HUDSON COUNTY – Giving no sign of what he’s up against, or the stakes out there in the lowland swamps of Kearny, a man in a dark suit ascended the ramp into the Coach House Diner, tie flapping in the light breeze.
It was Brian Stack, the state senator and mayor of Union City, and he was in an unfamiliar position as the apparently slight underdog in his fight with Jersey City School Board Member Amy DeGise for the chairmanship of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) with time ticking down.
Stack flattens opponents for a living.
Just ask Sal Silverio” Vega, backed by the HCDO in 2007, who swore he would “slay the beast” – his exact words – when he attempted to contain Stack with the help of the organization. Running off the line, Stack annihilated Vega that year to get to the senate and in the intervening years built an organization on the old, existing political infrastructure of the late Mayor Bill Musto operation that last year resulted in a 30K product on Election Day.
Having sustained the pawing of his increasingly muscled young lion rival for years, state Senator Nick Sacco (D-32) looked at those numbers and – in dignified fashion – cried uncle. Stack could have the chairmanship of the party most recently filled by Sacco’s protégé, former Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32). Prieto had run afoul of the vaunted South Jersey Democratic Organization, and so had Sacco, for that matter. Stack had a better relationship with that center of power, but more importantly he had the watchful eye of county overlord U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), who would check any wandering loyalties. Sacco told Stack go for it.
It would be good for Bob, too, Sacco, reasoned. He’s in an Election Year after having stared down federal corruption charges. Not to mention it would be good for Sacco to have Stack placated ahead of the North Bergen boss’ own local reelection as mayor of the burgh that abuts Union City.
But then Stack went and did something that astonished everyone.
He and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop told Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise that he couldn’t
count on their support when he runs for reelection next year.
New look party on the horizon, and DeGise wouldn’t be part of it.
That would go for U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8), too.
Sacco liked those guys. They all came up together. They could all remember Sires the basketball star for West New York. A proud man. Tossed.
It wouldn’t stand.
DeGise dug in.
So did Sires.
Sacco withdrew his endorsement of Stack for chair, Menendez expressed his outrage over Stack and Fulop’s treatment of DeGise, and the county went to war.
Bayonne didn’t like it.
They had a local mayor’s race and it could get bloody. Up at bat for the HCDO in 2018, Mayor Jimmy Davis had some vulnerabilities as a candidate. So the organization opted against immediately fielding an alternative to Stack.
Deal with him later.
Davis won his May 8th contest handily, with 53% of the vote.
Two days later, the organization decided to back Jersey City School Board Amy DeGise for the chairmanship of the party. A teacher by profession and the daughter of the disrespected county executive, the young DeGise immediately made an issue out of Stack’s 2013 endorsement of the reelection candidacy of Republican Governor Chris Christie. She also harped on Stack’s support for the Christie’s plan to overhaul public pensions and benefits. A New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) member, she praised Governor Phil Murphy, who won statewide with the backing of that same union that tried to remove Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) from office.
Sweeney didn’t forget that slight.
The senate caucus didn’t like it, either.
The NJEA ran the most expensive race in legislative history in the country.
Any one of them could be next.
No Stack, of course.
Too strong in the 33rd.
But he didn’t like Sweeney getting messed with like that by the teacher’s union. That’s why he led a stampede of buses down to Gloucester County to protect Sweeney ahead of last year’s general election. Sweeney buried the NJEA-infused guy running against him, then marched back into the Statehouse and went to war with the new Governor who had big-footed him up north when he corralled the so-called quad counties, freezing the South Jerseyan out of statewide contention. Now it was the less than sure-footed Murphy who was going to feel some hurt. Sweeney pushed back hard against the Governor’s proposals, starting with that $1.6 billion in new taxes Murphy wanted. He let his Department of Education choice dangle too. NJEA-connected. Not a vociferous enough advocate of a new fair school funding formula.
Stack didn’t throw any punches.
He always tried to maintain good relations with governors, and he wouldn’t make an enemy out of Murphy.
Still, he and Sweeney were friends.
In the ultimate demonstration of political power, Stack brought Murphy and Sweeney together on the same stage with Menendez.
As DeGise picked at the Christie history, Stack maintained his argument that he – and only he – would be able to build monster numbers countywide for Democratic candidates, most significantly Menendez, who was on the ballot this year.
He had a record of organizing bodies. Stack had some deep connection, too, with poor minority populations. He’d take that compassionate concern and organize African Americans the way he had Hispanics, he told committee members on their front porches and in their living rooms.
DeGise could scream about issues, but wasn’t it Sacco himself who once had said, “Issues? They’re going to have to invent them.”
As the contest with DeGise developed, Sweeney and South Jersey offered financial help to Stack. He wouldn’t take it. No use amplifying DeGise’s mantra about Stack, the Christie-South Jersey ally from Union City.
Anyway, he had Fulop on his side, in the biggest city in the county.
Take the 78 county committee votes Stack owned in Union City and plug them into the 363 in Jersey City, and it would be game over for DeGise. Both DeGises. First Amy then Tom.
But – and here the Union City Democrat had to be very had nosed – maybe Fulop , a former Goldman Sachs dude who didn’t grew up at the knee of Musto or former Jersey City Mayor Gerry McCann – didn’t actually have that many votes.
Maybe he had substantially fewer.
Well, Stack was going to make personally sure of his connections in Hague World. He’d go in there and start pounding doors. The DeGises were from Jersey City – the Heights section. He’d smother them there on their home turf.
Also, he had already riled Sires.
Now finish the job.
