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DAVID WILDSTEIN COLLECTION

The Life and Times of Harry P. Pappas

‘One of the most universally disliked local politicians in New Jersey’ mounts independent Assembly bid vs. Bramnick, Munoz

By David Wildstein, March 25 2019 9:30 pm

Editor’s note: Harry P. Pappas announced today that he was running as an independent conservative candidate for State Assembly in the 21st district against Jon Bramnick and Nancy Munoz.  To reintroduce him to the New Jersey political community, here is a column I wrote about him for my old website, PoliticsNJ, on March 27, 2001.

During the 1970’s, HARRY P. PAPPAS was a bright, rising star in Democratic politics.  He was briefly the Union County Democratic Chairman, and the Union County Purchasing Agent from 1975 to 1977.  But in time, he has become one of the most universally disliked local politicians in New Jersey, with Democrats and Republicans alike offer harsh criticism of him.

Someone like Pappas, whose tremendous ambition for political power has never been realized, would hardly be news if not for his recently announced intention to seek the Republican nomination for Assemblyman in the 21st district.  Pappas is running for the seat of Assemblyman KEVIN O’TOOLE, who is widely expected to win the State Senate seat being vacated after twenty years by Republican LOUIS BASSANO.  The popular Bassano is leaving the Senate to take a pension-boosting $130,000-a-year job at the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority.

Pappas is not expected to be a factor in the race, which will pit Summit Councilman ERIC MUNOZ against former Union County Freeholder LINDA DIGIOVANNI.  Republican sources say that the Essex Republicans will allow the Union County GOP to select an Assembly candidate, who would then receive the organization line in Essex County.  But Pappas’ own unique style will undoubtedly leave a mark on the conduct of the race.

During his political prime, Pappas was once half of a prominent political power couple. He was married to Union County Clerk JOANNE RAJOPPI, herself a rising star in local politics. Rajoppi was elected Mayor of Springfield and served as Assistant New Jersey Secretary of State, Union County Freeholder and County Register. Political pundits said that at the time Rajoppi had almost unlimited potential. Democratic leaders were openly touting her as the first woman Governor of New Jersey.  The Pappas-Rajoppi alliance was tailor-made for a man who relished the inside of smoke-filled rooms and the power that comes with political celebrity.

But in the early 1980’s, the marriage began to deteriorate and Pappas and Rajoppi divorced. The split is said to be so bitter that Rajoppi received sole custody of the Democratic Party.  But for most Democrats, the split was an easy one.  Rajoppi is a highly successful politician who has become one of the most popular vote getters of her generation, while Pappas, Democratic insiders say, was easy to dislike.  A Democratic insider said that ” Pappas is the kind of guy who could switch to the Socialist Workers Party and convince them to name him as their Union County Chairman.  Within three months, he would be involved in a scheme to kick out the other two members of the organization.”

Pappas became the Acting Director of the Union County Department of Central Services in March 1989, at an annual salary of $58,000, but within a few months he was terminated for lacking proper job qualifications. Pappas filed a lawsuit against six Democratic Freeholders, including three who presently serve in the New Jersey State Assembly: NEIL COHENJOSEPH SULIGA and GERALD GREEN. Pappas had become involved in an inside political battle between the Democratic Freeholder majority and then-County Manager JOSEPH MARTIN. Martin eventually restored Pappas to his post on a permanent basis and proposed a salary increase to $64,000.

But Pappas was not successful in his lawsuit, and the Democratic Freeholders continued in their effort to oust him. The new County Manager, ANN BARAN, again fired Pappas, saying that he was not qualified to hold the post. Pappas filed another lawsuit against the Freeholders, which was ultimately dismissed.

In 1991, Pappas announced that he was switching to the Republican Party. The late PHILLIP KEEGAN, who was then serving as Democratic State Chairman, told The Star-Ledger: “I wish the Republicans the best of luck with Harry. They deserve him.” And longtime Democratic National Committeewoman JUNE FISHER said of Pappas’ party switch: “It’s our gain and their loss.”

Pappas became a candidate for the Springfield Township Committee in 1991. Helped by a massive backlash against then-Democratic Governor JIM FLORIO’s $2.8 billion tax hike, Pappas won by a narrow 65-vote margin. It was his first election to public office.

He took office in January 1992, and by June he had already divided the local Republican organization in a very public split with Republican Mayor PHILLIP KURNOS. Kurnos, a 73-year-old grandfather, told The Star-Ledger: “Pappas wants to control Springfield. He wants to control purchasing and biding. I don’t feel we have a Republican Party in Springfield anymore. I think we have a Harry Pappas party.”

