BAYONNE – You used to be able to bank on seeing that car on Broadway, with an arm hanging out of the driver’s side window inevitably heavily tattooed – accompanied by the rev of a Harley somewhere for emphasis. Now, that element still unquestionably abides citywide. Even if they pave the place over some day, a guy in a muscle t-shirt wearing a backwards Yankees baseball cap will still show up in chains, shouldering his way up that existential alleyway midway between New York City and the Elizabeth docks. At this point, however, he just might be simultaneously sipping a latte, for new development downtown also means the maritime tough guy, pop. 63K town has adapted, its building block Catholic community dimensions of Italian, Irish and Polish shapeshifting to encompass wider ranging ethnic – and cultural – footprints.
“The town’s changing,” a bodega owner behind the cash register told InsiderNJ, and at a Saturday street fair called the Food Truck, a Bayonne diehard named Anne within eyeshot of Avenue E construction told InsiderNJ, “I’ve lived here my whole life, and I’ve never seen this much change all at once.
“There are still a lot of Polish,” she added. “Not as many Irish. I know, because I’m Irish.”
Doolan’s Auto Service stood on the site where now the rough, cinder block outline of a five-story residential building rises.
The site had been vacant for a decade.
At the street fair amid tank tops and shish kabobs, a cluster of incumbent council people awaiting the arrival of Mayor Jimmy Davis – Salvatore Gullace, Gary La Pelusa, Juan Perez – stood in front of a stage where a cover band cranked Smash Mouth.
“The Davis Team is bringing Bayonne into the 21st Century,” Perez said. “We got 2,700 new jobs. We’re getting the ferry. We’re getting a Costco. We’re getting a Starbucks. And we’ve gotten beautiful development. We’re going, baby.”
It sounds great.
What could possibly stand in the way of progress?
Or so argue Davis and company, bolstered behind the scenes by hard-nosed business administrator turned campaign manager Joe DeMarco, whose ability to tick people comes attached to a hard-to-argue-with competency tag.
“We don’t have to promise anything, because we’ve done it,” DeMarco told InsiderNJ.
Nine days from today, the voters of the Hudson County city will go to the polls to determine whether they want the retired cop mayor and his crew for another four years or if they want to recruit former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell (D-31) and company and signal a new direction for Bayonne.
Confident and energized by a record of development enhancement and a new vibe they claim was on full display at Saturday’s street fair, the Davis band insists O’Donnell has simply coalesced all the perennial anti-establishment gadflies into a disgruntled kamikaze brotherhood.
Armed with significant labor support, including the Laborers, Carpenters, and Engineers, O’Donnell says the dimensions of Davis’ new Bayonne don’t tell the deeper story.
At around the time that Davis arrived, the former fireman and tavern owner, son of a cop, went house to house in the residential area of Avenue A.
“What we’re hearing at the doors is people don’t hate development, but they’re worried about how they’re going to pay their bills,” O’Donnell, walking with his council candidates, told InsiderNJ. “Where’s the tax abatement for the local guy? Most people don’t know this, in 2014, in the dark of night, this administration canceled the residential improvement abatement. That’s a five-year abatement for people who want to put money into their homes.
“The fact of the matter is, they have forgotten about the one by three peninsula that we all live in,” he added, referring to Team Davis. “I’m not worried about people from Brooklyn and Staten Island. I’m not worried about building gondolas for people to come here from Staten Island. The response has been tremendous. I don’t think there’s an aura of inevitability. People are tired of the high taxes, they’re tired of the filthy streets, and they know the plan that this mayor’s put forward is an absolute risk that could cripple us.”
O’Donnell knows these streets of his hometown as well as anyone.
In 2007, he helped run the assembly campaign of future Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti, a former Menendez state director looking to break into elected office. Trying to maintain the influence and political empire of former Speaker Joe Doria while shoring up Menendez as well as augmenting his own career Chiravalloti lost a heartbreaker, while O’Donnell came up with the 2010 election of Mark Smith to the mayoralty. The x’s and o’s-prone O’Donnell was so instrumental in Smith’s victory, and his friendship with the new mayor so stout, Smith – in a twist of irony – gave Chiaravalloti’s one-time campaign crew chief the nod for a vacant assembly seat.
