Warm reception for Christie in Democratic haven, Hudson County

UNION CITY – The conservative governor came to the liberal stronghold, the über-urban, super-dense Hudson County confines of Union City for a town hall today, five minutes from the homes of former Gov. Jon Corzine and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez.

But when Christie took the floor following most effusive praise from the host, Union City Mayor Brian Stack, he was roundly applauded.

Also a Democratic state Senator, hometown hero Stack welcomed the governor: “There has never been a governor who has worked harder and closer with me than Gov. Christie has.

“When I pick up the phone, and I leave a message, there is a call back. And he’s always there to be helpful not only to Union City, but to the residents of Hudson County.”

The school gym was packed and the police were turning away people at the door as Stack spoke.

“He is truly, truly, truly a friend (which) I appreciate from the bottom of my heart,” the mayor said. ”One thing we know about the governor, he speaks the truth, he speaks directly to the people, and he doesn’t hold any punches.”

Introducing, Stack announced, “the greatest governor this state has ever had, Chris Christie.”

Keep in mind this is also the same county where two mayors and a cadre of other officials were caught in a sting not too long ago that Gov. Chris Christie crafted as New Jersey’s U.S. Attorney.

It’s not hard to imagine, that being the case, that not everyone in Hudson County is thrilled with Christie, but many are not in a place to admit it publicly.

“He set out to destroy the Bergen and Hudson County Democrats, and he did a really good job doing that,” said a North Jersey politico. “He’s a very formidable political opponent.”

Christie was also integral in taking down Guttenberg Mayor David Della Donna in Hudson County.

“(The governor is) partly responsible for why I’m in this chair today,” said current Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff. “That was one of the last cases he prosecuted (before leaving to run for governor).”

Today, Drasheff – attorney by day, mayor by night in the small waterfront town – came to Union City to see Christie speak.

“It’s interesting,” Drasheff said this afternoon. “When you look around that room, when you look around Hudson County, there’s a lot of faces that weren’t here eight years ago.”

Drasheff wasn’t the only one in the room today who partly owes a mayoral seat to this former prosecutor.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer took control of the city when former Mayor Peter Cammarano resigned in 2009.

The mayor-for-a-month stepped down under pressure from Corzine following Cammarano’s arrest on corruption charges in the sting, Operation Bid Rig III, which came crashing down just as Christie’s gubernatorial campaign against Corzine was reaching critical mass.

Since then, Zimmer, who is a Democrat (but not strictly, she said), has been forging a relationship with Christie; the governor came to Hoboken last year for a town hall, too.

“I was impressed,” she said, bubbling with excitement. “I admire him.”

“He’s explaining the issues very well. He’s being straightforward,” she said. “Hopefully we get behind him.”

His corruption busting only got him in the door, she said, but he’s been making the most of the stay.

“Yeah, (he took) on corruption, but he also takes on the tough choices of government,” she said, even giving him credit for simply showing up. “Other governors might not even come to the area.”

Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, who was in attendance, said other Republican governors in the past have reached out to the urban areas, but Christie is getting more traction right now.

“He’s a very, very effective communicator,” Turner said. “On the overall issues, I don’t think you find disagreement (from the Democrats), but the devil’s in the details.”

“I don’t think anybody looked at today as a political thing,” he said. “Mayors in particular have a tendency to go to the guy who can help them with their problems. I think (Christie’s) obviously making friends. I don’t know if that transfers into politics.”

The Democratic Party chairman in Hudson County, Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith, is working close with the governor on a massive Bayonne Bridge-raising project, so he’s not exactly looking to badmouth Christie around town.

“There’s a time for politics and a time for good government,” Smith said in an email today. “Gov. Christie and I agree on some things and we disagree on others; that’s the nature of this business. Sometimes there’s more than one road to the same destination.”

Smith – who has a strong relationship with the other Hudson County power player, mayor and state Senator Nick Sacco (D-North Bergen) – took over as chairman of the party last year, succeeding Jersey City Mayor Jerremiah Healy.

A number of people in Healy’s inner circle were touched in Operation Bid Rig III, including the arrest and convictions of his deputy mayor, Leona Beldini, and the council president, Mariano Vega, who was also a director at the county building.

More recently, Healy’s former chief of staff and a Jersey City department director, Carl Czaplicki, was removed by Christie as commissioner at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, where soon after his removal Czaplicki’s wife and brother both were fired from their jobs.

Smith is the new blood – the fresh face of the Hudson Dems – and he is reaching out to all of the players, including Stack and others who have historically been intra-party opposition.

Smith said of himself and the governor, “Although we may have different styles, I think we both want to help the people of New Jersey have better lives. I can work with anybody who is trying to help our people.”

Christie, for his part, was quite receptive of the greetings today, but also honest about where he was – not exactly home to his top vote-producers.

“I am really overwhelmed by the turnout this morning, and I’m also overwhelmed by Mayor Stack’s introduction,” Christie said to the crowd. “Party doesn’t matter in the times we are in right now. I’m not (just) looking (for) good Republicans to work with me, I’m looking for good Democrats to work with me, I’m looking for good independents.”

“I didn’t come to Union City because you gave me an overwhelming election victory,” the governor joked. “I don’t know, what was it, 15 or 20 votes? I know Stack knows how many votes I got.”

He turned to the mayor, who had a grin on his face: “How many votes did I get? He’s embarrassed to tell me.”

But Christie said of Stack, “He is my ally and friend today, and he will be my ally and friend tomorrow and every day that I’m governor.”

Stack said afterwards that he’s not going to be shy about his relations with Christie.

