THE HUDSON COUNTY WAR: Stack Versus DeGise: InsiderNJ’s On the Ground Ongoing Coverage

Battleground West New York.

HUDSON COUNTY – Upholstered and otherwise unadorned, the Coach House diner booth where it happened bears no plaque or special emblem. It’s just the backdrop that propped the operators who one afternoon earlier this year calmly told Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise to his face that it was over. “Right over there,” they say now, as if pointing out an important Hudson landmark, like a chair that Frank Sinatra sat in, or a curb where Frank Hague stubbed his toe.

Having lined up the support of powerful North Hudson Senator Nick Sacco (D-32) toward the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) chairmanship, Union City Mayor (and state Senator) Brian P. Stack (D-33) informed DeGise that he wouldn’t have Stack’s support, the equivalent of telling the veteran party member that he couldn’t depend on the backing of the next iteration of the HCDO.

DeGise dug in, and so did Stack, and so now with two weeks before the Democratic Primary and three weeks before the HCDO reorganizes, and with potentially a thorny general reelection on the horizon for Hudson favorite son U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ), each stands in the other’s way, with Stack committed to landing the chairmanship and DeGise’s daughter, Jersey City School Board member Amy DeGise, intent on the same position, and intent on protecting her father’s 2019 countywide reelection.

Several battle fronts stand out in this countywide war, which will have statewide implications in this county with historically the biggest pluralities for Democrats, most immediately in 2018, when a less than muscle-popping Menendez faces a challenge from a self-professed independent Republican candidate named Bob Hugin, who’s already turning heads with his ads and a vow of a $40 million statewide campaign. The longer-term dimensions of the fight involve Governor Phil Murphy, who depended on the sitting power structure to gain the governorship in 2017. If the anti-New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) Stack ousts teacher-by-trade DeGise, who would maintain the current, public sector worker-friendly structure, Murphy could see a shriveling of one fourth of his North Jersey power base and – conceivably – his own power diminished.

Of course, he’s staying out of it in public.

For now, it’s all Hudson, and everyone here has an opinion on where the battlefronts are and what they mean.

Stack has his native Union City on lockdown.

Sacco – now off the Stack frequency – has North Bergen and west Hudson in the DeGise column.

West New York?

“West New York is the Afghanistan of Hudson County,” one source told InsiderNJ, referring to the 58 or so votes at stake in the North Hudson city, and the jagged dynamics of a Ward A column bolstered by Menendez and U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8) – a former West New York mayor, and column B beefed by the presence of a team led by Mayor Felix Roque, who’s lined up with Stack. Roque’s not on the ballot, but a year prior to his reelection his people are trying to elect his pro-Stack committee people against the DeGise allies. Stack’s allies had wanted to use Menendez’s name and face on their fliers: “Vote Menendez and Roque and Stack” but Team Menendez said no. Too confusing. But the place is confusing, and that’s why it’s partly in play. Prior to 2011 redistricting, West New York occupied Stack’s 33rd District. Then, over Stack’s vociferous objections, it shifted into Sacco’s 32nd. Stack got the Heights section of Jersey City.

The end result in this politically war-footed county is to give Stack a leg into both West New York and Jersey City as he attempts to nail down the HCDO chairmanship.

“The geniuses in the HCDO back then thought that by pushing me into Jersey City they were going to try to make me vulnerable and make me work harder,” Stack told InsiderNJ.

It was pouring outside.

This was Tuesday evening.

He was standing inside his campaign headquarters in Union City catty-corner to City Hall with the core members of his political team, ready to go door to door again in Jersey City, even as his rival for the chairmanship, Amy DeGise, hit doors in the Ward B section of the same city on the same night in what most insiders say is truly the battleground town. It’s not only the biggest but, notwithstanding West New York’s unique dynamics, Jersey City is the municipality with – arguably – the most potential for surprise.

Stack’s ally Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop sees it differently, of course.

He and his minders say they’ve done enough to deliver at least 200 of Jersey City’s county committee votes to Stack. But DeGise, unlike Fulop, is a Jersey City native and his daughter is counting on that emotional connection to committee members in the big and often parochial city to peel Stack votes away from the technocratic Middlesex County-reared Fulop’s base.

DeGise and company are trying to make Fulop the story, exploiting what they see as Stack’s only real Achilles Heel.

“Steven’s lack of enthusiasm and lack of being at Brian’s side in Jersey City since they pulled the plug on Tom in that table in the corner, motivates Amy,” said Craig Guy, DeGise’s chief of staff. “John Q citizen is not enamored with Steven. In a general election vote they might be with him, but Steven doesn’t have the personality to say ‘this is important to us and to the future.’ He’s a social media freak, but his interaction with committee people is limited, and Brian knows all his.”

