A hard-edged firehouse encounter between Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac and former Council
President/volunteer firefighter Ken Gardner sparked angry words from the mayor, which prompted Gardner to file an official misconduct complaint against him with the state Attorney General’s Office, now inflaming a local Democratic Primary election.
“It appears that Mayor John McCormac may have committed official misconduct in office,” Gardner said. “I was in line for a position at NJ Transit with a salary of approximately $140k. According to former Governor’s Chief of Staff Peter Cammarano, McCormac blocked me from that position. I was later offered a position [in the purchasing department] at the Turnpike Authority for $58k. McCormac acted in a manner to hurt me in the amount of $82k per year.”
McCormac and his allies find the episode indicative of delusionary silly season behavior by a man without a country.
“He couldn’t have been that offended if it took him a year and a half to report it,” said the mayor.
There’s a back story, and there’s a recording.
There’s also a history.
The two Irish Americans started out as GOP political allies in the blue collar Knights of Columbus-centered Middlesex town, going back to before the days when Jim McGreevey was in ascendency and they fulfilled the roles of comers in their respective quasi-corners. It was 1991, and the pair of them initially numbered among the young Turks trying to stop McGreevey’s march to the mayoralty. Gardner ran for council, and won riding the same Republican wave that flushed Jim Florio out of office statewide. Local Democrat McGreevey was good enough to improbably win that year – and good enough ultimately even to turn McCormac – an acolyte of Republican Mayor Philip M. Cerria (1984-1987) – from R to D between the primary and lean on him to turn out big numbers in the 4th Ward.
As mayor, McGreevey would install his newfound mustachioed ally as Woodbridge’s chief financial officer.
He became the youngest council president in the history of the town at 25.
Occupying key perches in opposing parties, McCormac and Gardner worked the political beat very hard, both inevitably separately learning from McGreevey that if your kid jumped rope in front of your house, you’d get a mayoral proclamation, which served the dual purpose of having the mayor’s name on the wall of your family living room.
In the words of one Woodbridge diehard, “McGreevey would go to the opening of an envelope.”
It never hurt to throw in the occasional pig roast.
By 1995, Gardner thought he was good enough to take on the incumbent Democratic mayor and announced a town-wide run against McGreevey.
He got walloped, 2-1.
A gleeful McCormac – by then a legit engine room Democrat with a growing reputation as a critical local power player – had run the field operation for McGreevey, and after the election Gardner’s GOP
world continued to shrink at a rapid rate until he changed his party affiliation to Democrat in 2010. The older Gardner generation had been Democrat, so it was not an unnatural fit.
But it was never about party.
It was about trust.
Yes, McCormac was a fun guy to have a beer with.
But he also knew how to take care of friends and punish enemies.
Ever the finesse artiste, McGreevey liked to try to coax a political foe over to his side.
Gardner was a little like that, too.
But McCormac had a tendency to beat up an enemy – or at least freeze him out.
“Relationships,” he once told InsiderNJ, when asked what he considered to be the most important word in politics.
McGreevey was already a former governor and Gardner a former councilman when McCormac became mayor in a special election in 2006 and never looked back, earning a reputation as a fierce alpha male on the local throne with a special talent for building alliances.
As for the relationship McCormac had with Gardner, somewhere along the way, or maybe back at the beginning or near the beginning, it soured, probably when McCormac bolted from the GOP.
Then it turned downright ugly – and, now, it’s worse.
Years of tension accelerated by Gardner’s conviction that McCormac blackballed him from getting a job and the mayor’s irritation with Gardner testifying against town development at public meetings while having to witness what he saw as the public disintegration of a so-called star, came to a head in December of 2019 at Woodbridge Firehouse District 1 when Gardner – to McCormac’s face – criticized the mayor’s pilot program (a 30-year tax abatement) for the developer of the old Hess property into 1,200 downtown apartments.
Gardner, who is now a particularly motivated Democratic Primary candidate for the township committee against McCormac ally Councilwoman Nancy Drumm, said he caught the infamous exchange on tape, which he shared with InsiderNJ.
The nose-to-nose meeting started semi-innocently enough.
“What’s up with that project on Main Street, all the apartments?” Gardner wanted to know.
“That’s the best taxpayer we’ve ever had in the history of Woodbridge Township,” said McCormac, according to the recording supplied by Gardner. “They never appealed their taxes since 1992 when I was the CFO. If they want to sell their property for apartments, I’m all in.”
“We’re getting beat up enough with traffic up there,” he said. “I don’t get it.”
That’s when McCormac let him have it.
