PARK RIDGE – The Park Ridge Diner sits on the corner of Kinderkamack Road and Park Avenue. The avenue there was renamed James Gandolfini Way after the late actor who played the iconic cable television role of Tony Soprano, and who grew up in this Bergen County borough.
Inside the diner late on a Sunday morning, the woman who hopes to stay the boss of Bergen County politics pressed the flesh of the locals and addressed some of the key issues in the race.
“People said hi and things like they knew me through their daughter or somebody else,” said Bergen County Executive Kathleen Donovan, the veteran Republican incumbent looking to beat back her challenger, Democratic Freeholder Jim Tedesco. “It’s retail politics, getting on the radio and TV and a lifetime of working with people that will come into play over the next 57 days.”
Several issues will come up over the next eight weeks that will determine whether Donovan gets another four years to preside over the county that is considered to be the bellwether for statewide elections.
Democrats have tried to tie Donovan to the events surrounding the September 2013 George Washington Bridge access lane closure incident, also know as the Bridgegate scandal. Former Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Chairman David Samson, an ally of Republican Gov. Chris Christie, has been subpoenaed to produce documents by the state legislative committee investigating the scandal. Democrats have highlighted the professional ties between Samson and Donovan.
Neither the state nor federal investigations of Bridgegate have yet to produce any indictments. Donovan told PolitickerNJ that she doesn’t believe that Bridgegate will have any effect on the election.
“Neither my opponent nor I were involved in Bridgegate, so I don’t see that it has any effect on the election at all,” Donovan said. “It has nothing to do with this race. The people of Bergen County are very sophisticated, and when they vote, they know why they’re doing it.”
Shared services and consolidation are policy platforms both sides of the aisle discuss when advocating for more effective government in Bergen, home of 70 separate municipalities.
Donovan has struggled with the freeholder board over plans to merge the Bergen County Police Department and the county’s Sheriff’s Office. Donovan is opposed to the plan, while Tedesco and the majority of the freeholder board, which is now controlled by the Democrats by a 5-2 veto-proof margin, supports the move. The final decision depends on the outcome of ongoing legal battles related to the merger proposal.
“I’m a huge advocate of the county police because they do so much and they are such a good value for the tax dollars that we have,” Donovan said. “They’ve been in existence almost 100 years. I am very much in favor of the consolidation of services. If we could begin to consolidate services, I could cut people’s taxes by a third. We need to be looking to our smaller towns sharing services, but the county police should not go. It is a service to all 70 of our towns. There is a huge role for the county police to play. The police issue is sexy, but there are many other services we could share, such as public works, repair services, municipal courts and energy cost consortiums.”
Opponents of Donovan also point to her association with political and public-relations consultant Alan Marcus.
The public dilemmas of Alan Marcus, the consultant who managed Donovan’s victorious campaign in 2010, have made some political observers wonder if Marcus’s issues could harm Donovan’s re-election effort.
One issue has drawn the attention of federal prosecutors, who have subpoenaed records relating to a public-relations contract that Bergen Community College officials proposed to Marcus’ firm. After criticism of the deal emerged, Marcus turned down the contract.
Another controversy focuses on an accusation by a Paramus insurance broker who claims Marcus influenced county officials to switch medical-insurance carriers to exact retribution when the broker’s wife ended a three-month affair with him.
Donovan has distanced herself from Marcus. But Marcus’ name recently re-emerged in connection with a project Donovan is touting a key source of new jobs in Bergen which some observers believe could be the site for a North Jersey casino.
The roughly $4 billion American Dream Meadowlands project in East Rutherford, adjoining the area’s sports complex, is the successor to the ill-fated Xanadu project. The latest project developer, Triple Five, hired Marcus as its spokesman in 2011. Wolff & Samson, the law firm led by David Samson, represents the project.
Donovan dismissed the idea put forward by some Democrats that Marcus is too close for comfort.
“Alan Marcus is a good man,” said Donovan. “We just parted ways in terms of working together, but I think he’s a good guy. I think he’ll do well for Triple Five. People are going to make whatever they want to make of anything I do. I have no expectation that truth stands in anybody’s way. I’ve been a huge supporter of Triple Five way before anybody else was. I continue to be a huge supporter. It’s going to be a huge boost to our economy.”
The Bergen County Executive race is expected to get a lot of statewide attention, including from South Jersey. After the insurance controversy that reportedly involved Marcus, the Donovan administration hired Conner Strong & Buckelew to be the county’s insurance broker. George Norcross III, the Democratic South Jersey power broker, is the executive chairman of Conner Strong & Buckelew.
Norcross and Gov. Christie have often worked together in an apparent, unspoken alliance despite being on opposite sides of the partisan divide. When asked by PolitickerNJ if Norcross will actively come to her aid this election season, Donovan demurred.
“We have saved over $1 million using Conner Strong & Buckelew. But I don’t anticipate Mr. Norcross helping me. That’s up to him. I don’t get involved with Democratic Party politics,” Donovan said. “I have not talked to him about the race. I don’t anticipate talking to him about the race. I’m just running my race.”
An additional local factor some Bergen Democrats feel will favor them in November is that U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), who grew up in Bergen’s Harrington Park, will be at the top of the Democratic ticket this year as he seeks a full six-year term. Booker carried the county in the special U.S. Senate election in October by a 20,000-vote margin over GOP challenger Steve Lonegan, the former Bogota mayor.
Donovan, who has been in government since 1983, wasn’t worried about Booker or any other Democrat before she left to shake more hands in Park Ridge.
“There is no real trickle-down effect on the races in Bergen County. I have to let people know that I keep my word. I am fighting for them, including the lawsuits,” said Donovan, a reference to the ongoing legal battles stemming largely from the county police controversy.
“Legal fees are unfortunate, but I was turning around a huge, corrupt administration prior to me,” added Donovan, referring to the influence of Joseph Ferriero, the former Bergen Democratic chairman who was convicted on corruption charges in 2009. “Sometimes it takes a long time to get people to understand what the law is, not what they want it to be. I’ve been cleaning up a mess, and I’m going to keep going.”