Whatever his personal feelings for political ally Fulop, Stack is diving into Jersey City himself to make his own gritty, social media-unfriendly, Hudson County guy-to-guy appeal.

“We know he’s out there because they’re practically running into each other out there,” Tom DeGise told InsiderNJ at an under-the-highway fundraiser for Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Romano in Romano’s hometown of Hoboken.

Stack’s people beg to differ.

“We haven’t seen her out there,” said Stack, frenetically handling a clipboard jammed with county committee names.

A source told InsiderNJ that the mayor/senator made over 200 connections in Jersey City on Sunday alone.

“This guy’s unreal,” Roque operative Pablo Fonseca told InsiderNJ.

The mayor’s looking for hard and cold commitments.

He comes away with some.

But he also has to notate more than a few “don’t knows,” and a few “Unlikelys.”

The bottom line, said Stack, is Amy DeGise can try to make the late-in-the-game case for herself.

He’s out there getting eyeball to eyeball with people day and night, relentlessly trying to project his celebrated districtwide political work habits into a wider orbit.

“They tried to make me vulnerable, but what they did was they give me the opportunity to expand my base,” said Stack, gearing up to go out again in the rain to pound doors. “It goes to show you how the people involved in the decision making really don’t know what they’re doing with the party. It’s not about building the party for them. They’re happy with that small vote that comes out in Hudson every single year. They don’t want to expand that, because God forbid, once they bring those people in to vote in a gubernatorial election and really motivate people, they might be coming out in some of the municipal elections in Hudson county and that’s going to hurt their base. I’ll expand that. But no doubt about it, they’ve helped me.

“As the chairman, I’ll build that party,” he added. “They talk about it now. But they had an opportunity. These guys in charge controlled the party for 25-30 years. I’ll build the party the same way I built it in the 33rd district. The only time they call the county committee is when there’s an election, otherwise they don’t even want to know the county committee. The county committee is not given any resoirces. If someone needs help in a district, I’ll show them how to build volunteers. I’ll make another pledge. Next year, instead of raising money into Union City First, I’ll raise whatever I can into the Hudson County Democratic Organization. If a county committee member wants to do something, I’ll help them with resources. If they’re not happy with me, I wont run for reelection.”

It comes down to this, he says: party expansion versus party depression.

“I’ll champion major outreach and focus on voter registration, predominantly in Jersey City,” Stack promised.

DeGise and North Bergen Commissioner Allen Pascual.

They go through the numbers over and over again.

On both sides.

They go over and over their best efforts to tying the albatrosses in both camps to the principals.

“Fulop… Fulop is not a people person, and it’s driving Stack crazy,” one DeGise ally said.

Then there was a Stack ally who innocently pointed out that developing discomfiting storyline in North Bergen.

“Jesus, poor Sacco, he looks like he’s toast over there, eh? Eh? Is he toast over there?”

The flash of a devious grin.

Then the DeGise ally in another venue.

“Fulop,” he says by way of creating his thesis statement about why Stack is not as strong as people think.

“Fulop,” he says again, to allow the concept to sink in.

“Fulop is not Hudson County,” is how the sentence finally comes out.

Fulop underestimates the relationships DeGise built in his home city.

Then there’s another observation back in Stack World.

“I think a big question over there is how that North Bergen Housing crisis plays out,” someone says, brows furrowed with feigned concern. “I mean that looks like a train wreck over there for Sacco.”

They go over the numbers again and again.

175-200 Stack votes in Jersey City.

Good for Stack.

But DeGise can still win.

250 Stack votes?

That puts her in peril.

Then there’s Hoboken, where Tom DeGise described the mayor – Ravi Bhalla – as a Stack prisoner of war. DeGise’s allies say they can get 20-25 votes to Bhalla’s 45 for Stack.

Bayonne?

Tom DeGise and Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis are supposed to be having breakfast on Wednesday morning.

“Jimmy’s doing a victory lap after his 57-58% win,” said a DeGise ally.

“Jimmy is kind of like Tom,” a Stack ally tells InsiderNJ. “They’re both good time Charlies.”

And then the dagger.

“They like each other because they don’t work hard,” the source says.

Politics pervades the entire atmosphere here.

There are DeGise people, and these include mayors who acknowledge that the county executive’s style never intrudes on their fiefdoms.

They wield power and he lets them alone.

