If one considers the root force of the office, Frank Hague, the mayor of Jersey City might as well translate to power. It’s one of the most powerful positions in New Jersey, not simply because of the size of the Hudson city but because of the context of its politics, and the lineage of its frock-coated, side-burned and wet suit-wearing caesars.
It’s been 100 years since Hague took office, and 18 names between his and that of sitting Mayor Steve Fulop, up for reelection this year, and not a man or woman among them who ever graduated to governor, though several tried.
The correspondences among those who held the office – a handful of them in particular – create a local political narrative, which tells the story of the city.
“I see in this century and the last, three mayors – and now four, with Fulop – who were transformational figures,” said former state Senator Bernie Kenny.
The former senator from Hoboken makes the case for Frank Hague, John V. Kenny, Gerry McCann, and Fulop.
Below is a loosely configured consideration of the senator’s argument:
Frank Hague (1917-1947)
Hudson was Republican in the 19th Century, run by railroad bigwigs. But 100,000 Irish immigrants suddenly in the streets changed that political dynamic fast, and it was Hague – with his grammar school level education – who jumped at the head of the parade. Frank “I am the law” Hague (pictured above with his hand-picked successor) galvanized the Irish in Jersey City, ran the northern politics of the state of New Jersey, and helped springboard FDR into the White House. he’s the boss figure against whom all others are measured.
John V. Kenny (1949-1953)
A ward heeler, Kenny knew enough about the Hague empire to take it on, which he did, famously defeating Hague’s hand-picked guy, Frank Eggers, in what Assemblyman Tom Giblin calls one of the greatest New Jersey Irish-American political match-ups of all-time. According to Bernie Kenny, Mayor Kenny (the men are cousins) seized on the WWII veterans coming back from overseas and organized beyond the dimensions of the Irish American population to bring in Italians, Pols, Jews and others. He broke the political stranglehold of the Irish under Hague. “They all start as reformers,” Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack once told InsiderNJ. So did Kenny. But following his single term as mayor, he played the Hague-like role of boss to the hilt, rotating a stable of successors at will, and bringing along guys like Tommy Whelan, for example, and doing his part to control Hudson’s place in the Trenton stratosphere. He ultimately flamed out as part of the same so-called Hudson Eight corruption kickback scheme that doomed Whelan, leaving the legacy of a reformer who ended up impaled on the very punji stakes he sought to eradicate. Remembered for constantly rotating two quarters in his left hand.
Thomas Whelan (1963-1971)
Like Union City’s Bill Musto, Whelan was a war hero. Also like Musto, he got jammed up. He embodied the kind of WWII patriot prized and used by Kenny in public office. Whatever virtues Whelan embodied ended up on the altar of his indictment on federal conspiracy and extortion charges, part of a multi-million-dollar political kickback scheme, which also sank Kenny. He’s remembered as the the only two term mayor under the Kenny regime. No one else could bear laboring under John V’s whip.
Paul T. Jordan (1971-1977)
A medical doctor, Jordan was the Brett Schundler of the 1970s. This was a pioneering professional human being and, in a sense, really the new beginning of Jersey City, according to Hudson County GOP Chairman Jose Arango. He wasn’t a creature of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) so much as he was a real person, Arango argued. But others install him on the continuum as a concocted reaction to the Hudson Eight meltdown – a manufactured HCDO public reaction to the Kenny-Whelan crackup. He wasn’t a partisan guy but he was ambitious, and made the same mistake others who occupied the office of Hague made. His 1977 run for governor proved inauspicious, as he crapped out of the Democratic Primary against incumbent Governor Brendan T. Byrne – the same year he lost his reelection bid for mayor.
Tommie Smith (1977-1981)
He was a machine politician who got the gubernatorial bug and even went so far as to eat muskrat in an attempt to prove his fitness for Drumthwacket. But the guv run proved a huge mistake for a guy who impressed his constituency locally as a tough guy every man. Even his detractors who dismiss him as a typical big city Democrat acknowledge that he was colorful. This was the guy, after all, who tried to go for a knockout in an exhibition match-up with heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali. Boss Wally Sheil – who wanted to be mayor – pulled the plug on Smith by convincing the excitable mayor to run for governor so Sheil could take his place in local office. But another transformational moment was about to occur in Jersey City.
