JERSEY CITY – There is always a room. It is removed from the crowd and in there you will find a politician, or two, and an operative text messaging frantically, and a handful of others, and doors that are locked and somewhere, faintly, the sound of Latin music off the street.
The two men stood near each other, neither a naturally effusive or overbearing character. They are both somewhat introverted, in fact, and not prone to backslapping, and it’s interesting, in this case, to observe the coming together of Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop and Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack, two very different Hudson types in many ways – an Edison-born, Wall Street, Columbia-educated Marine with gubernatorial ambitions, and a street kid turned city hall alpha male who looks out of place when he’s not crammed into a local diner booth or striding with Groucho Marx resolve on Bergenline – who nonetheless arrived in politics as enemies of the machine, sharing the always easily observable quality of an inveterate passion for politics.
As a Hudson native who grew up paying attention to the late Union City Mayor Bill Musto (who was sentenced on corruption charges and then told his supporters at his victory party, “This is my jury”), and for years an opponent of the county Democratic machine, Stack appears incapable of having a thought that is not political. There are people who like baseball and will talk about pitchers or hitters from years past. Stack is like that with Hudson politicians. He recites numbers from elections the way some Yankees fans will sit there and tell you about the stats on the backs of Mantle and Jeter cards. Now, ten years after he won the 33rd District senate seat off the line, he is helping Fulop win reelection, with his own particular brand of overkill. It consists of crowds of supporters flooding public areas and deflating the spirits of the opposition. A woman with a Stack sign standing out in front of his district headquarters yesterday started screaming “Brian! Brian! Brian! Brian! Brian! Brian!” amid other catcalls of the same variety, over and over again, prompting InsiderNJ to gently take her arm to prevent her from collapsing in the street. But then, she wouldn’t have collapsed. The street was so packed, her lifeless form would have been held aloft by the press of bodies on all sides, there in support of Stack’s support of Fulop.
“Brian, Brian, Brian,” Fulop attempted at one point, playing along and trying to give the impression of Kool-Aid-drinking comrade. Though it lacked zip, the mayor nonetheless looked like he was enjoying himself, mildly amused by the Technicolor Dreamcoat atmosphere generated on his behalf.
Stack learned overwhelming force years ago.
When Senator Bernie Kenny of Hoboken decided not to pursue reelection, the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) put up then West New York Mayor Sal Vega, who vowed “to slay the beast” otherwise known as Stack behind a Paul Swibinski-powered message, which attempted to portray the mayor – in any number of mail pieces, email blasts, and videos – as a thug. It was an anti-Stack blizzard, engineered with the well wishes of state Senator Nick Sacco (D-North Bergen), who looked to contain the younger leader in order to maintain his own grip on North Hudson.
It was a brutal campaign season – the last true political war in Hudson – and on more than one occasion some HCDO
types went up to Stack in the friendliest of tones and attempted to engage him in conversation.
“I don’t talk to my enemies,” an unsmiling mayor responded.
He was also very standoffish with the media, delivering his kickoff speech at the Lincoln statue in Jersey City then diving into a car with the engine idling and reporters giving chase while the driver floored it and Stack all but halfway in the passenger seat. But the tough guy talk – that was the kind of stuff a young Peter Cammarano observed before going on to try out his own line – “the others will be ground – ground into powder” when referring to those who didn’t back him in the 2009 mayor’s race prior to the runoff election. Cammarano would end up in cuffs, carted out of office for taking bribes. But Stack, for his part, over the last decade, carved out his own feverishly worked power base, responding to the establishment’s mangling of his Latino-based district in 2011 (repaying his alliance with Republican Governor Chris Christie by snatching West New York out of the 33rd) by leading troops day and night into the Heights of Jersey City and making the recalibrated district his own.
The only campaign effort to rival (and it didn’t rival it really, because essentially it was confined to Jersey City) was Fulop’s 2013 mayoral campaign. Jerry Healy, a former chairman of the HCDO (in fact, he was chair when they tried to take out Stack in that 2007 primary), had the old guard with him, all of them somewhat dented and tired and bearing the scars from Stack’s continued fusillades and cold war tactics.
