“If adults don’t know me, I’m pretty sure their kids do,” said Michael Gonnelli, who is running for his fourth term as mayor of Secaucus — unopposed.
The last time Gonnelli faced opposition, Jon Corzine was still governor and George W. Bush was still president.
Yet even in 2009, the expected power struggle between the up-and-coming Gonnelli and then Secaucus Dennis Elwell did not occur when Elwell got charged in the Bid Rig III scandal.
One of the most remarkable things about Gonnelli has been his complete recovery from a major stroke several years ago – something that even surprised the medical staff that treated him at the time.
Gonnelli is heading a ticket that includes council candidates Robert Costantino. Mark Dehnert and William McKeever, all also unopposed.
Gonnelli has always been something of a king maker, the man behind the scenes that helped get other people elected, a prominent chief of the town’s public works that seemed to get his department to achieve miracles that made other politicians look good.
He came out from behind the political current in 2006 as the leader of the “Take Back Secaucus” movement, determined to unseat Elwell, first by successfully becoming the town’s Second Ward councilman and then in 2009, as mayor.
Gonnelli, an employee of Secaucus for nearly 40 years, prior to his council election, also served as the chief of the volunteer fire department and served as a commissioner for several years on the former Hackensack Meadowlands Development Commissioner.
Even behind the scenes, Gonnelli stood out, honored with the United Way Community Hero Torch Bearer for the 1996 Olympic Games. He received a valor award from the 200 Club of Hudson County, heroism awards for rescuing an infant baby from a burning building, and awards for his handling of rescue efforts connected with two train crashes in Secaucus and a rescue on the New Jersey Turnpike.
But Gonnelli has come into his own as mayor and might well be the more recognizable person in a town of 21,000 residents.
A registered Democrat, Gonnelli has always run as an independent.
“I made friends with my opposition both Republicans and Democrats,” he said. “I do my best to make everybody happy. When I get a message, I try to get back the same day. We’ve made a lot of improvements. We’ve built a lot of parks and playgrounds. But most important, we’ve kept taxes stead with no real tax increase since I took office,” Gonnelli said.
Although Gonnelli is a well-known follower of legendary Secaucus Mayor Paul Amico (he keeps two photos of the former mayor in his office), Gonnelli has tried to leave his own mark on the community.
“I spend a lot of time in the community meeting with people,” he said. “I see kids a lot and I don’t think there is a kid in town who doesn’t know me. When I ring a doorbell, if the parents don’t know me, the kids do, saying `That’s mayor Mike.’ I like doing things for the kids. They are our future. I think when I ran for the first time 12 years ago, I gave gifts to a kid who is now eligible to vote.”
Over the last ten years, the population of Secaucus has grown significantly, from about 18,000 to more than 21,000 – this after decades hovering at about 15,000.
Most of this comes from new development Gonnelli has overseen, and like his mentor, Amico, has managed to keep to the edges of the town as to allow Secaucus to retain its small-town flavor.
“Mayor Amico was a smart guy. That’s why I look up to him. Gonnelli said. “He put industrial development on the edge and allowed the center of town to remain unchanged.”
The increase in population is good news for Secaucus, Gonnelli said.
“People are moving from here everywhere. They bring kids. That’s a great thing,” he said. “As old residents pass away, their houses are torn down, new houses built, and we start all over again. We have good ratables, and great people to live here.”
New development has brought good things, but politically might pose challenges for him and his ticket, in how to reach them.
“A lot of the development is at Xchange and so we run a Greenfest there, movies, and concerts, and meet a lot of people that way,” Gonnelli said. “We did have a couple of community meetings. Not a lot of people showed up, but word gets around.”
If anything, his biggest accomplishment has been maintaining stable taxes.
“With COVID that was a challenge,” he said. “But we told our department heads to buckle their seat belts and that we’d be in for a ride. We had to cut the budget during COVID. Hopefully, now we can go back to normal.”
The other big success has been the town’s COVID response.
“99 percent of our population is vaccinated,” he said. “That was accomplished by our team. I think that’s astronomical.”
So, what does he foresee for the next four years?
“We’re building a new community center. We had to knock old building down due to contamination,” he said.
This will include development of new parks and a new community garden.
“I have bike lanes in my dreams,” he said.
One of the issues that has plagued the town since the 1990s has been a bridge over rail lines along Meadowlands Parkway.
“The county is going to take it over,” Gonnelli said.