Cureton Takes the Sheriff’s Office Oath in Bergen County

HACKENSACK – This year’s sheriff’s election in Bergen County was an election that wasn’t supposed to happen.

But after Sheriff Michael Saudino resigned in the wake of bigoted comments, Anthony Cureton of Englewood won a special election on Nov. 6 and was sworn-in Tuesday before swarms of onlookers and supporters.

Cureton, who spent 25 years with the Englewood Police Department, is also a past chair of the county branch of the NAACP. When reporters observed after the ceremony on the steps of the Bergen County Courthouse that the NAACP at times has had strained relations with law enforcement, Cureton did not challenge that contention. But he said part of his job as sheriff is breaking down walls between law enforcement and all segments of society.

The term, sheriff, harkens back to the romantic times of Wyatt Earp and Dodge City.

But in contemporary New Jersey, a county sheriff is not “the law,” as he may have been in another time and place. The prosecutor is a county’s chief law enforcement official and there are, of course, many municipal police departments. Probably the most consequential part of a sheriff’s job in most counties is overseeing courthouse security and running the county jail.

Cureton, who grew emotional at times, thanked his family and also his good fortune in becoming  Bergen County’s first African-American sheriff. He noted that the county demographics were not in his favor, Only about 7 percent of the county’s population of nearly one million is black.

The raw demographics may have been problematic. But Cureton had something more valuable on his side – he was running as a Democrat in what turned out to be a very good year for Democrats. His election really wasn’t in doubt.

But the election itself was. John Hogan, the county clerk, called the election “challenging.”

Few would argue. Saudino resigned in mid-September, leaving very little time for a sheriff’s race to be organized. Moreover, county officials had to fend off a lawsuit seeking to cancel the sheriff’s vote on the grounds the governor should have appointed a successor to fill out the remainder of Saudino’s term.
Saudino, who switched parties from Republican to Democrat in the midst of his tenure, was not mentioned by name.

But there were certainly a few hard-to-miss references to the departed sheriff. One was Hogan’s quip about a challenging election. And then there were the remarks of state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal.
In saluting the men and women of the sheriff’s office, Grewal said, “When their leadership stepped down, they stepped up.”

There was some irony here, not only in Grewal’s words, but in his mere presence.

The Attorney General had a role – if that’s the right term – in the series of remarks that resulted in Saudino’s ouster.

In a tape recording made last January, but which didn’t surface until about seven months later, Saudino is heard saying that Grewal only got his job because he wears a “turban,” and that legalizing pot (a goal of Governor Murphy) would encourage “the blacks to come in, do whatever the (expletive) they want.
Clearly mindful of these comments, Freeholder Chairman Thomas Sullivan praised the forward-thinking of voters in electing an African-American to run the Bergen County Sheriff’s Office.

The ceremonies included comments by both Congressmen Bill Pascrell, D-Paterson and Josh Gottheimer, D-Wyckoff.

In stressing that all is not fine and dandy when it comes to race, Pascrell mentioned a special senate election in Mississippi that is starting to get national attention. After the Republican candidate. Cindy Hyde-Smith, seemed to joke about attending a “public hanging.”  This, remember, is Mississippi, so public hangings are not necessarily topics of revelry.

Cureton didn’t respond publicly to Pascrell’s comments.

Rather, he used his speech to express “love” for Bergen County and to thank his supporters, friends and family for his success. And after that, he said, there wasn’t really much more to say.

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