Stack and Fulop had something else in common. As two guys who bucked the HCDO they had a pal in Governor Chris Christie. In Stack’s case, it was a real connection, and maybe that connection says something about what distinguishes Stack from Fulop.
Stack never abandoned Christie. It is, in fact, difficult to picture Stack and Christie not continuing to have a friendship after the Republican governor leaves office. Someday, Stack will likely name a building in his town after Christie, the same way he named a library after former Governor Jim McGreevey, long before McGreevey had regained traction in the domain of public opinion. Fulop, after having supposedly committed to backing Christie for governor, didn’t back him in the end as he eyed a statewide Democratic Primary and geared up for what would ultimately prove to be a doomed gubernatorial bid.
Seeing the pair together offers yin and yang optics in one striking way: Fulop was the Hudson mayor who appeared – until Phil Murphy nudged him out of the pre-primary – to be bound for big things early. Stack, conversely, has always resisted suggestions of running for anything beyond – maybe – Hudson County executive. Fulop running for reelection this year instead of governor, reinforces Stack’s vision of the world, which begins and ends with the word local.
But beyond their longer term goals and loyalty – and what motivates it and sustains it could be another topic of conversation – Fulop and Stack have run very different campaigns. The former’s 2013 effort when he beat Healy 52-49% consisted of messaging, organizing, alliance-building across diverse populations, and a base (Ward E) made up largely of yuppies bucking the firefighter, cop and HCDO crumb bum crowd hanging around Healy. As a Goldman Sachs bond trader and intellectual, Fulop revels in competitive situations and arguments, and thrills to the nuances and minutiae of a campaign. That can also get him in trouble, too, as he plots every passage of the game, and seeks to answer every assault with ninja throwing stars.
Stack doesn’t get caught up in ducking and dodging and swinging back. He’s not a student of maneuver warfare, or if he is, he doesn’t implement it. He just unleashes soldiers like Nikita Khrushchev at Stalingrad. He used his mayor’s seat in 2007 to build an army of city hall-connected warpaint wearers and Stack standard bearers so that when he forced Kenny out of the race he could withstand Vega’s conventional artillery attacks with a street presence that made the 33rd District look like the staging area for the opening Roman Army scene in Gladiator. InsiderNJ remembers driving through the tunnel one night from New York and looking up to see an enormous Brian Stack sign across the highway – your first impression of the entire state of New Jersey. If you walked on Bergenline, you might have heard folk singers wearing stack paraphernalia (this is not a joke), or talked to city employees plugging Stack as they cleaned the street. If you told someone that you were moving to town and needed an apartment, people – strangers – handed out the mayor’s cellphone number and told you – always with a smile – to call Stack.
There was none.
Stack walked through all the arguments against his senate bid with what looked like the entire city behind him – or at least 10,000 people connected to city hall.
A decade ago, he beat Vega – off the line – 77-23%.
Fulop has also used city hall to build a base, and appealed to different leaders and subsets in the city to paste together an army. But Stack remains the master of going bonkers with bodies come campaign time, which appears to be his intention here this time for Fulop, who has the backing of the HCDO – unlike Stack in 2007 – and looks to be a strong favorite for reelection anyway.
“Stack just put this away,” a Fulop backer told InsiderNJ with a nefarious grin.
In the meantime, are they friends?
Will they be friends?
Can they be friends?
“There are no friends in politics,” former Jersey Mayor Gerry McCann once told InsiderNJ. “There are only the people you meet in politics.”
They may be too political to be friends, that part of their personality too similar, for all the disparity in education and background and maybe ambition, with Fulop still not ruling out higher office and Stack all Hudson all the time; too absorbed into the fiber of that McCann idea to be anything other than Hudson allies – and survivors – yet with a little of one rubbing off the other conceivably, as Fulop hangs around in local Stack-world politics, and Stack – also ever the political opportunist – using a chance to organize in Jersey City toward, who knows, maybe a future Hudson exec run.
Anyway, it won’t be governor – and Fulop knows that, too.