later picked it apart.
Donovan reiterated her plan to freeze taxes and spending, still short on specifics.
“Can you afford four more years of Dennis McNerney?” she asked the hyped-up crowd.
McNerney pitched his nearly million dollar tax cut – also reduced to a penny saved by the equal-opportunity Stile – among other accomplishments.
McNerney said, “My opponent is going to try to distract you from these facts.”
But her “only responsibility is retaining the sanctity of our elections,” he said, although three election mailings were botched recently, sparking an inquiry letter from McNerney to the Attorney General’s Office.
Asked about their respective political pedigrees, Stile told McNerney, “I find it hard to describe what kind of Democrat that you are.”
“I’m a fiscal conservative and socially moderate,” McNerney said. “That’s what I’m calling myself and that’s what I am.”
He said, “I don’t care if it’s the Sierra Club, the labor unions (endorsing Donovan), I do what’s right for Bergen County,” adding, “I don’t look to the Obama administration.”
Stile skewered Donovan: “You don’t really get along with your own county party. Why even bother running in this Republican party?” before calling her a Republican In Name Only, R.I.N.O.
“I choose to be a Republican because we believe in smaller government,” she said, continuing with the non-social issue GOP standards.
Stile name-dropped Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, “a Democrat, at least on paper,” by way of asking the candidates about their relations with Gov. Chris Christie.
He said Donovan’s relationship with Christie seemed strained.
“Let me put the strained part to rest,” she said. “He called me yesterday,” and they spoke for 20 minutes, she said. “I respect the governor. Sometimes we’re going to agree, sometimes we’re going to disagree,” like on Christie’s attempt to remove blue laws from these major shopping zones.
McNerney countered: “When he did $102 million in teachers cuts, I didn’t support that, and you were nowhere when that happened.”
She volleyed, “It’s the Democrat-controlled legislature who pass the budget.”
And he finished, “It was a majority of Republicans that supported it.”
On stewardship of public money, Gartland asked Donovan about helicopter trips she took as executive director of the Port Authority, at the same time that 315 jobs were cut at the agency.
She said it was in 1994 in a volunteer position doing “pro bono work” when she took six and a half roundtrips “all on Port Authority business.”
“Every time I have run, my Democrat opponent would haul that out,” she said. “It was the right thing to do for that agency of that size for what we had to use that helicopter for.”
McNerney cited a Times article that put the number of trips at 17, and her account that the flight records were destroyed in 9/11.
She quickly flipped the script to a Yankees game that McNerney and former Democratic boss Joe Ferriero traveled to allegedly on county dime.
“Joe bought the tickets, you bought the drinks and the food,” she said.
But she exaggerated the situation by calling it hundreds of rides.
“I took 100s of trips,” McNerney decried. “They only have 82 home games.”
They questioned McNerney on an Irish American Political Action Committee that his brother has had close ties to.
McNerney said he takes money from a number of supporters, who are all on his campaign funding reports. He contrasted those reports to those of Reform Jersey Now, the political funding group made up of New Jersey’s republican elite who are releasing the names of donors after the election.
He tried to tie the group to Donovan.
“I don’t anticipate receiving any money from Reform Jersey Now,” Donovan countered.
Donovan was slapped with a question about her own contributions from law firms politically connected to pols like state Sen. Kevin O’Toole (R-Cedar Grove), but she shrugged it off.
On the lack of oversight for quasi-agencies and authorities of the county, most notably the Bergen County Improvement Authority, McNerney strafed away: “The BCIA was started under the Republicans,” he said, who also “tried to privatize the (Bergen County Utilities Authority).”
Donovan took this one straight on, saying she would “appoint myself or a senior member of my administration to boards which I have an appointment.”
“You will not have the millions of millions of dollars that Dennis squandered to his political cronies,” she slashed.
“Why didn’t you just veto the minutes (of the authority),” she asked him. “Why didn’t you say no?”
To some laughter from Donovan supporters in the crowd, McNerney said in his rebuttal, “These are well run authorities. I support the men and women who work there.”
With criminal allegations lodged against BCIA director, Ron O’Malley, McNerney was asked what his credentials were.
In 2004, he said, “I just recommended to the freeholders (that O’Malley be hired.)”
“He’s overly qualified,” he said, but, “We’re disappointed in what happened … There was no criminal activity. Immediately when something happened I called for his resignation.”
She came back, “I don’t know what you call criminal activity. The people pled guilty in federal court.”
But since the alleged mortgage scam run by O’Malley in his private business was mostly outside of county workspace, McNerney claimed no relation.
“You can’t veto minutes of people’s private life,” he said.
On his investigation into the agency, Donovan asked vociferously, “Do you have a timeline of when you’re going to be releasing that to us?”
But she knew he already said it would be out after the election. He didn’t even have to say it.
“This was done in the private sector,” he said. “You just don’t understand county government.”
Gartland asked them to justify the $140,000-per-year job they’re both seeking, especially since only five of 21 counties in New Jersey are run by executives, rather than just a freeholder board and director.
“We are the largest county, so we have the best argument to make that case,” McNerney said.
If Bergen County were a city, Donovan said, “It would be the 12th largest city in America … A government that big needs a leader.”
Both candidates are using Overpeck Park, a former dump turned multi-town park, heavily in their campaign repertoire.
“When I got in there, I did the right thing,” McNerney said, defending cost overruns, then turning to Donovan: “I don’t know why you keep bashing it.”
Donovan read excerpts from the Record that cited vendor links to “the mob and criminal enterprises,” and tacked on another $14 million to costs she said are over $100 million already.
She also claimed potentially dangerous toxicity levels at the park.
McNerney was heated: “That’s fear mongering. I can’t believe you stoop to this level. You’re saying there’s speculation of toxic levels. My kids play there.”
“You’re just reading a Record headline,” he said. “Why don’t you stand up and do something.”
“It’s not a $100 million. It was $18 million for the park,” he said.
“What is the total cost for the park, Dennis?” she pushed.
Soon after, McNerney said it was actually $76 million in total overhaul.
This was the last debate for the two adversaries before their Nov. 2 showdown.