JERSEY CITY – Pawed at by time and left with its back up to the freight train tracks and wedged almost under the Pulaski Skyway, Rita and Joe’s looks like a foreman’s outbuilding at the ragged edges of abandoned factory yards, propped against the river at the western down-most slope of the city amid gas stations and liquor stores.
Here was the site of Police Det. Sean Connors’s formal campaign kickoff against no discernible opponent, where Democrats rule and thus feed on one another when they’re not huddled up in a ceremonial hug. Maybe there was a future mayor in there tonight in Connors, headed inevitably with the old guard behind him on a collision course with downtown Councilman Steve Fulop.
But Fulop was not among the interacting forces tonight. He’s 2013.
Entering the packed overflow room, Connors actually represented the end of this 2011 cycle’s campaign drama, the personification of peace, for he was a human compromise struck between two long warring factions: Union City overlord Brian P. Stack and the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO).
The veteran of a nuclear detonation four years ago that empowered him in its aftermath to declare a renegade victory over the machine, Stack, the 33rd District state senator/mayor is said to have been walking around as late as yesterday with petitions he was ready to submit to the state Division of Elections just in case the HCDO reneged and stood up an 11th-hour army against him. His closest allies said it’s not true. The handshakes firmed it up. He was resigned to a new redistricting map that pushed him deeper into Jersey City, territory where up-and-comer Connors has a solid toehold and some hunger and had once before run with Stack – as a rogue 32nd Senate candidate – before folding into the HCDO.
“This kid’s everywhere,” said Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, referring to Connors. “Kid – listen to me. The guy’s probably in his early forties. But this kid – Sean – is just a worker. He’s with the seniors, at the ballgames.”
The wakes, the funerals, the backyard barbecues, the porches, the doors, the stairwells.
“He’s a young man,” DeGise proclaimed at last, “whose time has come. all his hard work – he’s earned it. He is going to be such a welcome addition to our political party here.”
Assemblyman Ruben Ramos (D-33) and Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31) were in the room at Rita and Joe’s, and DeGise, the weathered exec at the microphone, sighted them as he built up Connors.
“The road from being a young Turk to being a sagacious old veteran goes very, very fast,” he said.
Officially on the ticket now with Stack and Ramos, Connors wouldn’t talk about the future.
But he also wouldn’t dismiss anything, either.
“I’m committed to serving in the 33rd District,” he told PolitickerNJ.com.
He was asked to rule out a challenge to Stack two years from now and with the glow of a dozen HCDO power players close at hand, he said, “I’m running for the Assembly. If people want me in a different capacity in the future, we’ll have to assess at that time.”
Comments like that and the fact that Stack was a no-show underscored how uncomfortable this peace pact is here between Stack and the HCDO, built on exhaustion more than love, forged out of pragmatic recognition of power protection more than an eagerness for social contact.
There was some worry over the theater of the event early. Stack was supposed to be there, if not to bear hug DeGise and Jersey City Mayor Jerry Healy, well, then at least to get a picture with his 2007 foes long enough to advertise Connors as the future.
Right up to the moment Stack sent a text message to Connors telling him he wouldn’t be there, the HCDO types were buzzing about Brian. He’d be there. “He’s on Brian time,” one of them said.
But it never happened.
“He’s stuck with a constituent service problem,” explained HCDO spokesman Paul Swibinski.
More than a few pairs of hands clapped with extra vigor for HCDO Chairman Mark Smith, the ebullient mayor of Bayonne, who legitimately has enough hero cop in him to act more like a nice guy than a tough guy, who was credited with being able to bring the organization and Stack to the same political table – if not the same cramped room at Rita’s and Joe’s.
“This is the rebirth of the HCDO,” said Smith, words that Stack – whatever his obligation back in Union City tonight – might not have been able to bear, given the history.
“Hudson County’s numbers are going to be at the top of the board again. People are going to realize again that Hudson County is back on the map and if they want something done, they’re going to have to go through us.”
An HCDO operative in the back of the room observed the festivities, went through the motions of clapping, and gave a knowing nod toward Connors when the candidate hit every note in his humble speech right down to the zinger at the Republican administration for cutting urban funding. When asked if he was disappointed there was no war this year to sharpen his skills and keep Democrats in fighting shape, and made to observe a situation in which all that constituted the suggestion of strife was a non-story that Stack was not present but on the line, the operative said with a grin, “Not really. I’m not disappointed.
“More time for golf.”