Over 2,000 people showed up at Nicholas Sacco’s fundraiser on Thursday evening, numbers that were not at all unusual for the longtime state senator and North Bergen mayor.
But the impactful news of the night was the attendance of Gov. Phil Murphy, who spent much of 2021 in a dangerous political battle over mandatory minimum sentencing with Sacco.
Sacco is one of three people in the state who can produce huge pluralities just by the sheer force of his personal endorsement – State Sen./Union City Mayor Brian Stack and the Rabbi who leads the Lakewood Vaad – and Murphy needs him as he heads into the final 25 days of his re-election campaign.
With early voting set to begin on October 23, Murphy wants Sacco to expand his North Bergen vote total from 9,050 in 2017 to somewhere closer to the 15,456 votes Joe Biden got there last year.
Murphy headlined a roster of political elites from Hudson and across the state, including Democratic State Chairman LeRoy Jones, Jr., Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Bergen County Democratic Chairman Paul Juliano, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman/Union County Democratic Chairman Nicholas Scutari, Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh, and Stack.
The Sacco-Murphy alliance has now been repaired, at least publicly, although the fight with governor led to a close relationship between Sacco and Senate President Steve Sweeney.
How Sacco became a political powerhouse
Sacco has been a behemothic force in North Bergen since 1985, when the popular public school principal first won a seat on the Board of Commissioners. He’s been mayor since 1991 and a senator since 1993, when he ousted incumbent Thomas Cowan (D-Jersey City) in the Democratic primary.
The legend in Hudson County is that Sacco once called Cowan, but never got a call back.
Cowan, an Operating Engineers union official, was a likeable survivor of Hudson political battles who had spent six years in the Assembly and then ten in the Senate. His political career began in 1977, when a seismic realignment of Jersey City led to the defeats of two State Senators and two Assembly members.
Jersey City Mayor Paul Jordan was challenging Gov. Brendan Byrne in the June Democratic primary. In May, Thomas F.X. Smith beat Jordan’s hand-picked successor, Bill Macchi, by a 54%-26% margin. With Hudson lemmings all currying favor with the new mayor, Jordan’s campaign collapsed, and he dropped out.
Cowan ran for the Assembly in 1977 on a ticket with future Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski as part of an organization line put together by Smith before the April filing date, just in case he won. Under the banner “Regular Democratic Party Against the Income Tax” – a not-too-subtle slap at Byrne – former Assemblyman David Friedland (D-Jersey City) beat incumbent State Sen. Joseph Tumulty (D-Jersey City), with Cowan and Janiszewski ousting incumbents Michael Esposito and Alina Miszkiewicz, both from Jersey City.
After Friedland’s criminal conviction, 1981 redistricting put Harrison into the 32nd. The State Senator was Frank Rodgers, the long-long-time (48 years) Mayor of Harrison. Cowan went to the Senate in 1983 when Jersey City Mayor Gerry McCann wanted the Senate seat back. He cut a deal for Rodgers to run for Hudson County Clerk instead.
1983 was a warette year in Hudson: Cowan won the Senate seat by a 58%-42% margin against Jersey City Councilman Anthony Cucci. (Two years later, Cucci ran for mayor and offed McCann.) That was the year McCann dumped Janiszewski and brought in North Bergen Commissioner Anthony Vainieri – the father of Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle and Hudson Commissioner Anthony Vainieri — and former Jersey City Council President Paul Cuprowski. McCann was on the wrong side of the Mocco Brothers of North Bergen, who backed Cucci and Janiszewski, along with former Assemblyman Theodore DiGiammo (D-North Bergen). Janiszewski lost renomination to his Assembly seat by 3,000 votes.
Cuprowski and Vainieri were both one-term Assemblymen. In the 1985 Tom Kean landslide, Republicans Frank Gargiulo – now a North Bergen Commissioner and loyal Sacco lieutenant – and Charles Catrillo beat the incumbents.
Four years later came the actual Hudson War – a Democratic primary for County Executive between incumbent Ed Clark and challenger Janiszewski – that included full slates for State Senate, Assembly and Freeholder. Cowan supported Janiszewski and ran off the line against Cuprowski, the pick of Hudson County Democratic Chairman Dennis Collins – and more importantly, of the Mocco Brothers. Cowan won, but by just 529 votes.
Republicans believed the War of 1987 and Cowan’s razor-thin primary win might make him vulnerable in the general. Cowan’s opponent was Catrillo, the freshman Republican Assemblyman, and the NJGOP allocated tremendous financial resources to flip a Hudson State Senate seat for the first time since before Frank Hague.
In the end, it wasn’t close. With the realignment of Hudson loyalties after Janiszewski win, Cowan scored a decisive 2-1 win over Catrillo. Cowan won 90% in the 1991 Democratic primary and survived a closer-than-expected 57%-39% win over Republican Guy Catrillo (Charlie’s brother) in the Jim Florio Republican landslide.
That was Cowan’s final win. In 1993, Sacco decided he wanted to be a Senator.
Sacco’s start in North Bergen politics came in 1985 when he was elected to the Board of Commissioners. Sacco was a 38-year-old public school principal and was taken under the wing of Mayor Leo Gattoni, Sr.
(Gattoni, who had first run for local office in North Bergen in 1949, in opposition to Jersey City Mayor Frank Hague. Five years later, while serving as a Hudson County Deputy Sheriff, Gattoni served Hague with a subpoena to appear before a grand jury at a Jersey City funeral home while Hague was attending the wake of his nephew.)
Gattoni convinced the Mocco Brothers to put Sacco on the ticket, even though they didn’t really want him. When a scandal finally took the Mocco Brothers down, Gattoni was convinced to step aside in 1991 and let Sacco be Mayor.
Using the clout of the North Bergen mayoralty, Sacco forged an alliance with Union City – State Sen. Bob Menendez and Mayor Bruce Walter, the Hudson County Democratic Chairman – and challenged Cowan for the Senate. Cowan refused to retire, and Sacco beat him in the Democratic primary by 7,046 votes – 67%-33%.
The 32nd district had a bit of a curse associated with it.
Since its creation in 1973, every Senator has eventually left and not exactly on his own terms. The first Senator, Tumulty (scion of a famous Jersey City political family – his brother was a congressman, and his uncle was Woodrow Wilson’s chief of staff), received just 23% of the vote in the Democratic primary when he ran for re-election. Friedland, his successor, was removed from office by a federal judge before he faked his death in a scuba diving accident in Bimini. James Galdieri, the winner of a special election to replace Friedland, lost his seat a few months later when redistricting put another Democratic Senator, Rodgers, in his seat. Rodgers got taken out of the Senate two years later to make room for Cowan.