EDISON – If the natural topography of New Jersey made for a guerrilla-beneficial battleground during the Revolutionary War, the political establishment in a pandemic and single party-softened atmosphere now benefits from concentrated peace-time bureaucracies, politicians who double as push-button instruments of power, and sprawl tactics that turn sleepy towns into corporate, semi-nonsensical spill-zones.
As mayoral candidate Sam Joshi blankets – one of his Oak Tree Road signs looks bigger than the house
it fronts – Edison with reminders of his powerful backers from within the upper echelons of the Democratic Party, the allies of rival Mahesh Bhagia (pictured on Monday, top) pray for an insurrection. Not many candidates can beat the coveted Democratic Party line in this state, and Joshi and the Middlesex County Democratic Committee know the particular strength of that bond in a gubernatorial election year.
So does Bhagia, the meticulous and well-organized chairman of the local Edison Democratic Organization, infamously bigfooted by its countywide counterpart against the backdrop of bigger power plays with, conceivably, inner party sanctum consequences.
The Joshi Campaign relied on numerous heavyweights in the closing weeks of its mayoral bid to underscore Joshi’s party alliances. Most significantly, a grinning, backslapping Governor Phil Murphy – himself on the line in the June 8th Democratic Primary – campaigned for Joshi. Murphy’s fascination with Edison extends beyond merely his own craving for a prescribed power boost from Middlesex County, in the forward constellation of significant political counites in New Jersey. His political minders see Middlesex as part of a larger statewide strategy to potentially relieve the governor – and the party – from the longstanding iron grip of South Jersey dependency.
It might not be that easy, however. Middlesex supposedly wants to be the new power player on the block, but they actually have older cobwebs in the closet than South Jersey, and maybe a few more complications, as the natural imperial heirs to the jailed and released former Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman John Lynch. Of course, those foundations can cut both ways if they want to supplant the South to rule (or at least fool) the roost.
Going back to 2009, South Jersey (Cape May, Salem, Atlantic, Cumberland, Gloucester, Ocean, Camden,
and Burlington) maintained an upper negotiating hand in its dealings with mostly divided counties to northward, and continually re-secured the senate presidency, while Essex, Hudson, and Middlesex all competed for the less potent speakership. First sworn into office in 2018, Murphy faced an especially antagonistic Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3), who blamed the new governor for failing to dissuade the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) from trying to relieve Sweeney of power in the 2017 general election in the most expensive legislative race in United States history.
For his first two plus years as governor, Murphy fought Sweeney, who consistently demonstrated the reach he and his region maintained by persuading (or squeezing, through a variety of political devices) much of the rest of the Trenton political establishment to stand with him against the neophyte Democratic executive’s demands.
Gradually, and particularly under the front office political stewardship of Chief of Staff George Helmy, Murphy made Middlesex a priority. If northern counties Hudson, Essex, Bergen and Passaic initially gave Murphy the edge he needed to win, the governor came to believe firmly in solidifying Middlesex’s fealty. In response to his charm offensive, Middlesex played it coy, mostly leaning South in a nod to the established power behind Sweeney, and in a nod to the mechanical realities of New Jersey politics and government. But by the end of 2019, when Democratic Party Chairman John Currie and his successor LeRoy Jones struck a deal for Jones to succeed Currie on the statewide political throne later this month, and did so without coordinating with South Jersey, Team Murphy could see a future in which the north, soldered to Middlesex, could more convincingly keep Sweeney and the South in abeyance.
Maybe even change the dynamics of party power.
Middlesex batted its eyelashes.
In a sign of the changing times, Currie appeared in Edison this cycle in support of Joshi. That wouldn’t have happened two years ago, when the entire Middlesex Party delegation and all its adherents lined up against his bid for another term as chairman of the party. Not to be outflanked by a front office-Middlesex lovefest in case of a later throne room fight, and in a signal of Edison’s strategic importance right now, more so than any other town in play locally, Sweeney also threw in with Joshi. A source told InsiderNJ he even overheard powerful South Jersey voices, or one behind-the-scenes voice, sounding in Edison on behalf of Joshi.
If Bhagia and Joshi grappled over local issues, the most powerful men in the state jockeyed to get behind Joshi so they could brag about being with the winner come June 9th.
