WEST NEW YORK – Insiders last Tuesday night said the meeting would happen within 24 hours.
It didn’t occur that fast, but close.
Two days after Felix Roque assumed the oath of office as mayor of West New York, Gov. Chris Christie and his entourage from Trenton unloaded on Bergenline Avenue and beelined for rumba soundtracked hotspot Las Palmas Restaurant to have coffee and Cuban sandwiches with the upstart Army Colonel who beat the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) in municipal elections.
“I’m a military man,” Roque told the governor, a good card to deal a Republican tough guy, but also risky when the same tough guy isn’t himself a military man.
Unflappable, Christie said, “I’m a former prosecutor.”
Later in the interview, Roque again mentioned his army cred.
A crowd of Roque devotees swarmed the restaurant, jamming it up for the half hour the governor spent inside.
“He’s trying to make Hudson the new Bergen,” cracked a Democrat, observing the altered local landscape where the Republican governor hurriedly planted a firm, face-to-face handshake on Roque, a self-described conservative Democrat who buckled the knees of the HCDO when he toppled incumbent Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega.
“I don’t know about that, but it’s a great place to be,” Christie told PolitickerNJ.com when asked if he’s trying to shape shift the county he lost to Jon Corzine 29,301 to 76,145. Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack and Roque appeared on his heels in the packed space of Las Palmas shortly after the governor gulped down an espresso and ordered the sandwiches to go.
In the street, on crowd control duty, “That’s a negative,” said Hudson County Sheriff Frank Schillari when asked if he’s here today to represent a show of force by the HCDO.
“Law enforcement, security,” explained the sheriff. “The governor is our state’s chief executive officer, after all.”
Any substantial political ground gained in Hudson is Hail Mary territory for Christie, who’s chipped away nonetheless and whose go-to political mastermind, Bill Stepien, could be glimpsed in the crowd.
He has already forged political alliances in the classically Democratic county (on paper: 133,237 registered Democrats, 20,955 registered Republicans; third biggest in terms of Democratic numbers coming behind Essex with 180,000, and Bergen), the place where former Gov. Brendan Byrne said he wants to be buried so he can continue voting as a Democrat. Independent Democrats state Sen./Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack and Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer are allies of Christie’s. Occupying stools above the tiled floor of the Cuban restaurant on Cuban Independence Day with a politically quirky, unknown commodity like Roque sets up the possibility of the governor chewing deeper into territory dominated by Dems.
“A proud day for West New York and a proud day for Hudson County,” said Irene Kim Asbury of Jersey City, a former GOP redistricting commissioner, who commandeered a stool amid the hoopla next to GOP county executive candidate Stephen De Luca of Bayonne.
“Get ready for your next assignment,” the governor told her.
At the very least, the Republican’s presence here further triggers HCDO palpitations, as he looks for every tiny opportunity to offset with political alliances a 133,237 to 21,000 D to R gap – unnavigable for the GOP since the days of Gov. Tom Kean and President Ronald Reagan.
“A lot will depend on Sacco,” said a Hudson County Democratic Party insider.
That’s state Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D-32), the North Hudson County Democratic Party power broker who’s also mayor of North Bergen, which wraps around West New York. Sacco is a staunch HCDO face up here, who just absorbed West New York into his legislative district. At least one source said he trusts in Sacco’s political prowess to gently bring Roque into the fold and safely beyond the reach of the Republican governor. After threatening to endorse Christie in 2009, Stack, after all, backed Corzine in the election – before becoming a reliable Christie vote in the Legislature.
His alliances – both burgeoning and attained notwithstanding – Christie attaining Bergen proportions in an election – 155,027 registered Democrats to 104,532 registered Republicans – looks like a stretch.
But every piece adds up, or so runs the logic.
“Christie all along has been looking into forming inroads in heavily Democratic urban areas – not just with Stack but Mayor Cory Booker in Newark,” said Patrick Murray, political scientist with Monmouth University. “Some of the items on his agenda appeal to urban Democrats – particulalry in the area of school reform.”
A crowd of Roque supporters and West New York Republicans waited for the pair to arrive.
“He’s my Elvis,” Shirley Force said of Christie where she sat next to the governor’s spillover handlers at the lunch counter.
Asked if she wanted to flesh out the quote, Force added, “He rocks.”
Smiling amid a cascade of “Roque, Roque” cheers, Roque said of the governor, “He’s a nice guy, it was a productive meeting.”
Using Stack as an intermediary, the governor and new mayor met in closed quarters before they arrived at the restaurant in what one insider described as a “whatever you need” encounter.
“I really don’t have any comment on the governor coming to West New York other than he’s entitled,” HCDO spokesman Paul Swibinski said.
After his interview with the governor and in the middle of a local board of education flap triggered by former Mayor Vega’s appointments on his way out of office, Roque saw Vega at Miller Stadium in West New York.
It was the first time the two men spoke since Roque’s victory.
“Good luck,” said Vega.