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U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey)

How Bob Menendez became a mayor

Last minute surprises, like Galloway on Thursday night, are not uncommon in New Jersey

By David Wildstein, January 03 2020 9:30 am

It’s a story that happens often in New Jersey politics, where cliques and factions sometimes create toxic environments within one party in control of local government.

That was in the case in Galloway on Thursday night, where a Republican township committeeman who did not get along with his three GOP colleagues decided to surprise them by voting to elect a Democratic mayor.

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez’s political trajectory happened in sort of the same way.

The story starts in 1976, when Hudson County gave Jimmy Carter a paltry 23,605 vote margin against Gerald Ford. Assembly Speaker Joseph LeFante (D-Bayonne), largely blamed for shepherding Gov. Brendan Byrne’s unpopular state income tax through the legislature, almost lost his bid for Hudson’s open congressional seat.  He beat Republican Anthony Campenni by just 6,855 votes.  (Campenni ran for Jersey City mayor the following year and got 2.7% of the vote.)

By the 1980’s, Republicans were beginning to spread their wings in Hudson County.

Ronald Reagan launched his campaign to unseat Carter in Jersey City and came within 4,415 votes (48%-46%) of carrying Hudson.  His local campaign was run by a Democrat, Jersey City Councilman Gerald McCann.  A year later, McCann was elected mayor and the Reagan administration started sending millions to Jersey City.

Two years after becoming the Hudson County Democratic Chairman, McCann was quietly running Reagan’s Hudson campaign again.  He withheld his endorsement of Walter Mondale and was a no-show when Geraldine Ferraro campaigned in Jersey City that October. won Hudson by 18,530 votes (54%-45%).

Republicans Octavio Alfonso and Roger Dorian won district Freeholder seats in 1984, ousting incumbent Freeholders Anthony DeVincent (the mayor of North Bergen) and Steve Cappiello (the mayor of Hoboken).

McCann was also an ally of Republican Gov. Tom Kean – he had photos of Reagan and Kean in his City Hall office.  After McCann lost re-election to Anthony Cucci in May 1985, Kean showed up at Cucci’s swearing-in to find the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Peter Shapiro, on stage and scheduled to speak.  That was the first time a Jersey City mayor had no real influence over a gubernatorial election.

A bunch of McCann-allied Jersey City Democrats publicly endorsed Kean, including former City Council President Bobby Jackson and Hudson County Freeholder Elnardo Webster, Sr.  Kean also had the backing of North Bergen City Clerk and political boss Joseph Mocco.

Kean carried Hudson by 41,970 votes – a 61% landslide that swept four Republican Assemblymen into office.

While Joe Doria and Joe Charles were safe in the 31st district, where Bayonne Mayor Dennis Collins stuck with Shapiro – the 32nd and 33rd districts went Republican.  Frank Gargiulo and Charles Catrillo beat incumbents Paul Cuprowski and Anthony Vainieri; with the backing of the Mocco machine in North Bergen, Gargiulo beat Vainieri by 5,202 votes.  The Union City-Hoboken-West New York district sent Ronald Dario and Jose Arango to the Assembly.  Arango polled 2,341 votes ahead of Robert Ranieri, while Dario, with a Union City base, finished 4,751 votes ahead of Mario Hernandez.

With Union City Mayor/State Senator William Vincent Musto in prison, Kean and the state Republican Party decided to put significant money into Hudson County for the May 1986 municipal races.

In Union City, Republicans assembled an anti-Musto alliance ticket that included Dario, Republican Manny Alcober, Democrat Bruce Walter, Independent-turned-Democrat-turned Republican Charles Velli, and Menendez, who had run against Musto four years earlier.  The GOP ran the campaign and raised most of the money with the understanding that Dario would be mayor if they won.

The Kean-backed slate swept the Union City election and the triumphant Republicans headed back to Trenton.  Dario showed up to be sworn in as mayor on July 1 to find out that Menendez and Walter had convinced Alcobar to support Menendez for Mayor.

Alcobar insisted that the Republicans who ran his campaign never told him that backing Dario for mayor was part of the deal.  And the state Republicans who financed the campaign packed up and went home after the May election and never followed up on the commitment to Dario.  Dario thought he was going to be mayor and never reconfirmed either.

The state GOP didn’t return to Hudson for the general and promise of political and financial support for a Cuban-American congressional candidate from West New York never materialized; despite an aggressive grass-roots campaign, Albio Sires lost his race against Rep. Frank Guarini.

Democrats had their War of 1987, when Bob Janiszewski ousted County Executive Ed Clark in the Democratic primary.  By November, Democrats had put their machine back together again.

Republicans took a shot at the 32nd and 33rd district Senate seats in 1987.  Catrillo ran against State Sen. Thomas Cowan and received just 33% of the vote.  Gargiulo lost his Assembly seat; Anthony Impreveduto ran 9,583 votes ahead of him. Dario, now a Union City Commissioner but not the mayor, challenged State Sen. Christopher Jackman and lost 61%-39%.  Menendez, now the mayor, won an Assembly seat; he beat Arango by 5,808 votes.

That was the end of the Republican Revolution in Hudson County. Republicans lost all four of their Assembly seats and both their Freeholder seats.

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