Rearing his head a little, Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop even rattled around his native town of Edison in support of Joshi.
Well, everyone was doing it, after all.
Power consolidated behind the vice president of the Edison council made for the appearance of an especially frozen-out Bhagia. It also gave him an argument to make about how the establishment in this state could quickly come together to protect itself at the expense of real people otherwise known as Edison taxpayers.
As for Murphy’s grander design (his backing of Joshi and other establishment candidates looks a lot like the video he made honoring Essex County Sheriff Armando Fontoura), if the governor and his minions had undertaken – through a battleground like Edison – the incremental task of subduing the South’s hold on the Statehouse, the South, ever that master manipulator of county chairs who double as Trenton lobbyists and Trenton lawmakers who hold public jobs and contracts determined by the South, might argue with Murphy’s endgame. As much as Murphy’s allies see – or want to see – their consolidation of an alliance with Middlesex as the death knell of South Jersey power, too many deep ties abide. What looks like a united Middlesex in almost all political weather, might become suddenly a Manchurian moment for one, or two, if the target becomes the South.
Power dies hard in Jersey.
In the midst of this Trenton pressure cooker, Middlesex County Democratic Committee Chairman Kevin McCabe to date has revealed both the classic Frank Hague-like predilections of a county boss and – critically – the delicate nature of Middlesex’s place within the larger grid of party politics. With its own foundation of Craig Coughlin as speaker of the General Assembly, McCabe networked alliances (the chairman occupies a seat on the powerful Port Authority, works for lobbying firm River Crossing Strategies, and formerly served the once powerful Carpenters union), and front office love, Middlesex plays, as always, a game of seesaw. With his Goldman Sachs roots and national ties and aspirations, the governor looks like a happy-go-lucky short-timer, compared to that entrenched inestimable, octopus of boss politics headed by George Norcross III. His administration radiates a certain ambivalence, or division on the inner workings of Middlesex. Following the appearance of a story that alluded to Murphy’s own attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, looking into the financial/political operations of Middlesex County Democratic Party consigliere Gary Taffet, Murphy COS Helmy issued a gushing social media embrace of Taffet. Subsequently, some cries could be heard directing Grewal’s attention to Bhagia.
The South was giggling uncontrollably.
Not too long ago, Grewal was supposedly prodding his prosecutorial flashlight in their direction.
Now, with a week to go before Election Day, Edison fulfilled the role of political frontline for McCabe, and in a test of his power and influence ultimately, the apparent front line for the establishment Democratic Party in New Jersey.
On the ground, Team Bhagia gave the appearance of that most organized guerilla army in the state, with perhaps a shot at upsetting the odds, but a longshot at that, given the history and given the amount of money ($121K as of Joshi’s last ELEC filing) insulating the machine locally in this election cycle. They want to believe the public will express outrage in the face of an overreach of power, but they are simultaneously alert to the vicious and thorough intentions of power, and possibly, cannot quite untangle themselves from its associations.
If they represent taxpayers who own businesses, well, those businesses depend on not taking up rolling
pins and pitchforks against the political power structure. When Mohin Patel rails against the establishment, a source cringes in a confessional tone to InsiderNJ, “I don’t want anything to happen to Patty. I back Mahesh, kind of – but I love my senator. [State Senator Pat Diegnan (D-18)].”
But Bhagia also has truly built something, and in his own quiet and unassuming way, represents a genuine locus of real influence.
By slow degrees, the Indian population of Edison rose to power over the last decade, finally achieving its full political flowering with the election of Bhagia to the local party chairmanship last year. Bhagia’s allies also took 5-4 control of the school board, thus laying the groundwork for his march into Town Hall in time for the 2021 mayoral election season.
When earlier this year Bhagia easily won (101-32-7) the local Democratic Party line, McCabe – watching his advance with some alarm (how humiliating it would be to lose the mayoralty in Edison’s biggest town; what would George say?) – let him sit on his victory.
For a little while, anyway.
After all, Bhagia won the backing of the party fair and square.
Wouldn’t want to appear unnecessarily undemocratic.
The party members of Edison wanted Bhagia?
Let them have their fun.