“You want to someday let me help you and you came out against my project so forget it,” the mayor seemed to say on tape. “Forget it. How can I help you when you came out against my project?”
“What do you mean ‘helped me’?”
“Help you? I got you a turnpike job; you’re trying to get me to get you a promotion, and you come out against my project,” McCormac said. “Don’t even talk to me anymore. I’m done with you.”
“Listen,” said Gardner, a 30-year volunteer, “you’re in my firehouse. If you want to leave, leave.”
“I’m not leaving,” McCormac shot back.
“This is my firehouse, I’m a member here,” said Gardner.
“I’m the mayor, everything’s mine,” McCormac said.
“What, the firehouse belongs to you?”
“Everything’s mine,” said the mayor.
Gardner said he believes McCormac essentially confessed to official misconduct, or, at the very least, behaved inappropriately and unethically.
Under New Jersey Official Misconduct law, the public servant’s action or omission must be coupled “with a purpose to obtain a benefit for himself or another” or a purpose to injure another or deprive another of a benefit. The required “purpose” element can be of two types: (1) where a defendant’s purpose is to obtain a benefit for him/her or another; and (2) where a public servant seeks to injure some person or deprive them of a gain or advantage – by being denied or impeded in the exercise of some right or privilege (in other words being vindictive).
“McCormac intended to intimidate me and stop me from opposing [as he said in the text] ‘our plans,'”
Gardner said. “His administration’s plans before the planning Board proves this is in his official capacity as Mayor. In the discussion… he says he got me a Turnpike job. This indicates he also had the power to block it. Telling me ‘Don’t even talk to me anymore. I’m done with you’ shows he is withdrawing his refence because I opposed his project.” At worst, the firefighter said, “That is against the law [by being denied or impeding].”
The conversation represented the culmination of McCormac’s routine bullying of the former elected official, according to the challenger. Instead of helping him, Gardner suspects then-Governor Phil Murphy’s chief-of-staff Cammarano killed his job application on word from the mayor of Woodbridge.
“I think McCormac may have taped me since then,” Gardner added. “But it is not illegal to ask for a reference. Or to ask him to stop blocking me for the $140k level I was originally heading for,” Gardner told InsiderNJ, in reference to his job request at New Jersey Transit.
He added. “While McCormac has been blocking me for years, I don’t get any enjoyment out of taping anyone or filing a complaint. He was just getting worse. I had no choice, and I don’t want him doing it to anyone else.
How else did McCormac allegedly torment him?
Gardner said he attended a Woodbridge Township Planning Board meeting on 11/28/18. Drumm sat on the dais facing him as the council’s representative on the Planning Board. McCormac’s Chief of Staff Caroline Ehrlich was also in the room.
“After testifying and objecting to an application the mayor supported, the mayor sent me the following text while I was still in the meeting, [in town hall] and waiting to testify on the second application: ‘You want my help in getting a job and you speak out publicly against our plans? Seriously?’”
“Nancy Drumm is an excellent councilwoman who helps people every day of her life, and she deserves to be reelected,” said McCormac, as his allies roll their eyes at what they describe as a desperate attention-getting exercise by a once promising player incrementally and painfully deprived of a stage.
But Gardner’s real beef isn’t with Drumm.
The council challenger said he’s tired of a power-hungry and unchecked McCormac stepping on people, overstepping the boundaries of power and getting away with it, which is why he said he filed his official misconduct complaint with the AG’s Office, and in part why’s he’s running off the line to give the people of Woodbridge an alternative to his nemesis.
“There are people out there who aren’t strong enough to speak out, and I’m running for them too,” Gardner said.
McCormac is said to be little more than annoyed by Gardner, long that eccentric receding Republican shadow from another era, trying to remain relevant, late to the Democratic Party, and now adrift on his own island, angry because he doesn’t have the in of others, who pestered the mayor and other establishment players in text messages and phone calls for assistance to land a job. His allies say McCormac would never expend significant energy to stand in Gardner’s way, to raise him to the level of actual enemy, but would also be unlikely to tackle the job priorities of a political foe. Again, the mayor maintained, if Gardner was so distressed about the recording, why would he wait until an election year to get it out there, but Gardner, whatever his political designs, insists that he hears in his encounter with his old adversary McCormac’s linkage of the job and the development project, damning, in his opinion, and if he isn’t in power, even from the outside where the housing units rise, he says he’s convinced the mayor wields too much of it, and suffers from the same arrogance that besets powerhouse politicians overdue for a fall – or at least a real contest, Woodbridge style.