Hudson County Confidential: Seen and Heard at Liberty House

Fun in the sun in Hudson County.

JERSEY CITY – Anyone who thinks royalty is dead in America hasn’t been to a Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) shindig. 

Hudson County is better stocked with political princes and princesses than most places, including a number of royal families – among which is County Executive Tom DeGise. 

DeGise is political king in the same way England’s Queen Elizabeth is queen – the tentative head of a powerful political structure while the real power resides in the hands of 12 mayoral princes, a congress member or two, and even the chair of the freeholder board. 

Behind the scenes, pulling many of the strings is one very powerful U.S. Senator Robert Menendez, to whom nearly everybody – if they have good sense – pays tribute. 

Shindigs like the one Tom DeGise put on at the Liberty House in Jersey City on Sept. 17 is largely a fashion show, where these princes and the hosts of underlings loyal to them get to strut around and crow. Part of his is to demonstrate their loyalty to DeGise, but an equal part is to show that they are still members of the power elite. 

The ramparts of Liberty House.
The ramparts of Liberty House.

The upscale Liberty House has replaced the blue collar Casino in the Park as the political gathering place in Jersey City, and fundraisers are necessary, DeGise said, because even facing token GOP opposition, campaigns for his reelection in November still cost money. So every once in a while, prominent Democrats invite these princes to attend events like these, asking them also to bring their check books. 

“I’m here to support Tom DeGise, but also donate money,” said the almost always forthright Nick Sacco, who as state senator and mayor of North Bergen, is among the most powerful princes in the county. 

More ordinary folk – many of who are county workers – the price of admission is the sale of tickets, and an appearance of loyalty that won’t fail to get noticed by political big wigs. In fact, you could not swing a cat an not his someone of importance with apologies to the cat for the quality of company, as Mark Twain might have said. 

But this event differed from typical political fundraisers in that these big wigs shed their usual expensive threads for short sleeve shirts, shorts, and sometimes even sandals, in what DeGise called “A  Summer Barbecue” where instead of serving steak and other such highbrow food, the political elite feasted on hot dogs, hamburgers and French Fries. 

DeGise called it an old fashioned backyard cook out to which he invited a few hundred friends for good food, good music and good conversations. 

“I hate fundraisers,” DeGise said. “So I did away with the speeches. I just wanted people to have a good time.” 

DeGise is confident about his reelection. Yet he is aware that the Republicans have put up 18-year-old Republican Kennith Gonzalez of Union City against him. 

“I’m sure he’s a nice kid, but he may be over his head,” DeGise said. “This I why I won’t debate him. I don’t want it to look like I’m picking on him.” 

DeGise and Gonzalez have history. 

Gonzalez won a spelling bee while still a student, the prize of which was a county sponsored trip to Washington DC, where DeGise got to introduce Gonzalez to Rep. Albio Sires, who arranged a tour of The White Houses. 

“You might say I started him out on his political career,” DeGise said. 

Because the barbecue lacked the traditional fundraiser structure there were no formal announcements about who attended. The political elite came and went as they pleased, some arrived very early, others fashionably late. 

Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop arrived very early and left almost as soon as he got there. 

On the other hand, former Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy came early and stayed late. 

“Tommy is a close friend of mine,” Healy said. “I’m here to help him get reelected.” 

While Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli could not attend, he sent several Secaucus Council members in his place. 

Bayonne was also heavily represented with councilmen as well as Mayor Jimmy Davis. 

“I’m here to help Tom DeGise,” Davis said. “He’s been an outstanding county executive and he’s been very kind to Bayonne.” 

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who took part in a 2018 plot to unseat DeGise, also pledged his support. 

“Team Bhalla, my council slate, are behind Tom DeGise 100 percent,” Bhalla said. “He has done an extraordinary job over the course of many years.” 

This is a dramatic change in rhetoric from the language expressed by his co-conspirators Fulop and State Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack in 2018, when they attempted to intimidate DeGise into not seeking reelection. The brief political war ended with DeGise’s daughter, Amy DeGise, defeating Stack in a committee vote for chair of the HCDO. 

Bhalla, Stack and to a lesser degree, Fulop, have largely mended fences with Tom DeGise. But if Stack came to the Sept. 17 event, he did so very late – as did several other prominent political figures. 

But there were a fair share of other power brokers, such as Freeholders Bill O’Dea and Anthony Romano. 

Bayonne Councilman Gary LaPelusa – who has at times been seen as an opponent of HCDO-backed candidates in Bayonne – also paid tribute to DeGise, saying he was doing a great job. 

The affair was not without a few expatriates  such as former West New York Freeholder Jose Munoz and former Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith. 

As together as the HCDO appeared at this event, rumblings of future disputes could be heard. 

“I don’t always see eye to eye with my daughter, Amy,” DeGise admitted. “She’s [an Elizabeth Warren] person, I support Joe Biden for president.” 

This family feud among Hudson County Democrats is likely to become a repeat of the divisions the county faced in 2018 in deciding between candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. 

Bayonne guys
A pair of Hudson princes: Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis, left, and Assemblyman Nicholas Chiaravalloti (D-31) of Bayonne.

 

 

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