Then blog posts trickled into the public bloodstream, reminding people of a racist 2017 flyer with supposed ties to Bhagia, softening up the Democratic nominee in a series of innuendo-driven drips lacking the flourish of a smoking gun. The negative buzz around Bhagia produced sufficient gossip to enable McCabe, on April 7th, to make his move, and expunge the mayoral hopeful from the county Democratic line.
It looked like good government, right?
A party chairman protecting the people from an out-of-control race-war inducing madman.
He even had the go-code primed for an Indian American replacement to supplant moldering incumbent Mayor Tom Lankey, who, with the crack-up of the Suez deal in his recent political past, would have been an arguably unfortunate message bearer in the face of all that brick and spade work by the Indian community under Bhagia’s local leadership.
Ever the big tent-conscious ringmaster, McCabe tapped party man Joshi to block Bhagia, in an all-Indian Democratic Primary.
But it still felt oddly wrong.
Outside of the halls of power wherein the same players continually ingest and re-ingest and grin through the same dead air, it rankled, or so Bhagia insisted.
Exercising an almost unprecedented show of power, McCabe, of course, benefited from a Democratic Party-delicious confluence of anemic media conditions and New Jersey’s system of bossism, but also from the fact that the governor had little in-the-weeds political power, and would be willing to basically sign off on whatever Middlesex wants. If the corporate-grounded Murphy had ascended through opposite means as local Mayor James McGreevey, he would still rely on a structure in part furnished by the McGreevey and Lynch era, and building blocks like McCabe, who rose through the ranks after initially serving as chief of staff to then-Woodbridge Mayor McGreevey.
The gap between Goldman Sachs and City Hall was not so far away after all.
But still the question nagged.
Why did McCabe need to override the local party process?
The boss’s trusty allies and functionaries provided the easy answer furnished by McCabe’s cronies: Bhagia had engineered the racist flyer in the 2017 elections and had to go.
This was about ethics, not politics.
This was morality and decency, not process.
The trouble, though, again, was no one had any hard evidence that Bhagia cooked up the flyer.
For his part, presiding over a Memorial Day barbecue on Monday with a coterie of his closest friends and allies, Bhagia made the case that the Middlesex County Democratic Committee chairman and his allies – the grey husk of the old, half submerged McGreevey-Lynch warship – stood to gain by making sure that he stays out of office, far from Town Hall.
McCabe works for River Crossing Strategies, which includes among its clients American Water, which until recently handled the North Edison water supply. The company paid the lobbying firm $90,000 in 2020. River Crossing Strategies also received $48,000 in 2020 from Federal Business Centers, the entity responsible for Raritan Center, which, coincidentally, houses the headquarters of the Middlesex County Democratic Committee, McCabe’s base of operations.
Bhagia sees it as a lurid example of corporate and party power combined ultimately in a freezeout of taxpayers, whose town resembles a warehouse-riddled and overpacked corporate playground. A businessman, hotelier and family man with two daughters, the mayoral candidate insists on a new era of financial accountability in Edison, presenting a spare, easy-to-digest platform including promises of a zero percent tax increase and Edison’s fair share.
Population 100,447 compared to 99,585 for neighboring Woodbridge, Edison paid $69 million in county taxes, compared to $42 million forked over by Woodbridge, and yet the town lacks amenities enjoyed by its sister city, including a community center, new high school to offset overcrowding, and police and fire improvements. “Tell Sam Joshi and Tom Lankey to stop sending our money to Woodbridge,” reads a Bhagia flyer. Then – in a nod to River Crossing Strategies’ influence with “big corporations, warehouses and special interests,” another mailer asks voters” How is this fair? Under Mayor Lankey and Councilman Sam Joshi’s administration, they pay $3 per square foot and we pay $7 per square foot.”
“We need to have a change in the strategy,” the candidate told InsiderNJ as his army of door-knockers – including local influencer Satish Poondi – wolfed down hamburgers and hot dogs in the Indian pop music-flooded parking lot behind local party headquarters.
“Taxes have gone up more than 15% over the last four years and the county taxes went up ten percent last year during the pandemic,” he said. “Woodbridge taxes, comparatively, only went up 3.5% last year. We have got almost nothing back from the county. We should have our own community center and our own arts center.”