Those memories came back on the same streets walked by the late Judge Pat Conaghan, who died earlier this month, who ran against Smith unsuccessfully in 2008 (for the unexpired term of Mayor Doria) and again in 2010, four years before Davis triumphed; and near the house of former U.S. Rep. Cornelius Edward “Neil” Gallagher, now 94.
In 2011, O’Donnell went to the Obama White House for a soiree and bumped into Dick Codey.
“What are you doing here?” the assemblyman asked him.
“I’m the former Governor of New Jersey,” Codey said. “What are you doing here?”
At the bar toward the end of the evening, O’Donnell ran into MSNBC Host Chris Matthews, who became interested in the conversation when O’Donnell mentioned he was from Bayonne. Matthews told O’Donnell that his first job was for Gallagher. The future Hardballer technically worked for the Bayonne congressman for 24 hours, but never forgot the favor Gallagher’s office did for him by telling him not to bother to show up for work, as the boss was under indictment.
Matthews respected that, felt indebted to Gallagher for it, and told O’Donnell as much.
But Smith and O’Donnell – after a stretch of local power – would run afoul of Menendez, whose allies recruited police department rival and political newcomer Davis to run against Smith in 2014. In another piece of political irony, the local teachers bucked Smith hard, on the heels of O’Donnell’s statewide defiance of then-Governor Chris Christie’s public pensions and benefits overhaul.
Davis beat Smith in a runoff election.
“The last election was pretty good,” Gullace told InsiderNJ, noting the value of then knocking off Smith – who’s since been cocooned into the same Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) establishment that backs Davis – to give them a big leg up on resisting O’Donnell.
After that election, Chiravalloti supplanted O’Donnell in the Assembly, arguably most convingly restoring the Doria link (for the former speaker upheld the city’s arc to the classics) to academia. More importantly politically, a 2018 Menendez – reanimated after the federal government tossed corruption charges against him – not only wants Davis protected, but the additional delight of seeing O’Donnell flattened.
It seems like not too heavy a lift with the incumbent generating organizational support and riding the development message in a town long thought to be perennial dark ages holdover.
But O’Donnell disagrees.
Moving fast on his feet through the streets, he stayed on a rank-and-file residential message.
“When a mayor spends $10,000 on a feasibility study that my 13-year old son could have told you is not going to work – it’s a problem,” said the former assemblyman.
He’s outraised Davis, had a $117,000 to $95,000 cash advantage in late July, hammers a “courage and commitment” mantra over an undercurrent story about Davis allegedly inappropriately repeatedly text messaging a female city employee, has that key labor backing – and few trust polling that shows a crushing incumbent victory. “It’s possible there could be a runoff this time,” acknowledged a Davis backer, on condition of anonymity, noting that Smith beat Davis 49-47%, failing to secure 50% plus one, then fumbled away his advantage in the 2014 runoff election.
“I just think that this time, Jimmy will have a wider margin over O’Donnell if he doesn’t get to 50% plus one,” the source added.
Davis in shades downtown wandered the crowd.
He arrived to ride the full upswing of pop tune-ingested euphoria.
Good feeling dominated.
Beanbags flew in the air.
The suits in the glued-together party establishment circle up front didn’t look threatening, but amiably accessible.
“This is what the city of Bayonne’s all about,” the mayor told InsiderNJ. “The last three and a half years we’ve done all these different fairs, and we’ve had this kind of a crowd for the last three and a half years. The next four years are only going to get better.
“You can figure out who’s going to win that one,” he added.
The people in historically the ultimate Judas Priest and Deep Purple town then watched Davis bound energetically onto the outdoor sound stage and introduce a Jersey Shore band incongruously attired in plaid shirts and horn-rimmed glasses – warmly received – called the Nerds, who promptly went into their rendition, welcomed with placid open-minded expectation – and even recognition, of Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.