If you were to ask – for some reason – what’s the difference between Hawthorne and Hoboken in political activity, the answer would resemble something like this: in Hoboken, there’s really no political off-season. In Hawthorne, there’s really no political on-season.
To be fair, the leafy burb has seen political battles over the years. There’s a history of generational turnover, like any other locality. In the early 1970s, during the legendary reign of forty-year Mayor Louis Bay, a young John Girgenti wrested control of the Democratic municipal committee and then in 2010, control was wrested from him in a hard-fought battle. And in 2011, a Tea Party-aligned slate challenged the GOP ward council incumbents (who all handily survived). In the 1997, Fred Criscitelli beat Mayor Paul Engelhardt (Sheriff Ed’s brother) in a GOP primary. In 2005, Criscitelli himself lost in a primary to Patrick Botbyl 47%-53%. When Botbyl abruptly resigned in 2008, the Council President became Acting Mayor, who went on to win a special election (squeaking by with a margin of 117 votes) in the Obama presidential year. Thus in America began the era of Obama, and in Hawthorne, the era of Goldberg.
A jeweler and business owner, Goldberg is the archetypical suburban mayor, considered affable and laid-back by most, the guy who once sported a signature ponytail before cutting it for a charitable cause. When Hawthorne was rated by Movoto as the fourth most boring place in New Jersey, Goldberg spun it as a source of pride, telling the South Passaic Daily Voice in early February that ‘I like being boring, because that means no one’s paying attention to us.’
There is attention, sometimes, when the town is raptured in political uncertainty. When Goldberg first was elected in 1997 to the Council during the Criscitelli year, there was first a recount. Down a handful of votes to Gina Pontrelli, he eventually pulled out the win. A decade later, when Botbyl resigned, Goldberg lost the county committee vote to Councilman John Bertollo in a contest for acting mayor, before Bertollo withdrew ten days later, thus giving Goldberg the position. And Hawthorne has acted as a swing town in the past – notably in 2013, when 38th LD Assemblyman Tim Eustace was in an protracted battle for his seat, and the election dragged out for several weeks amid a recount in which Hawthorne’s provisional vote tally was critical. While Eustace didn’t carry Hawthorne, it was enough to put him over the top. Goldberg himself ran for Assembly in 2011 post-redistricting, after Hawthorne was moved out of the 35th and into the all-Bergen 38th and lost its hometown Trenton rep, Senator John Girgenti. He was the high vote-getter, bumping out nearly 2,000 votes.
He’s made an effort over the years to beef up community events. Hawthorne Day has become an all-out event in the fall with vendors, food, music, and a fireworks show. Over the last seven years he’s embarked on a street dedication journey, naming streets for fallen veterans. And his most recently touted accomplishment – in addition to keeping government spending in check – is the building of a bandshell near the municipal pool. And then there’s the lawsuit the town just filed against the county to fight a synthetic turf field that’s being planned for construction in Goffle Brook Park, which is the theme of a recent Goldberg Team mail piece. His supporters argue his tenure has been one of progress while keeping the character of the town intact; his detractors would say there’s too little vision and the town has become anachronistic, to the detriment of it’s potential growth.
Despite winning that special election by a razor-thin margin in 2008, four years later Goldberg defeated Democratic candidate Lois Cuccinello by almost 1,000 votes (3211-2122) out of 5,000 cast, while the three GOP council incumbents won by an average of 550 votes over the three Democratic challengers. Cuccinello was a good get for Democrats – a former 4th Ward councilwoman and freeholder, and union rep. But it was a tough out in the Christie year. The final results were a numerical hourglass: Christie beat Buono in Hawthorne by some 1300 votes. The GOP legislative slate only won by about 500. Then back to a 1,000 vote victory for Goldberg. It’s possible that drop-off for the GOP was due to some Hawthorne voters wanting a legislative check on the then-popular Christie. But when they returned local, they went GOP again. The raw numbers help, to be sure. With just shy of 13,000 registered voters in Hawthorne, nearly 4000 are Republicans and 3700 are Democrats. 5200 are unaffiliated but tend to lean towards the GOP. Either way, the 2013 results proved Goldberg’s electoral strength in town.
Despite the GOP’s structural and numerical advantage in town, there was historically a long-running rift in the town’s GOP leadership, going back to the days of the legendary Gene Myers, then President of the Hawthorne GOP. That rift evolved over time, as leadership roles changed hands, most recently in 2013, when the sitting municipal chair was beaten by Joni Huston. While never spilling out publicly, there’s been tension between the Goldberg wing and the Huston wing.
Enter Frank Giglio.
