In our modern-day political environment, there are fewer and fewer people that truly appreciate the value of precinct-by-precinct/district-by-district power politics. There are two political gladiators who have understood this lost art. Peter Murphy and Brian Stack are two of a dying breed that have mastered this practice, and more to the point, have and will continue to make or break political careers using this unique and difficult yet very powerful technique.
In one of my first columns I wrote a profile of Steven N Adubato, who I believe was the Master of power politics (read here), let’s break it down.
Refresher: The North Ward of Newark has a well-earned reputation of muscling to provide record vote margins in county committee elections, Newark municipal elections, primaries and general elections. Big Steve fostered the reputation as time and time again the North Ward would gin up 90 % of the given vote in any election. The precinct captains were given ‘suicide numbers’ and if they failed to deliver those staggering vote goals, it would not end well for that unfortunate county committee person or leader. The term ‘suicide number’ was coined as a not-so subtle suggestion that if you didn’t hit those numbers, you were better off in some other world. Very few ever failed to deliver those suicide numbers.
Let’s start with Peter Murphy: There are many great and vivid stories about Peter Murphy, but I can only write about two that readily come to mind. Peter has made and ended more political careers than can be counted. It needs to be fully understood that Peter’s great love, his first and primary interest, is to get meaningful jobs for his blue and grey collar brothers and sisters. He relishes the prospect of locating and landing life changing opportunities for someone in need. I first met Peter Murphy sometime in the mid 1990’s. Then in his twenties, Peter was forced to inherit the Chairmanship of a robust Passaic County Republican organization when his dad, Red Murphy, died way too early. Red was on old-school party chair who was ferocious and on par with Big Steve. Red Murphy always delivered big votes – time and time again. It was widely understood then (and now) that Red, like his son today, would shake your hand, seal the deal and you would be assured of two things – the terms of the deal never changed and you were on a winning team. After I became county chair in Essex, Peter and I collaborated on one or two joint party ventures.
First Peter story: In the 1990’s, Peter and I tooled around the GOP County Chair organization after being told that we, as the young upstart chairs, should mind our own business and support anything the then-State Party Chair Chuck Haytaian decided. That year, Chuck wanted to support his hand-selected chair from Warren to serve as the next chair of the chairs; we decided to support little known Morris County Chair, Oscar Doyle, for the coveted position. Simply stated, it was unheard of then to challenge the leaders of our grand old party. Peter led the challenge of the stodgy ‘old boys’ network. In a surprise (not to us), Oscar won and people begin to notice that Peter knew how to count. Peter shrewdly selected a candidate without much baggage and slowly worked the county chairs, aligning party slots and making simple deals to get it done.
Second Peter story: Peter’s next high-profile fight was to take on his incumbent Senator, the legendary Senator Joe Bubba in District 34. Senator Bubba was very well known and had served in the senate for the last 16 years. Peter and the good senator had a falling out and Senator Bubba thought that the title SENATOR actually meant he would win any election. Enter machine politics. The year was 1997 and Passaic had 3/4 of that district and Essex County had the remaining share. As leaders of our respective party organizations, Peter and I, after much deliberation, awarded the line to a little-known freeholder, Norm Robertson. Norm couldn’t raise any money but the power of the Murphy machine led the way to a lopsided victory (Robertson 6,203 –Bubba- 3,202). Peter knew the consequences if he lost, he threw the hammer down and went to work. Peter ignited his machine and destroyed Joe Bubba. Peter raised record amounts of money and he personally drove voters to the polls, planted thousands of signs, knocked a few down (only those in a right of way), had challengers at each polling place, held boisterous rallies and handed the victory to his team of challengers. This type of leadership is hardly understood and harder to find. Peter’s legendary vote count out of Totowa (90% for his ticket is not uncommon) and the surrounding towns, when properly engaged, are nearly impossible to beat. Peter has personal and political relationships that cross cut party and geography. He is brilliant, relentless and true to his word. They don’t make power party bosses like this anymore. Peter’s future is Ray-Ban bright as he focuses in on his next political pursuit.
Now to Senate Brian Stack, he is the single most remarkable and hardest working public servant that I ever met. Brian and I first crossed paths in 2004 when he first served in the State Assembly. We both were elected to the Senate in 2007. I will never forget primary night June 5th of 2007 as NJN TV profiled our two-hard fought contested races. Brian has served as Mayor of Union City since 2000 and the title Mayor doesn’t do justice to what he actually does. Brain is the MOST hands on Mayor that has ever existed in New Jersey. One only needs to go to Union City Town Hall, on any given day, to see this “RoboMayor” in action in order to fully appreciate the Tasmanian Devil-like style that keeps Union City as a first-rate city. You first become aware that you are in Union City when you drive on Kennedy Boulevard and you hit the section with the spotless streets that are missing potholes. Brian has totally transformed the City and the schools.
As Mayor and Senator, he pressed many Governors to take a tour so he can make the case for the next million dollars to revamp the high school or improve the roadways or build a park. This full-time mayor works the levers at the local level like no one has never been done before. On any given day, there are droves of constituents lined up as he personally listens and counsels residents on each problem whether it be about jobs, education, electricity, quality of life or anything else. I have witnessed as he walks the parade route only to call out to thousands (yes thousands) of individuals by name. He can pack a rally, on an hour’s notice, with 3,000 to 4,000 volunteer campaign workers and can lead, like the Pied Piper, thousands of voters in record numbers for the agreed upon candidate for county committee, municipal, county, state or federal office. Each and every year, Mayor Stack buys and hands out thousands upon thousands of turkeys to his residents and they are a most grateful people. Mayor Stacks is the most vigilant advocate that Union City (and Hudson County) will ever find. Brian is so genuine when it comes to how much he really cares about his constituents. The incredible political buying power of Senator Stack is even more overwhelming when you understand that his legislative district combines Jersey City and Union City voters. Brian is a powerhouse in Trenton with a well-earned reputation that when he asks for something for his community, he won’t be going away until it is fulfilled. Senator Stack has full command of State and local weaponry and is a dynamic force of unnatural proportion.
One quick anecdotal story about Brian. A couple of years ago, I sat with Brain while waiting for the Senate Judiciary committee to start. It was two days after he won his reelection to the Senate and you would assume he was doing his victory lap, as he won with over 90% of the vote. Not Brian. He was furiously working two phones and a voter list. I asked if he was calling around and thanking voters. He looked at me like I was an idiot and as he was dialing the next number said the following, “I am looking at this list of people who did NOT vote. I take that as I rejection of my candidacy. I’m calling them to ask what I need to do to get their support for the next election.” Boom. Mic Drop. That very action captures the drive, brilliance, relentlessness, tenacity and obsessive nature of Brian Stack – which will propel him to the winner’s circle in any race he chooses to engage in.
I wanted to write about these two seemingly dissimilar individuals to educate the rest of the political world about this dying breed. Peter and Brian are true political leaders who are defined by old-school hard work, gritty and difficult hand to hand combat, unbreakable relationships and prolific fundraising ability. These are individuals who have a steel will that won’t allow them to lose.
The former Republican Senator from LD40, Kevin O’Toole is the Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.