The ties at the top include not just River Crossing and its impressive aggregation of corporate power, but also vendors like county party consigliere and insurance broker Taffet and lawyer Bill Northgrave.
“The county wants to control the vendors that have been running this town forever,” Bhagia said. “The law director, the finance director, and the engineering director are all vendors. How can we have vendors in the director level positions? Township employees should be running these departments. The county wants to control the vendors.”
The nexus amounted to a bell gong for a COVID-19 and always politically complacent state largely otherwise unchallenged elsewhere. River Crossing cultivates a deep client base, including in Jersey City, Camden (Murphy today supposedly backed establishment candidate Mayor Victor Carstarphen, who supplanted ‘retired’ former Mayor Frank Moran a month shy of Election Day, in a tweet later deleted, according to Politico reporter Matt Friedman) and, significantly, with Horizon Blue Cross-Blue Shield, which last year in the 11th hour, benefited from a massive restructuring initiative backed by Coughlin, Murphy, and Sweeney in the ultimate display of gratuitous party muscle flexing. Plus, and this should not be lost amid the horn blowing in the halls of Trenton as everyone tries to put
his fingerprints on Joshi’s campaign: no other ground-level 2021 insurrectionist had quite put in the amount of organizing time as Bhagia, or had, to date, his level of success. In his own way, he had some of the anti-county radiance once demonstrated locally by an entity like the Elizabeth Board of Education in its 2011 heyday. If he doesn’t win next week, he will at least have demonstrated, by virtue alone of having roused the entire party establishment to come out against him, a Rafael Fajardo-like willingness to pioneer.
Fajardo spent years organizing Latinos against the county, forcing the bosses to start empowering their numbers in legislative seats. So too, as he rose, did Bhagia and the trendlines he embodied, require the county to make adjustments. They would, of course, argue that he personally had
nothing to do with it, but his allies, roaming the streets of Edison in search of voters with a vengeance, would vigorously push back. The organization made sure to supplant Nancy Pinkin, for example, with Sterley Stanley, an Indian American, in a nod to the times, and with the residue of McCabe’s 2014 upending of Upendra Chivukula still fresh in the minds of some Bhagia buglers. To be fair, Joshi notes that he has organized for years locally and prides himself on building alliances where others lack tact.
“I am independent,” the mayoral candidate told InsiderNJ last month. “No one speaks for me. I do have relationships at the local, state, and federal levels. I will leverage those relationships to bring more to Edison. I’m ready to hit the ground running. … I can quickly pick up the phone [and connect with powerful influencers on behalf of the town].”
For his part, “Our team is ready to fight the establishment,” Bhagia said. “Our opponent, through his votes on the council, is responsible for giving no-bid contracts to vendors totaling $1.5 million. We oppose that. The other side is not happy about that, but we have to do what’s good for our residents.”
Do the residents care?
Are the welding of Murphy (at least one of his operatives will be in Edison on Election Day) to the machine in the form of a competent candidate like Joshi and sufficient questions concerning the insurrectionary Bhagia too much for a basically nascent local organization to overcome? At the very least, heading into Tuesday, Bhagia (“He wouldn’t hurt a mouse,” his wife – dumbfounded by some of the establishment-backed attacks – told InsiderNJ) – trusting in the capacities of public outrage to overcome the line – had the very nearly total and undivided attention of power, for nowhere else presented a firm battle line like the one drawn here in Edison.
- Armando Fontoura
- Bill Northgrave
- Craig Coughlin
- Edison Democratic Committee
- Elizabeth Board of Education
- Frank Hague
- Frank Moran
- Gary Taffet
- George Helmy
- George Norcross III
- Goldman Sachs
- Gurbir Grewal
- James McGreevey
- John Currie
- John Lynch
- Mahesh Bhagia
- Middlesex County Democratic Committee
- Mohin Patel
- Nancy Pinkin
- Rafael Fajardo
- Raritan Center
- River Crossing Strategies
- Sam Joshi
- Satish Poondi
- South Jersey
- Sterley Stanley
- Steve Sweeney
- Tom Lankey
- Upendra Chivukula
- Victor Carstarphen
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