Gerry McCann (1981-1985; 1989-1992)
Super strong. Smart. Elected mayor at 31, the voracious McCann took over the county. According to Bernie Kenny, McCann outworked and outhustled Wally Sheil, leading the baby boomers to finish off the last vestiges of John V. Kenny’s WWII era in Jersey City politics. He had tremendous moxie – and vision, too, as he set the stage for Jersey City’s development of the Gold Coast. Both in terms of personal style and work product, he’s the perfect transition figure from old to new. On the one hand he’s the closest thing the modern era has to the original Frank Hague, while development during his time laid the groundwork for contemporary Jersey City. He got ahead of himself, of course, a victim of his own hubris, which landed him in the can. But he stands out as an undisputed pragmatic political talent.
Bret Schundler (1992-2001)
Every senior citizen wanted his or her grandchild to marry perfect citizen Schundler, who drove a little red convertible around the city and made such a splash early – educated, rich, young, concerned – that the New York Post ran a piece predicting a President Schundler. Having won a special election with a minority of the vote – essentially he backed into office out of the tatters of the McCann era – he deployed a battery of 35 deputy mayors, one for every community in town. Like others on this list, his ambition for higher office arguably got the better of him, as he revealed conservative political views in a Republican Primary that showed him to be out of step with local politics. If he hadn’t run for governor he could have easily won a third term, but many in the city held the run against him and wouldn’t take him back. In a sense, he’s the perfect baton bearer – in terms of ambition – between Paul T. Jordan and Fulop.
Glenn Cunningham (2001-2004)
Immensely popular, the U.S. Marine and former U.S. Marshal had a built-in base as a city cop who literally came up the hard way: walking a beat. In his anti-establishment battles, the people-power, law and order-molded and fiscally conservative mayor energized the city’s south-side African American population and made local household names of political operatives Joe Cardwell and Bobby Jackson. Mayor Cunningham fearlessly tousled with the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO), and routinely arm wrestled Hudson powerhouse Bob Menendez. Great sense of humor – and of history. His adoration of Jersey City was such that he had no ambition to be governor, and in fact, had to be forced into running for the state senate.
Jerry Healy (2004-2013)
In a bruising business, Healy is recalled – and continues to be enjoyed – as “a helluva nice guy.” No one could really dislike the former judge and songster, who rendered Sinatra credibly, at parties and social functions. More importantly – and even confoundingly – in a business beset by opportunists and self-promoters, Healy had no ego. The old school guy just didn’t seem impressed with himself or eager to talk about himself. In that regard he was a true amiable oddball. Part of his legacy, of course, includes the lockups of key staff members who politicked for him when he ran for reelection in 2009, a headline-fest that weakened Healy and simultaneously bulked up Governor Chris Christie (a former U.S. attorney challenging for governor in 2009) and left the mayor all but mortally wounded in time for Fulop to pick him off in 2013.
Steve Fulop (2013-)
Schundler. Smith. Jordan. One wonders if those names rattled in Fulop’s brain as he tried to figure out how to map a statewide run for governor. They were all city hall predecessors whose own ambitions for higher office resulted in election crack-ups and eventual wash-outs from politics. Fulop last year appeared ready to jump feet first into the gubernatorial game before former Ambassador to Germany Phil Murphy talked him down, and supplanted him as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination. Now faced with challengers Bill Matsikoudis and Charlie Mainor, Fulop looks like he’s in cruise control toward local reelection – but has he harnessed the dreaded Jersey City curse of higher office ambition – or merely delayed an inevitable run? Regardless of what happens next in his career, Fulop represents the last transformational piece in the city’s history. Hague harnessed the growing Irish population; Kenny harnessed the burgeoning ethnic American WWII generation; McCann grabbed the baby boomers, and now Fulop has the yuppies as the city explodes with the development growth first envisioned by McCann.
- Bill Matsikoudis
- Bill Musto
- Bob Menendez
- Bobby Jackson
- Brendan Byrne
- Brett Schundler
- Brian Stack
- Charles Mainor
- Chris Christie
- Frank Hague
- Gerry McCann
- Glenn Cunningham
- Hudson County
- Hudson County Democrats
- Jerry Healy
- Joe Cardwell
- Paul Jordan
- Steve Fulop
- Wally Sheil
Click here for the full Insider Index