When it came time to finalize the line in February, the county committee attempted to toss Goldberg out and supplant him with Giglio. They held a no-confidence vote on the mayor. It nearly happened. They couldn’t quite muster the 2/3 majority needed to remove the mayor from the line. But the majority voted against Goldberg: 12 for it; 10 against it. Safe on the line, but perilous in terms of structural support for a brewing primary. In the Hawthorne Press, Goldberg called the move ‘the actions of a rogue municipal leader and a disgruntled police officer.’
Founder of a popular martial arts school in Hawthorne, Giglio retired on April 1st from the police force and filed to run for Mayor the next week. That’s a main issue of contention as Goldberg’s allies make the case that Giglio’s primary motivation for running is that he was denied a promotion last year. Giglio says its not about that. “Rather than go away quietly, I consider myself a man of action. I decided to get involved because I really believe I can make a difference and have a positive impact on the people of the borough I grew up in, and that I am raising my family in.” Yet, the PBA had filed a grievance against the town on Giglio’s behalf seeking a $24,000 cash payment for unused time off – denied by the Council as reported by NorthJersey.com – the type of story that can haunt a candidate heading into Election Day.
As the battle lines were being drawn, there was the Girgenti factor in the back of everyone’s mind.
There were rumblings of a Girgenti mayoral bid for the better part of a year, up until the filing deadline in the beginning of April. First elected in the early 70s to the local school board – and elected Democratic municipal chairman around the same time – he advanced to the Assembly and the Senate and reigned for 35 years. Out of office for a few years, he speculated hard about a mayoral bid. He considered his options. Many local observers – Democrat and Republicans alike – conceded that a Girgenti run would shift the political landscape, and the former Senator would be a tough out for any opponent. They speculated. They considered their options. Girgenti, the thinking went, could capture a significant portion of GOP, Democrat, and independent votes in a general election match-up, no matter if he ran as a on-the-line Democrat or an independent. How do you combat that factor, plus the forty years of name recognition and reputation, and a war-chest north of $225k? Would anyone even want to try?
In the end, though, for Girgenti, it was a no-go.
Despite the failed attempt to oust the king, the primary goes deeper than just differing factions within the GOP. Change in direction vs. consistency. New leadership vs. steady hand. Promises vs. results. The unknown vs. familiarity. Goldberg has establishment support from the town GOP fathers: businessmen, various town board members, and Hawthorne GOP lifers, girding the Mayor through a challenge to his – and their – primacy. They see Giglio as a mere political opportunist, that disgruntled ex-police officer angry that he wasn’t given a promotion. Giglio’s made inroads, though, and has the active support of former Mayor Fred Criscitelli, who twelve years ago himself was felled by a primary challenger, among others.
Heading into primary day, Goldberg has nearly $14,000 COH and Giglio has $3,800 COH. Goldberg has the added advantage of a full slate of incumbent and veteran council-at-large candidates. The Hawthorne Press, the weekly paper, endorsed Goldberg. And he has that establishment support. Giglio has the disadvantage of being buried in the Antarctic region of the ballot, away from anyone or anything else. But he’s been pounding the pavement, and has a following throughout the town. He has a large chunk of the GOP county committee in his corner working for him. It’s not something Goldberg is taking lightly.
They went negative: a black-and-white mailer released portrays Giglio as a political opportunist and insinuating that he prioritized his business interests over protecting the town ‘from speeding cars and those trafficking drugs through town’ as a police officer. To the Giglio camp, it’s a sign of desperation and evidence of the inroads they believe they are making. It’s had an effect on his supporters – riling them up and antagonizing them. One political insider speculated that the mailer would backfire and is already helping to convince some Republicans to change their vote from Goldberg to Giglio. Another countered that theory, saying the mailer defined Giglio, a political novice compared to the veteran Goldberg, in stark terms to a targeted audience he has never cultivated before: the GOP primary electorate. But, as they say, he who goes negative first is losing.
Even Criscitelli, the former Mayor and staunch Giglio advocate and mentor, has come under subtle criticism. In a letter to the editor, Councilman Bruce Bennett wrote “in our recent past, Hawthorne has had a history of opportunistic mayors who promised to make things different but didn’t. Our community doesn’t really need to go through that again.” And a video posted today on Facebook appears to show Giglio lawn signs being stolen at night, and though the perpetrator isn’t clearly identifiable, the candidate attributes it desperation in the mayor’s camp. “They can steal our signs, but they can’t steal our momentum,” he posted.
