Four years ago, when then-Palisades Park Councilman Christopher Chung defeated incumbent Mayor James Rotundo by eight votes in the Democratic primary, it was a watershed moment in Palisades Park politics. The Bergen County borough is a major hub of New Jersey’s Asian American community – it was 59% Asian as of the 2020 Census – yet until the Korean American Chung took office in 2019, it had never had an Asian American mayor.
Chung is now on his way out after losing a primary challenge of his own, but the transformation he helped bring about is here to stay. Four out of the six members of Palisades Park’s borough council are Asian American, as are both of this year’s mayoral candidates.
The Democratic mayoral nominee is Councilman Chong Paul Kim, who got the organizational line and unseated Chung 57-42% in the June primary. Despite leaving the mayor’s office in 2019, Rotundo remains the borough’s Democratic municipal chairman, and he joined the still majority-white Democratic county committee delegation in backing Kim over the incumbent.
Chung was also hobbled by a State Comptroller’s report from 2021, which found that Palisades Park had failed to comply with state sick leave laws. That report previously cost Chung a seat in the Assembly; he was the Bergen Democratic organization’s choice to be now-State Sen. Gordon Johnson (D-Englewood)’s running mate in 2021, but he dropped out after the report was released.
The wounds of the Kim-Chung primary still aren’t entirely healed, leaving a potential opening this year for Republican Councilwoman and mayoral nominee Stephanie Jang.
Jang was elected last year in something of a surprise result, defeating Democratic Councilman Jongchul Lee by 24 votes. The educational director at the Palisades Park Korean American Association and a 2020 Democratic candidate for borough council, Jang came in second overall, behind none other than Chong Paul Kim.
Jang’s victory was a dramatic change of fortune for Palisades Park Republicans, who lost local elections by landslide margins in 2018 and 2019 and didn’t even field a slate of council candidates in 2020.
Statewide and federal Democrats typically carry Palisades Park, though the size of their victories has varied considerably. President Joe Biden won the borough 61%-39% in 2020, and Hillary Clinton won it by an even larger 65%-33% in 2016; Gov. Phil Murphy, on the other hand, won it last year just 54%-45%, evidently a small enough margin for Jang to slip through downballot.
The Democratic ticket will be headed this year by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-Wyckoff), who is seeking his fourth term in Congress against investment banker and 2020 nominee Frank Pallotta.
Given that Gottheimer is a clear favorite to win re-election, it’s likely he’ll carry Palisades Park by a large margin – but it’s tough to say so definitively, since Gottheimer has never run in the borough before. For the last decade, Palisades Park has been in Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson)’s 9th congressional district, but it was moved to Gottheimer’s 5th district as part of a broader ploy to make the competitive district more Democratic.
Also on the ballot this year are two council seats.
Councilman Michael Vietri and school board member Jason Kim are running for the two seats after defeating Chung’s running mates – one of whom, oddly, was named Paul Kim – in the primary. They’ll face Republicans Barnabas Woo and Youbong Won-Yoon, the latter of whom ran as an independent in 2020.
Vietri in particular may be vulnerable, due to Palisades Park’s tendency in recent years to give Asian American candidates an electoral boost. In both 2021 and 2020, non-Asian local candidates did substantially worse than their Asian running mates of the same party (though notably, that didn’t happen in 2019, the last time Vietri was on the ballot).
Moreover, Assemblywoman Ellen Park (D-Englewood Cliffs), who is not from Palisades Park but who is Korean American, was the top vote-getter in the entire borough in 2021, beating out Murphy and both of her legislative running mates.
If Republicans manage to flip both council seats this year, that would mean a tied borough council, and even just flipping one seat would give the party a chance to take control in 2023.
Before it became predominantly Korean American, Palisades Park was an Italian American bastion, and politicians like Rotundo and Vietri are holdovers from that era. Back in those days, the borough was politically competitive, and produced several prominent Republican politicians – among them Bob Pallotta, a former Palisades Park mayor and Bergen freeholder whose nephew is 5th district nominee Frank Pallotta.
That era is over now, and it’s up to local Republicans to find a path to a majority through Palisades Park’s ascendant Asian population. With a strong nominee on their side and a divided Democratic organization, this year may present the best chance they’ll get anytime soon.