In August, Pappas asked the local Republican organization to “banish” Kurnos from the party. And in November, two Pappas allies, JUDITH BLITZER and HARVEY FRUCHTER, lost their campaigns for the Township Committee by over 1,000 votes after Democrats ran a campaign that was almost entirely anti-Pappas.

The following year, Pappas asked the Union County Prosecutor to investigate Kurnos for allowing the family of the local Board of Education President into the township pool on opening day, and for hiring his grandson as a summer lifeguard. The late ANDREW RUOTOLO, who was then the Prosecutor, wrote back to Pappas that his office has more important things to do than to worry about Springfield’s swimming pools. ”I cannot and will not allow my office to become mired in the bog of political infighting that appears to be based largely upon rumor, speculation and innuendo,” Ruotolo wrote to Pappas.

Eager to deliver the Union County Republican endorsement to CHRISTINE TODD WHITMAN in her 1993 gubernatorial primary against CARY EDWARDS, GOP County Chairman FRANK MCDERMOTT cancelled the party convention and instead awarded endorsements through a screening committee. Pappas became a candidate for the Republican nomination for Union County Freeholder and won a majority of the votes of the screening committee members for the third spot on the GOP ticket, along with incumbents DiGiovanni and LINDA LEE KELLY.

The decision to dump incumbent Freeholder LOUIS SANTAGATA caused major problems for the GOP leadership among rank-and-file County Committee members, who both liked Santagata and resented the cancellation of the open convention. A special meeting of the County Committee was held after the filing deadline and Pappas lost that vote by a margin of more than 2-1. McDermott wrote Pappas asking him to drop out of the race, but Pappas declined to do so.

Republican political consultant WILLIAM PALATUCCI, participating in the vote as a County Committeeman from Westfield, told newspapers at the time that Pappas’ rejection was a vote of no confidence in his ability to win a general election. In a vintage response, Pappas attacked Palatucci’s leadership of the 1992 New Jersey campaign for President Bush’s re-election, in which GEORGE BUSH lost the state to BILL CLINTON.

Running on the organization line, Pappas defeated a poorly funded Santagata in the GOP primary. But Pappas ran more than 2,000 votes behind his two running mates countywide. In Springfield, Pappas defeated Santagata by just eighteen votes, 322-304.

A few weeks after the primary, a Superior Court Judge ordered Pappas to pay Union County $264,000 in legal fees spent defending the county on his failed lawsuit. Pappas was unable to satisfy the judgment, claiming that business problems left him without any funds. Personal financial records supplied to the court show that Pappas had no assets other than his Springfield home, which was worth $200,000 but had two mortgages on it, and that he had made early withdrawals from his IRA. Pappas sought to settle the case, saying he could afford to pay only $17,000, but the Union County Freeholder Board turned him down. In that vote, two Republican Freeholders, MARIO PAPAROZZI (now the Chairman of the state Parole Board) and JAMES KEEFE (now the First Assistant Union County Prosecutor) joined the three Democratic Freeholders to turn down Pappas’ settlement offer by a 5-4 vote. Paparozzi later changed his vote.

Pappas was beaten badly in the general election. Republican incumbents DiGiovanni and Kelly received 66,971 and 66,853 votes, respectively, but Democrat LINDA STENDER, the Mayor of Fanwood, won the third seat with 64,762 votes. Pappas ran sixth, with just 59,379 votes.

In Springfield, Pappas also finished last, losing by 1,300 votes and running 700 votes behind his GOP running mates. Rajoppi, running for re-election as County Register, won 60% of the vote against Republican DARLENE LEARY. Democrats also swept the local Township Committee race in Springfield, again running a largely anti-Pappas campaign.

Despite his landslide defeat, Pappas announced in February 1994 that he was considering another bid for Freeholder. But few Republicans took him seriously, and in April announced that he wasn’t even running for a second term on the Township Committee.

In 1995, McDermott contacted newly-elected Essex County Executive JAMES TREFFINGER about a job for Pappas in his new administration. With Treffinger’s help, Pappas became the Purchasing Agent for the Essex County Utilities Authority.

He left in 1997 to become the Deputy Executive Director of the Union County Utilities Authority, but was fired when the agency went private in 1998. Pappas again responded by filing a lawsuit, which was dismissed.  He returned to Essex County in 1998 as a Labor Project specialist.

