Its the tangible things you can see – the new high school, public park or viaduct – that still thrill Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, which makes the pair of sucker punches he says he received from Senator/Mayor Brian Stack and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop that much more appalling.
In an interview this afternoon with InsiderNJ, he pieced together his version of those events leading up to the Brutus and Cassius Coach House encounter he had with his two favorite Hudson County mayors.
“It was the day of the storm, and in the morning, Craig Guy, my chief of staff, got a call from Mark Albiez [the chief of staff to Fulop],” said DeGise, a 67-year old former history teacher in politics for 25 years.
They wanted a meeting.
So DeGise made his way to the Coach House with Guy.
“There’s a f’g storm why aren’t you on the backs of trucks?” DeGise says he cracked when he went inside and saw the pow wow of Stack, Fulop and Albiez.
“One of the tip offs that they had been there awhile was they had empty plates,” the executive noted.
“Why aren’t you there on the trucks cleaning the streets?” DeGise said, occupying a chair.
The joke might have rankled someone like Stack, who prides himself on being the ultimate hands-on elected official.
Coffee. Someone ordered some.
Then DeGise remembers catching the eye of Fulop’s chief of staff.
“Albiez looks at me and says, ‘We want to go in a different direction.’ I said what do you mean and he kept saying it, ‘We want to go in a different direction.’ He said that over and over again.”
DeGise said he looked at Stack, dumbfounded.
“We had met two weeks before that and at the end of the meeting Brian grabbed me and said, ‘Tom, you’ve got to run, otherwise we’re going to be fighting.’ I asked him, ‘What happened?’ and he said, ‘Things changed.’ I asked him who are you going to run and he said ‘We don’t have a candidate yet.’ I could see Craig guy’s chest puff out and I told Craig, ‘Let’s get out of here.'”
On the heels of the meeting, the press release appeared, he said.
Stack and Fulop said in public what they had told him in private.
They were out.
“Up to that moment all the mayors other than Steve had urged me to run,” DeGise said. “Steve was the last guy to endorse me. I think the whole idea came from Steve, who told me [regarding the mayoralty] ‘I cant see myself doing this a whole lot longer.'”
The county executive said he believes Fulop plotted the take-down as a power grab for himself.
“They never consulted with Nick Sacco,” he said. “They had to know they were declaring war on Nick.”
Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla, who backs a “new direction?’
DeGise said he doesn’t take it personally.
“Ravi’s like a POW in there in Hoboken,” said DeGise, referring to the considerable power Stack wields in the 33rd District.
The sink-in of the last two weeks still stings.
“I always got a long with everybody,” the county executive said. “If you hit me with a sucker punch you better put me down.
“They didn’t put me down,” he added. “When it comes to Brian, I cant explain it. No one asked for more favors. I’m not looking to grab the spotlight like Fulop, who’s always looking for the most important guy to go to next. A lot of Democratic leadership are getting a little tired with that. He asked us to go back him for governor. There were guys who supported him because they wanted to get rid of him. It didn’t work out and of course no one has been able to satisfactorily explain why he backed out. The there was the trial with Bob Menendez. Everybody knew he was in jeopardy, and Steve started making phone calls [feeling out a senate run]. Bob didn’t go down. So he [Fulop] needed somewhere else to go. This is the power grab.”
DeGise understands Fulop’s motivation.
He’s a craven opportunist, in the eyes of the county executive, who says he loves building things, and watching the development of a construction site where a new school or county building is coming.
“It’s surprising,” he said. “Why the hell would he want to do it? He’s Union City, first, second and third. We scratched our heads.”
So here it is.
Here he is.
“I would never be a placeholder,” DeGise said. “I’m running for a four-year term. I’ve had a battery of tests. I’m in good health. I have fire in the belly.”
Did Sacco go too early with an endorsement of Stack to succeed Vincent Prieto as chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO)?
“Mistake is a tough word,” said DeGise. “Sure, given what’s happened here, if Nick had to do it over again, I’m sure he’d do it differently. We’re enjoying a ten-year peace here and I feel I’ve been part of it, developing personal relationships with all the mayors. Everyone got a fair share of open space, patronage and rock salt. I had no reason to believe a war was imminent. I feel a little foolish now, because I considered these guys to be my friends. When they called me to the Coach House I thought they needed rock salt or their plows broke down. They were always asking and I was always doing.”
DeGise acknowledged he’s different from Stack.
He fixed on a quote that he heard from the meeting Stack had in Hoboken last night with Bhalla.
“He said something like, ‘Hudson needs someone like Frank Hague [the legendary ‘I am the Law’ strong-arm Mayor of Jersey City],'” said DeGise. “That’s interesting. That’s who he’s going to emulate??”
Does he expect Menendez to play a more aggressive role to defend him?
“Bob’s task – the task for all of us right now – is to win his election,” DeGise said. “I’m a supporter. Whatever I can do, I will do. Even Brian, I’m sure he’ll put up big numbers, but why is wrapping us in a war? I’ll tell you something, Bob – he ain’t a happy camper. This will only drain resources and energy from his campaign. We’re 14 or 15 months away. Why they did it now? They could have avoided this. Menendez – I want my friend to win and I will work for him. I’m more Jersey City in my pinky than Fulop is in his whole body. He’s not an honorable guy.”
He’s a history teacher.
Does he see a parallel with Julius Caesar?
“More like Fords Theater,” the county executive said. “But yeah, I definitely feel betrayed. Et tu, Steven? Et tu Brian?”
InsiderNJ asked DeGise about the chairmanship of the county.
“He had it,” he said of Stack.
But does he still have it?
Does DeGise back an alternative candidate for chair of the HCDO?
“Not right now,” he said. “We’re exploring possibilities. We asked for each of the mayors to compile committee lists. If there’s a chance to stop him, we would do it. I’m not sure that’s a battle we can win.”
As for Governor Phil Murphy, DeGise said he called him right after everything went down.
“I called him right after it happened,” the exec said. “He said he was in a truck doing some plowing. He said he had to work on his budget presentation.”
DeGise said he hasn’t heard from him since.
InsiderNJ asked DeGise about his comfort level with Stack as chairman vis a vis South Jersey.
“There’s no doubt about it, Brian forged a relationship with Sweeney,” DeGise said. “He voted with Sweeney there. I’d imagine Sweeney will be supportive, but Brian is fundamentally needy. His town hasn’t developed the way other Hudson towns have. He counts on people who help him.
“Brian had [former Governor Chris] Christie up here the night before the second election,” he recalled. “Christie spent that night walking the streets with Brian. He needed me to help him build parks, bridges. He sees me as kind of like an old rag you throw it out when you’re done with it. The both of them have the same view. People are disposable. My wife is a psychotherapist. She never liked Steve. She would tell me, ‘Watch him while he’s talking to people, he’s looking to who he’s going to talk to next. He doesn’t look you in the eye.’ He’s a user. I’m one of the guy’s he used, as was Vinny and Nick and all the other guys who backed him. Like I said, half the mayors who backed him backed him not to deal with him anymore
“If we can kick his ass next year, how great would that be?” added DeGise, who said he’s motivated for 2019.