Stack would go into West New York, just in case.
Straddle Jersey City and WNY.
Pick up another 50 odd votes in the latter to add to those he would net from Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla (60) and they’d end it.
West New York Mayor Felix Roque was there to help.
Team Stack would run operations for those committee votes out of Union City.
The beast prowled West New York on Election Day with a contingent of home town followers.
It was intimidating.
But they lost.
That cushion he hoped for in West New York didn’t materialize, 46 county committee votes winning on the same column occupied by Menendez and Sires. Complicating matters, the quest for a handful more committee votes in Harrison didn’t work out, and any hopes of sniping some in Bayonne looked less likely. Davis was in with DeGise. All in. Now Jersey City would have to shoulder more of the total burden for Stack to make up the ground DeGise had in Sacco’s North Bergen (78 votes to cancel out Stack’s 78 in Union City), and her stash in West Hudson (over 100), Weehawken and Gutenberg.
Deoxygenating, Stack would require 270 votes out of Jersey City.
Jersey City or bust.
From the beginning, Team DeGise said they could bag 100 in Jersey City.
That would end it.
That would finish Stack, barring some unforeseen pickup, barring a deal cut late to send more votes his way.
Tonight, after electing Davis chair of the Bayonne Democratic Committee and Sires disciple Erica Daughtrey vice chair, the mayor of Bayonne went to the front of the room in Villa Maria on Broadway and addressed his favored candidate for the chairmanship of the HCDO: Amy DeGise.
“Tomorrow night we have the vote for the chair of the HCDO, and I’d like to introduce you to who I believe should be the chair,” said Davis.
Assemblyman Nick Chiaravalloti (D-31) was in the room.
So was Joe DeMarco, the city’s business administrator.
“This is about us controlling our own politics,” said the mayor. “This is about outside influences not stepping foot in the city of Bayonne.”
Amy DeGise went to the podium amid applause and gave a well-received speech.
There were about 50 people there.
Pizzas laid out decoratively for mass consumption.
“If they were going to choose one day to come out, we need them out tomorrow,” explained DeMarco, in acknowledged of the fewer than 103 county committee people gathered in the restaurant for Degise.
Buses would pick people up right there for transport to KEarny High School and the HCDO reorganization meeting on Tuesday, Davis said.
They were confident.
“Stack’s platform is anti me or anti my dad,” DeGise told InsiderNJ. “My dad’s not running, but I don’t think he’s [Stack’s] figured that out yet.”
Stack knew the lift was likely going to be tight.
No one really knew what was going to happen.
He felt good that the votes would be on machines and not out in the open, where lieutenants could brush fingers across their throats at any sign of resistance to the county.
He was, in a way, still the outsider.
DeGise was riding some #Me2 Movement energy in her quest to be the county’s first HCDO chair.
But she was the daughter of the county executive, the top of the patronage totem pole.
He was trying to get in and lead the same organization he bitterly battled a decade ago to get to the senate.
Done everything he could.
But was it enough?
In his other elections, including the one on May 8th, the goal was to get over 10K votes. He got them. Over 11K, in fact.
But a win was never in doubt.
This time, no one knew.
No one really knew.
A pair of HCDO types sat in the Coach House and radiated confidence.
The West New York loss did Stack in, they argued.
But in all circles the same question persisted.
It was said to have dumbfounded Menendez.
Why had Stack and Fulop insisted on trying to guillotine DeGise?
“He was walking into the chairmanship unopposed,” Sacco told Hudson County View, asking the question about Stack, almost disappointed in the seeming lack of savvy demonstrated by his longtime foe in making the coarse political move.
Most everyone would blame Fulop.
He told everyone he was running for governor, then he didn’t run, and that still rankled the rank and file and more than a few of the pooh-bahs.
There was a late wait for Menendez to engage and step on the scale in favor of Stack, the mayor’s allies hoped.
It never arrived.
Fulop, for his part, maintained a sunny disposition.
In discussions about the numbers, someone out there was delusional, and it wouldn’t be him, the Jersey City mayor’s allies said.
The bad blood with the Senator lingered.
The U.S. Senator had wanted to stay out of fight in his election year attempt to remain friends with everyone, and, it was true, he didn’t love Fulop, the Glenn Cunningham ally who ran against Menendez in 2004. But Menendez also didn’t comprehend the move. If Stack and Fulop were committed to him in a tough Election Year, why had they complicated the terrain by starting a fight with DeGise?
Menendez was DeGise’s signature guest at his reelection kickoff.
But again, ever trying to be transcendent in his old home county, the newly transplanted Harrisonian also went to Stack’s rally.
He was in a fight himself.
Let ’em fight it out.
It’s supposed to be hard, Hudson.
Didn’t someone say that once?
Maybe it was Frank Hague.
So they would fight it out on Tuesday, Stack and DeGise, with vibes kicking around on both sides, the latter riding the June 5th wins and arguably the naturally self correcting strains of the organization, but no one really entirely certain of the outcome as turnout became the main topic of conversation. Whichever mobilized army had the bigger footprint on that high school beachhead would win.
- Albio Sires
- Amy DeGise
- Bob Menendez
- Brian Stack
- Chris Christie
- Erica Daughtry
- Felix Roque
- Hudson County Democrats
- Jersey City
- Jimmy Davis
- Joe DeMarco
- Kearny High School
- Nick Chiaravalloti
- Nick Sacco
- Phil Murphy
- Ravi Bhalla
- Steve Fulop
- Steve Sweeney
- Union City
- Vincent Prieto
- West New York