“I’m part of the Democratic caucus, yes,” he said, but he’s working with the governor to find solutions to the people’s problems. “If Democrats aren’t happy with that, I’m sorry for them.”

“There’s a lot of Republicans in the 33rd District,” Stack said. He converted a bunch of them when he single-handedly battled the powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization triumvirate of Healy, Sacco, and Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise in 2007. 

One thing that Stack and Christie disagree on is dual office holding, which Christie addressed directly in response to a question today.

“One public job is enough,” Christie said, pointing out an ethics bill he submitted last year on the matter. “I know there’s disagreement.”

Stack confirmed so much afterward. “I disagree with that,” he said. “I think I’ve shown in Trenton the importance of municipal experience. I think it’s important. I think I do a good job,” in both jobs.

Plus, the people who elected him as a senator were told upfront that he was the mayor of Union City, and they elected him either because or in spite of the fact. The same thing goes for his mayoral victory last year.

All in all, “(The governor’s) making the right decisions for the state,” Stack said, political affiliations aside.

Some of the mayors were gushing over Christie, the GOP star, today, but as one Hudson County official put it: “It’ll be a totally different story after the budget comes out,” which might be why a few Hudson County mayors declined to speak about Christie today when reached for comment.

One Hudson Dem said of the governor, “He’s buying Brian Stack’s support by giving enormous amounts of state aid.”

It’s true that Union City has the maximum state aid allotment, but Stack isn’t buying the ‘he-who-holds-the-purse-strings’ argument.

“There’s not an abundance of state aid,” Stack said today.

It’s $11.3 million currently, he said, and considering the amount of poverty in his city, its landlocked position, its lack of a waterfront, and its small amount of ratables to bring down the tax rate, that number sounds reasonable. Union City’s not even a transit hub like other towns nearby; it has no major railroad.

It’s also a Distressed City, as designated by the state, with the likes of Camden, but Union City receives less aid per capita than Camden, Stack said.

The source and others in Hudson – some of whom have reasons to take shots at the rogue general Stack – still make the argument.

“Stack is playing him,” the source said. When Stack flirted with supporting Christie on the campaign trail in 2009, the source claimed: “That was so he could get more aid out of Jon Corzine.”

“There’s no love here, it’s all politics,” the battle-weary Democratic source said, “the best that we’ve seen in a long time.”

“A lot of people are very, very upset with the governor,” the source said. “He uses every political tactic to advance his agenda.”

All this love Christie is seeing now, the source said, “We’ll see how all that plays out when he has an election.”

Drasheff, whose town of Guttenberg is only four blocks wide but packs over 10,000 people inside, said, “It’s hard to quarrel with (Christie’s) recognition that we’re in a hole, and we’re trying to dig out. But I think he tends to paint with a very broad brush…He goes about with a meat ax as opposed to a scalpel.”

Drasheff hopes Christie takes the time to examine how his initiatives will hit small towns, like his.

“There are some governments out there who are working hard already,” Drasheff said. “You’re more than down to the bone. When we lose aid, we get hurt with that.”

“You show me where you can do something more efficiently, and we’ll do it,” he said, but, “It’s not a one-size-fits-all solution.”

The leader of the Hudson County GOP is former Assemblyman Jose Arango, who remembers Stack from his days as Arango’s chief of staff and isn’t surprised with his relationship with Christie. Arango was in Union City today.

“This is excellent,” he said, pumped up from the governor’s performance. “This is what Chris Christie is all about. The smart elected officials in Hudson County, they emigrate to him.”

“It’s a new beginning here,” Arango said, not too different from when he rode Republican Gov. Tom Kean’s wave of success into the Assembly – “but with a different flavor.”

“The governor has the right approach for the times,” he said. “People here felt like they were surrounded by corruption.”

Democratic Freeholder Anthony Romano – a Hoboken police captain whose force avoided layoffs and demotions through concessions last year – said he’s starting to hear things from Christie’s point of view after seeing him speak today.

“I don’t agree on everything,” he said, “but he made some points.”

Pension reforms and other salary- and benefit-limiting measures are going to reduce the job pool for public safety, regretfully, Romano said, but, “If he’s right (about long-term pension debt), then something has to give.”

He was a little bit surprised about how well Stack and Zimmer – whom Christie also acknowledged – are getting along with the GOP heavyweight.

“The praise, between the both of them, was something else,” he said. “Apparently, they not only have a working relationship, but they have the beginning of a friendship.”

Three-term Kearny Mayor Al Santos, another Democrat, was also in the crowd today.

“I think that this governor has an ability to engage, especially in a town hall setting,” he said. “A skill that his predecessor did not have.”

On his policy, Santos isn’t as solid: “It depends on the specifics of the initiative.”

“Some of the measures – the tax cap – as frustrating as it was to get our budget in line this year,” Santos said, “at least it gave us the back-up for some of the cost-cutting measures that had to be done.”

“Because we have this new tax cap,” he told the six unions he deals with as mayor, separately, “we can’t do it.”

The cap forced a two-part, 20-position layoff plan, plus demotions, but Santos was able to get concessions from each of the six unions, enough to reduce the layoff plan to one position only.

“Chris Christie’s the governor and we have to work with him,” he said, and if there’s an alternative to his policy, the Democrats should present it and discuss.

“But at this point – and I’m a Democrat saying this – as far as coming up with real dollar numbers in savings,” Santos said, “it’s come from him…He’s diagnosed it correctly, the governor.” Warm reception for Christie in Democratic haven, Hudson County