Clifton Mayor James Anzaldi has spent more than half of his life in local government, but his decision not to seek re-election means New Jersey’s eleventh-largest municipality – and the home of Rutt’s Hutt — will get its first new mayor in 32 years.
Clifton elects all seven city council members in a November non-partisan election; by tradition –and not by law — the top vote-getter becomes mayor for the full four-year term. Seventeen candidates have filed – the size of the field in not at all unusual in Clifton — including five incumbents.
Also retiring is Peter Eagler, a former Passaic County freeholder and assemblyman who has served on the city council from 1990 to 2002 and again since 2006.
The contest looks to be a free-for-all in a city where campaigns are still old-school. Most candidates in the city of 90,296 people typically don’t raise much money – Anzaldi raised about $32,0000 in 2018 and Eagler took in less than $14,000 – and they still rely on door-to-door and small community events. The unsophisticated system of campaigning in Clifton, where digital ads may still be years away, creates one of the lowest cost-per-vote ratios of any city in New Jersey.
Council contests in Clifton are a lot like the Survivor TV reality show: candidates forge alliances with the knowledge that eventually they’ll need to screw over some of their friends in a race where getting the highest number of votes nets the mayoralty.
Bill Gibson, Ray Grabowski, Lauren Murphy, Rosemary Pino and Mary Sadrakula are seeking re-election.
Four years ago, Anzaldi finished first with 11,105 votes, followed by Grabowski (9,700), Murphy (9,203), Eagler, (9,067), Gibson (8,602), Pino (7,856), and Sadrakula (7,312). The next closest challengers in the thirteen-candidate field were Joseph Kolodziej, an incumbent councilman, with 6,603 votes, and Steve Goldberg (6,013), the principal of a school for disabled children.
Kolodziej was elected in 2010 after his late mother former Mayor Gloria Kolodziej, retired after 20 years on the council. His father has won a council seat in 1978 and died two years later; his mother was appointed to fill the seat. Kolodziej is making a comeback bid this year.
Goldberg is making his third bid for the city council.
Two school board members, Dana Beltran and Fahim Abedrabbo, are seeking city council seats. So are Avraham Eisenman and Frank Kaspar, who lost races for the Board of Education last year.
Also in the race is Antonio Latona, who won a council seat in 2006 at age 32 but then had to resign after a Superior Court judge ruled told him to choose between serving on the city council and his job as a Clifton firefighter. Latona had not realized there could be a conflict, but the judge bought the argument that he could not be the city manager’s boss and employee simultaneously.
Latona is now a retired firefighter and free to pursue a political career.
Additional candidates include: Tafari Anderson, a Republican who lost races for Passaic County freeholder in 2016 and State Assembly in 2017 and 2021; actor and podcaster Chris D’Amato; Francesco Muoio, a member of the Clifton Rent Leveling Board and a former budget analyst for the state Depart of Children and Family Services; Dominic Iannarella, a realtor and attorney; and Alessia Eramo.
Anzaldi is in overdrive trying to oust Sadrakula, who has become his bitter foe, on his way out the door. She and Anzaldi are both Republicans, but Sadrakula is further to the right.
Sadrakula was first elected in 2010, lost in 2014, and regained her seat in 2018. Despite her incumbency, if Clifton voters are in change mode and prefer an anti-establishment candidate, Sadrakula could emerge toward the top of the seven-candidate list. And if voters are willing to grant Anzaldi a final wish, she could lose.
Part of the backdrop of the non-partisan council race is how Clifton’s voter turnout affects contested races for sheriff and county commissioner. Democratic Sheriff Richard Berdnik is a former police lieutenant with a local base of support.
The Anzaldi Primer
At 72, Anzaldi is at an age where many New Jerseyans are just beginning their political careers. He was a 28-year-old aide to Assemblyman Emil Olszowy (R-Passaic) and a Clifton Department of Public Works employee when he first won a council seat in 1978 and lost his first re-election bid four years later. He came back and regained his seat in 1986 and became mayor when he outpolled Gloria Kolodziej by about 30 votes in 1990.
In a way, a 32-year career as mayor was not what Anzaldi had in mind. He became involved in a Passaic County Republican civil war in 1983, when freshman State Sen. Joseph Bubba (R-Wayne) was dumped from the organization line by GOP county chairman Rocco Motta and replaced by Assemblyman Terry LaCorte R-Clifton).
Anzaldi and former Surrogate Leonard Talerico ran with LaCorte, while first-term Newton Miller (R-Wayne) and Clifton Councilman (and former mayor) Gerald Zecker ran off the line with Bubba. Motta dumped Anzaldi over two freeholders who wanted to run, Fred DeFuria and Francis Calise, because he viewed the young former councilman as a stronger campaigner.
Bubba won an off the line victory by 1,145 votes, 57%-43%, against LaCorte. Anzaldi finished 1,470 votes behind Zecker.
In 1989, Anzaldi ran for Passaic County Clerk and came within roughly 3,000 votes (52%-48%) of unseating the Democratic incumbent, William Kattak. Democrat Jim Florio carried Passaic County in the governor’s race that year by a 55,920-vote margin.
When New Jersey’s legislative districts were being redrawn in 2011, Gov. Chris Christie had quietly worked to recruit Anzaldi to run for the State Senate in a district Republicans had drawn to appear safe Democratic, but with the belief that Anzaldi’s personal popularity in Clifton would allow him to win a general election.
The Republican plan initially was district that included Clifton, Nutley, Belleville and part of South Bergen in a new 36th district. Christie wanted to force Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge) and Nicholas Sacco (D-North Bergen) into a Democratic primary in a district that included the city of Passaic. But when the final GOP map was submitted, the district went from Clifton to Wayne.
Eagler was 36 when he won his first council race in 1990. He lost a freeholder bid in 1995 but ran again and won in 1996 and again in 1999.
After legislative redistricting in 2001, Clifton was moved into a hugely Democratic, Essex-based district, Eagler got an Assembly seat on a ticket with Nia Gill (D-Montclair) for State Senate and Willis Edwards (D-East Orange) for Assembly. Democrats dumped Edwards in 2003 and replaced him with Sheila Oliver, now the state’s lieutenant governor. Eagler lost his seat when Essex Democrats decided to replace him with Thomas P. Giblin (D-Montclair).
Clifton by the numbers
Clifton has roughly 58,000 voters, and while municipal elections are non-partisan, 42% of the electorate are Democrats, 18% are Republicans, and 39% are unaffiliated. Of the seven city council members, four are registered Republicans. Clifton is 70% white.
Gov. Phil Murphy carried Clifton by 1,755 votes (54%-45%) over Republican Jack Ciattarelli in 2021; in 2017, Murphy had beaten Republican Kim Guadagno by 24 percentage points. In the race for Passaic county commissioner, the lone Republican countywide winner, Nicolino Gallo, came within 1,108 votes of carrying Clifton.
In 2020, Joe Biden won Clifton by 19 points and Rep. Bill Pascrell by 32 points.
Correction: Rosemary Pino, who was born in Equador, is Latina.