During the spirited contest for Union County Republican Chairman in 1998, Pappas had his feet planted firmly in both camps, and according to sources, overstated his value to each side. Pappas was a longtime ally of incumbent McDermott, but also attended meetings at the home of Union Township Republican Chairman ANTHONY DIGIOVANNI, who was running against the incumbent. Pappas’ close friend, Springfield Republican Municipal Chairman WILLIAM RUOCCO, was running for party Vice Chairman on DiGiovanni’s slate, but according to sources, Pappas became a “double-agent” of sorts, working with both sides. On the night of the vote, more than one-third of the Springfield County Committee members were no-shows. McDermott defeated DiGiovanni by a vote of 311-282.

Pappas sought a political comeback in 1998, running for a seat on the Springfield Board of Education. He ran a campaign that was typical of Pappas but atypical of local school board races, with a negative message and, to a certain extent, scare tactics. But Pappas was soundly defeated, finishing a distant fifth in a field of five candidates.

In May 2000, Pappas was appointed to the $79,000-a-year position of Essex County Purchasing Director. That year, he backed Treffinger for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate against Union County favorite-son BOB FRANKS, and Assemblyman JOEL WEINGARTEN for Franks’ seat in Congress. Treffinger and Weingarten each finished third in Springfield.

During the recent feud between Treffinger and O’Toole, sources say that Pappas had agreed to deliver Union County Republican delegates to Treffinger in a special election for the Senate. In exchange, the same sources say, Treffinger had agreed to back Pappas for the State Assembly in a primary against O’Toole. A Republican close to O’Toole said that Pappas has worn out his welcome in Essex and that he is not a factor in the race to succeed O’Toole in the Assembly. His campaign, one Essex County Republican insider says, is simply posturing for a patronage job, and that Pappas feels that the longer he stays in the race, the higher his price will become.

In 1999, McDermott asked Pappas to assist Republicans in an uphill battle for Union County Freeholder.  Pappas put out a campaign mailing that listed all the Union County vendors and what they contributed to the Democratic Party.  But some of the vendors whose names appeared on the list also donated to the Republicans and took issue with Pappas’ mailing.  As a result, some of those vendors cut off the already cash starved Union County Republicans from further campaign donations.

Pappas recently left his position in Essex County to take a job with the New Jersey Department of Labor.  His dependence upon the political fortunes of Acting Governor DONALD DIFRANCESCO is ironic, especially since Pappas was prepared to be one of the lone Union County Republicans to support another candidate.  Pappas, sources say, had committed to join Treffinger is backing Jersey City Mayor BRET SCHUNDLER for the Republican nomination for Governor when a supposed deal was cut between Treffinger and Schundler a year ago.

Party activists from both sides say that for 25 years Pappas has boasted of his relationship with former President JIMMY CARTER, claiming that he was an early supporter of Carter’s bid for the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination and that he served as a frequent advisor to the President. But according to the Carter Library, which keeps detailed records of Carter’s minute-by-minute movement in the White House, Pappas saw Carter only once during his presidency. On June 29, 1979, President Carter’s schedule shows that the President participated in a “photo opportunity” with Pappas and Rajoppi, then a candidate for the New Jersey State Senate. The session began at 2:00 PM and ended at 2:02 PM, according to White House records. So Pappas’ closeness to Carter may have allowed him to spend exactly 120 seconds with the President during his four years in the White House.

Pappas, insiders say, likes to present himself as a strong fundraiser, and his resume lists a considerable number of campaign finance committees that he has served on, but the general consensus is that he does not deliver.  His personal campaign contributions are virtually non-existent.  According to Federal Election Commission records, which lists contributions of more than $200, Pappas contributed $1,500 to WALTER MONDALE in 1984, $1,000 to ALBERT GORE in 1988, and $500 to Jim Treffinger’s 2000 U.S. Senate campaign.  The New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission database lists Pappas’ only in-state contribution as $192 to the 1989 Assembly campaign of Democrat BRIAN FAHEY in his race against now-Union County Republican Chairman RONALD FRIGERIO.   Fahey was among the Union County Freeholders whom Pappas sued when he was terminated from his position in county government.

Last year, Pappas personally contacted an employee of PoliticsNJ.com in an effort to determine what he could do to make this website’s Power List, of the one hundred most politically powerful people in New Jersey politics. Pappas is the only individual to campaign for a spot on the list.  His campaign was unsuccessful.

One top Union County Democratic leader, in an e-mail to PoliticsNJ.com, said: “There are so many Harry stories floating around that it’s impossible to pick. Frankly none of them are particularly nice, and I suspect that at least 99% of them are true. But, alas, I know the man.”

 

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