The 5th District, Tedesco’s Reelection, Menendez and the X-Factors: The Bergen Dems Chair Stellato Interview with InsiderNJ

HACKENSACK – Bergen County Democratic Committee Chairman Lou Stellato once again finds himself ready to dig in, this time in defense of a countywide ticket and U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-5) in a federal election year. In a sense, 2018 – and CD5 in particular – represents a testing ground of the government and political infrastructure Stellato built in this northern county over a half-decade plus, on the ravages of Gov. Chris Christie overreach, Bridgegate, demographic tending changes, GOP implosion, Jimmy Tedesco love, and good organization and gamesmanship.

2014 was the year Republican Kathe Donovan was supposed to win reelection, her supposed dominance scaring away other Democrats who might have invested in an alternative but for Christie’s political footprints; and yet Stellato – gambling on some bedrock Democratic tactical touchstones – opted to run Paramus Mayor turned newly minted Freeholder Tedesco. If Tedesco could win a countywide seat in 2013, when Christie was ascendant, maybe he could win in 2014.

He did – 54-46% (or 108,000 to 91,000).

It shocked the state, and reversed engines.

And now, in the reelection year of his cross-county friend who vibed with the electorate in Stellato’s South Bergen (and elsewhere), the chairman sees a chance to firm up the machine, and capitalize on his rivals’ self-made miseries.

InsiderNJ lingered on Gottheimer with Stellato.

“It’s going to be classic text book election,” the chairman said, in reference to the 5th. “I don’t foresee a Democratic Primary, but if Gottheimer were to have one, he will have the line in all the counties.”

Republicans have a primary, however: Bergen Attorney John McCann versus former Bogota Mayor and movement conservative Steve Lonegan.

“McCann-Lonegan is very interesting, but McCann is having difficulty raising money,” the chairman said.

Lonegan has $1 million COH to McCann’s $129,ooo, according to the Federal Election Commission.

A fractured Bergen County Republican Organization (BCRO) also means that Party Chairman Paul DiGaetano’s support for McCann may not add up to much – or may even prove detrimental.

“Lonegan has the advantage in the Warren and Sussex areas, and he does have some roots in Bergen,” Stellato said.

He sees a Lonegan win.

“So it’s going to be a Trump disciple, who was originally a Ted Cruz disciple,” the Democratic Chairman said.

He likes the carefully crafted meshing of candidates on his side, starting at the top of the ticket.

In town to support Tedesco and the countywide slate on Monday, along with Governor Phil Murphy and U.S. Senator Cory Booker (NJ), U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) has a strong election history in Bergen. Even after the to-hell-and-back spasms he endured over the last two years, resulting in a hung jury in his corruption case and the feds – beaten – finally offloading him as a courtroom target, Menendez still has an upside, even for Gottheimer in the conservative-tilting 5th, Stellato argued.

“Menendez is an asset, I think so,” said the chairman.

So is incumbent Freeholder Tracy Zur, who’s in the district, and a countywide Tedesco, who appears to be poised for a showdown with Bergenfield Mayor Norman Schmeltz.

“And let’s not take anything from Josh either, who is a fierce competitor and campaigner,” the chairman said.

Sure, Hillary Clinton helped in 2016.

She’s popular in Bergen.

“But now Josh is in there doing good things, doing bipartisan things, and of course you have all the unrest in the Republican Party,” Stellato said. “The only x factor for them is Lonegan. He’s going to be fierce campaigner and he’ll get money from conservative groups. Of course, Gottheimer’s raised in excess of $3 million.”

Then Stellato lingered on what he described as the Democrats’ x factor.

“The x factor on our side is women and their visceral disdain for Trump,” the chairman said. “I’m meeting with different groups every day that want things to change. They’re not happy. They want it to change. Look, we saw the tip of this iceberg two years ago, and now this is a new group. They’re locked and loaded. These are new registrants and this will transcend party lines. These are independents and undeclareds. They don’t like what they see, and they’re at a fever pitch.”

A lifelong Democratic Party stalwart who learned party principles and organization from former Vice President Hubert Humphrey as a college student in Minnesota, Stellato started his political career on the local School Board in Lyndhurst. He served as mayor from 1989 to 1997, then took a break while he pushed three children through college.

He remained chairman of the Lyndhurst Democratic Party.

After Bergen Chair Joe Ferriero cracked up and Mike Kasparian did an attempt-to-stop-the-bleeding stint during the ascendency of Christie and a doubling down by the GOP with Donovan’s 2010 victory, Stellato took over the tattered party organization in 2011.

He’s prided himself over the course of his chairmanship with what he sees as his roots in good government (when he served as Lyndhurst mayor he enlisted teenagers known as Lou’s Crew, who shoveled the walkways of seniors) and his independence as a leader, which stems from the funeral home director’s non-reliance on government work for sustenance.

“I’m not looking to do anything but what’s best for my county,” Stellato told InsiderNJ.

It’s a million people in Bergen. Seventy towns.

It’s a beast.

“I’m here everyday,” he said, referring to the office – and the demand.

It’s not just Bergen, either.

“We morph into Hudson and Passaic and Essex and Warren and Sussex,” Stellato pointed out. “You become part of a six-county apparatus, not because you want to flex your muscles, but because every district – state or federal – has more than one county in it, and it makes me interact. One chair, who is a very dear friend of mine, is also the state chair. There’s another chair, who was the assemblyman and speaker. There’s another guy, who is lobbyist, who was an assemblyman. There’s another guy, who is a lawyer.”

Not having a government job or a government jobs or contract agenda beyond the chairmanship itself “makes me different,” he conceded.

“But the beautiful thing about being independent, is there is nothing anybody can do,” he said, “and that I believe gives a comfort level to the 1,300 delegation of Bergen County. They understand that this guy is insane enough to love this gig the way he does. There’s nothing anybody can do. My job is to get the best candidates and to get a patchwork that represents Bergen County and the State of New Jersey.”

In a sense, now, just as 2012 was a nuts and bolts test for Stellato’s friend, U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9), who built on what he put in place in 2010, 2018 – Stellato hopes – will demonstrate the functionality of the work he did to this point, with 2014 the Tedesco-tested springboard – enhanced now by the larger anti-Trump landscape.

Notwithstanding his successes countywide, Stellato laments the course of politics and in so many ways the denigrated discourse and mean-spiritedness of the culture. “The days of the superstars in the senate understanding the need to work together once the elections are over are gone, it’s a different landscape,” he told InsiderNJ.


Does he see a Presidential candidate out there?

“All politics are local,” said the Democratic Party Chairman of Bergen. “Cory Booker is a guy we know and we’re very comfortable with. Obviously, he’s one of the premiere orators of the senate. He is a superstar with instant national acclaim and he can raise money. Plus, he understands policy from being a mayor and senator.

“Also,” Stellato added, the sprawl of Hackensack to southward outside the sixth story window, and to east the blurred steel lines of whatever outlines endure on the far side of the highway and bridge crags and the rivers, “there’s an  advantage to doing politics in New Jersey. In the rural and urban areas, you can get baptized by fire in New Jersey and turn around and pretty much land anywhere. Cory Booker is someone who can relate to the rich and poor, and middle class, the young and old, he gets the whole package.”




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