Hudson County’s Identity Crisis Shows in Fight Over ICE Detainees, Environment

Insider NJ's Al Sullivan argues that Hudson County is in the midst of a political identity crisis, evidenced by the Democratic conflict over immigration detainees and the environment.

Hudson County has a political identity crisis.

A destination for millennials with an extremely progressive agenda, the once-powerful Democratic strong hold still clings to basic policies in the past, pro-union, pro-job and pro-development.

This is bringing the county into an internal political conflict especially in regard to immigration detainees and the environment.

While cities like Hoboken and Jersey City join forces with conservative towns like Secaucus to ban one-time use plastic bags or Styrofoam cups, more significant issues still create a kind of political schizophrenia among county Democrats.

Recently, Hudson County officials proposed a redevelopment project for a formerly contaminated site in Kearny, only to incur the wrath of environmentalists opposed to a NJ Transit power plant as one of the components.

Kearny has been the litter pan for fat cat politicians for decades, a dumping ground for regional trash that has forced residents to keep their windows closed against the stink – much in the way Secaucus residents used to have to do during the heyday of its slaughterhouses.

The trash dumps and other contaminated sites made it impossible for Kearny to benefit from new development much in the way neighboring towns like Harrison have.

Proposed development on what is called the Koppers Koke could help change that.

But Democrats overseeing the development are being confronted by environmental groups that warning against climate change impacts this and other proposed developments in the county might impose.

These are activist groups that come out at the drop of a hat against a host of things, whether it is the threat development at Liberty State Park, or the massive trains of oil cars passing through Bergen and Hudson Counties to the Croxton Rail Yards in Jersey City.

These groups have protested the North Bergen power plant, as well as the proposed NY Waterways ferry repair facility proposed for a portion of the Hoboken waterfront.

Even politicians, skeptical of some climate change world-ending scenarios, well know how politically powerful these groups are, and must contend with them. These groups bolstered the resistance movement against Gov. Christopher Christie’s proposed development plans for Liberty State Park, not once, but nearly a half dozen times – forcing local officials to take their side in these conflicts.

Most recently, they have flexed their muscles in challenging a power plant proposed for the meadows of North Bergen, winning important political allies in South Eastern Bergen County.

But the most recent effort to derail the proposed NJ Transit power station puts them in a slightly different position.

Hudson County has been seeking to unload the Koppers Koke property in Kearny for decades, having gotten stuck with this contaminated wasteland after another governor, Tom Kean, required each county to build its own incinerator for disposal of trash – a scheme that would have climate change activists pulling their hair out had such an idea been proposed today.

These environmental groups are particularly furious at Gov. Phil Murphy who on one hand has claimed he wants the state to shift to 50 percent renewable energy by 2030 and yet won’t put the brakes on the NJ Transit power plant proposal.

This may be because he can’t afford to alienate Hudson County and its sizable voter base at a time when he could expect a challenge for re-election against Southern Jersey political bosses like State Senate President Stephen Sweeney and George Norcross.

County Executive Tom DeGise, of course, is puzzled by the environmental protest, claiming the county spent $10 million to clean up the contaminated property and spend $2million dollars in debt service annually.

The proposed power plant would take a huge white elephant and turn it into a viable ratable for Kearny and take a burden off the county budget.

This is Hudson County’s second bite at the apple. NJ Transit originally proposed to buy the property as a staging area for the sorely needed Arc Tunnel project, a rail tunnel to Manhattan only to have Gov. Christie pull out of the project at the last minute.

But the environmentalists aren’t the only progressive groups at odds with DeGise and Hudson County government.

A number of immigrant rights groups have called for Hudson County to do away with its contract to help housing detainees on behalf of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

County officials claim keeping detainees Hudson County keeps them close to legal services and families. But there is a practical reason why Hudson County wants to retain its contract with ICE. The lucrative contract generates tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the county and helps make up for reduction in regular inmate populations due to prison and bail reform measures. The contract with ICE allowed the county to continue to operate the jail at near full capacity, and protests many of the patronage jobs associated with the jail.

While Hudson County Democrats may in some ways reflect the national crisis in the Democratic party between moderates and progressives, this is also something of a family conflict. Tom DeGise’s daughter, Amy DeGise serves as chair of the politically powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO.)

As the HCDO’s first female chair, Amy DeGise, has a proven track record as a progressive and has vowed to convert the once old-school cigar-chomping mostly white male Democratic organization to a more progressive party. Unfortunately, her biggest challenge may be dealing with her always practical job-oriented father.


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