It’s the inverse of a place like Essex County, where the county executive strides like a colossus amid mayor who peep about his huge legs and find themselves, to paraphrase Shakespeare, dishonorable graves. Here DeGise labors like an uncomplaining Lilliputian among the Gulliver mayors of his county.

Guy – like other DeGise partisans – is eager to make the conversation about Fulop, just as Stack’s allies want to talk about Sacco. But on one point he acknowledges where Stack may prove detrimental to the existing order that favors strong mayors and a pliable executive.

Temperament. 

“The last thing this organization needs is a dictator,” Guy told InsiderNJ in the Coach House. “We need somebody who will continue to unite the party and make Hudson more relevant throughout the state. Amy has the enthusiasm and support of a lot of institutional folks. She her own relationships. She’s not Jane Doe.”

Stack projects an indomitable will to win.

And tirelessness.

On his birthday he celebrated by going door to door.

Asked how he’s doing tonight at Romano’s fundraiser at Lola Klub, Tom DeGise, by contrast and again this is where Stack’s people argue that it’s ultimately no contest when it comes to who will get the job done, said, unapologetically, “Tired.”

 Guy, though, insists that Amy DeGise’s is working hard.

“It’s 24-7,” he said. “The candidate and all the mayors are working their respective towns with elected officials and committee people. We’ve introduced Amy to several of the cities. She’ll be back in those cities again to reenergize people.”

He feels they have a weapon on their side.

Even though Menendez hasn’t endorsed Stack or Amy DeGise, and refuses to discuss the chair’s contest,

Hudson at night

the U.S. Senator occupies column A, critical, again, in a battleground like West New York.

Menendez has endorsed Tom DeGise’s reelection.

He was at the county executive’s kickoff.

But otherwise he continues to stay out of the fight.

“I was at the parade with him the other day and he never mentioned the fight for the chairmanship.” Sacco told InsiderNJ.

Still, even if Union City products Menendez and Stack share similar political animal origins, DeGise’s allies routinely delight in retelling stories about Menendez’s intense dislike of Fulop, who ran against Congressman Menendez in 2004. When he emerged from the courtroom last year following a hung jury result in his corruption trial, the senator made a pointed observation about those people who had tried to dig his political grave, and sources here say he was talking about old rivals like Fulop, who has nursed statewide designs.

If Menendez isn’t outright backing anyone for chair, both the candidates routinely kiss the ring.

“The main focus she will be talking about is Senator Menendez: his voting record and his importance to this whole election,” Guy said of Amy DeGise’s message.

She goes out every night in certain sections of the city, either her or a rep of the specific ward in questions.

“Jersey City is obviously ground zero,” a source told InsiderNJ.

Both sides are confidant.

No one’s cocky.

They know the weak points.

They know the strong points.

It could come down to Jersey City.

It could come down to West New York.

It come down – if it really is that close – to a little place called Harrison, home to Red Bulls Stadium. 

“I don’t think it’s played much of a role here in Harrison,” said incumbent Mayor James A. Fife, considering the chair’s fight. “One of the councilmen decided to run against me.”

The councilman – Anselmo Millan – as it turns out, is aligned with Stack and company.

Fife?

“I’m with Tom DeGise,” the mayor told InsiderNJ. “He’s brought honesty and integrity to that position. I don’t know what the other guys are doing. They didn’t consult me. Besides, DeGise married a girl from Harrison.”

Fife stands atop 22 party committee votes in Harrison.

Millan is challenging the mayor’s slate with four committee candidates.

“That’s all he could muster,” said Fife.

“I asked my opponent if he had anything he was running on,” the mayor added. “He voted yes on all our proposals. He said something about his legacy. His father was mayor in Spain, and so there are expectations for him to be mayor here.”

Millan was unavailable for comment.

“I like Brian,” the mayor said of Stack. “I have nothing against him and I admire him.

“I’m not a full-time mayor,” Fife added. “Unlike Brian. It was never on my bucket list to become mayor.”

Fife’s a Scots American, with roots in Edinburgh.

He quotes from Shakespeare’s MacBeth, as a way of elucidating his own relationship to ambition.

He became mayor when Ray McDonough died.

He didn’t seek the job.

“If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me, without my stir,” the mayor told InsiderNJ, half chuckling ironically against the panorama of his home county.

Outside in a miserable, Macbeth-like rain on the streets of Hudson County with Menendez looming, the Stack and DeGise war raged.

“Amy’s in Ward B, knocking on doors,” said a source, accounting for her absence at Stick Romano’s party.

Stack was by then also ravenously in Jersey City.

 

 

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