Social media may make a difference. The majority of the voting Hawthorne GOP primary electorate still tends to be whiter and older than any other segment. Advantage Goldberg. But Giglio’s camp believes they’re breaking through to younger, first-time voters. GOP Chair Huston says “we need to get new people engaged, younger people, and that’s what’s starting to happen. People who’ve never been involved in politics. The younger generation is beginning to get involved.”
And Giglio’s been exceedingly effective at getting his message out through social media. A recent Facebook video garnered over 46,000 views, 150 comments, 600 likes, and 200 shares. Goldberg, who has started putting more videos out on Facebook, in comparison gets on average 2,000 views and a handful of shares. Both have engaged in a ‘battle for the lawns’, as is the usual ‘ground war’ playbook in Hawthorne instead of, say, actual boots-on-the-ground as in other Passaic municipalities. They’ve both held well-attended events and fundraisers over the past few months. And Giglio has been aggressively going door-to-door himself, attending community events, and meeting people – even greeting voters at Hawthorne’s train stop early in the morning.
Giglio believes that the primary is an important one – that the future of the town hangs in the balance. Referring to mayor’s comments that he’s a ‘disgruntled employee’, Giglio says “my opponent is taking the primary race personally” and doesn’t see it as a civil war. He sees it as a necessary changing of the guard, the passing of the torch to a younger generation. “I believe in term limits, and that once a politician is in power too long, they get complacent,” Giglio says.
If past primary election participation is any indication, turnout will be (surprise) low – in the four ward contested GOP primary of 2011, turnout was 29%. This year, of course, there’s a contested GOP gubernatorial race. And there hasn’t been a mayoral primary battle in twelve years, which is sure to bring a few extra voters out. The victor needs somewhere north of 900 votes to win comfortably. Goldberg can reliably count on 500 votes in the bank. They’ve always come out for him, and likely will this time too. Giglio can count on at least a few hundred votes baked in already – the perennial anti-establishment vote and his own personal network. But he has a harder task of rallying his troops to the polls, many for the first time, and actually knowing where he is on the ballot. Endorsed by PCRRO Chairman John Traier, Goldberg has the built-in advantage of being bracketed with LG Kim Guadagno and everyone on down. And Giglio? Well, if the polling places get jammed due to people spending excessive time in the voting booth, his team can take heart because they’re probably trying to figure out just where he is on the ballot.
Heading towards November, whoever wins, the GOP will face the Democratic team, an all-female ticket of veteran candidates: Naomi Collier for mayor and Meaghan Tuohey, who both ran in 2009 during the last year of Girgenti’s municipal chairmanship, and Cindy Frank, who ran in 2015 for ward council. Rounding out the ticket is Jackie Burrows, an active presence in town and first-time candidate. It’s an uphill battle, with the calculation that Republicans in the Trump era are eager for a few fresh faces locally.
Should Giglio win, he’ll be on the top of a ticket with Goldberg’s running mates – Bruce Bennett, Dominic Mele, and John Lane. They’re all veteran incumbents, with no primary opposition, in a comfortable position electorally. So no matter who wins, either way, the Goldberg team members will still be on the ballot, even if Goldberg himself isn’t atop of the ticket. Does the Goldberg team seamlessly become the Giglio team?
“Competition is a good thing,” Gigilio says. Let’s have a race, and let the better man move forward to represent the party and face the Democrats in November. If the people feel that Mr. Goldberg is the better man, then so be it.”
“Wherever we go from here after Tuesday, we need to go forward together as a party,” Chair Huston states. “County committee members and Republicans can support whichever candidate in the primary – and it will make us stronger as a party. There’s a lot of activity going on now, but we’ll need to go forward as Republicans.”
Does going forward mean the end of the Goldberg era, and the beginning of the Giglio era? Or does the sitting mayor break the curse that’s plagued his predecessors: the primary upset. On Tuesday, they’ll both find out.
* After the final results were tallied, Goldberg beat that primary curse and emerged victorious with 1,020 votes to Giglio’s 883, according to the unofficial Passaic County elections results.
- Barack Obama
- Barbara Buono
- Bruce Bennett
- Chris Christie
- Cindy Frank
- Dominic Mele
- Ed Engelhardt
- Frank Giglio
- Fred Criscitelli
- Gene Myers
- Gina Pontrelli
- Hawthorne Democrats
- Hawthorne GOP
- Hawthorne Press
- Jackie Burroughs
- John Bertollo
- John Girgenti
- John Lane
- John Traier
- Joni Huston
- Lois Cuccinnello
- Meaghan Touhey
- Naomi Collier
- Passaic County GOP
- Pat Botbyl
- Paul Engelhardt
- Rich Goldberg
- Tim Eustace
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