There’s an older man who shows up at Larry Wainstein’s North Bergen headquarters a few times a week.
He says his name is Frank. He doesn’t use his last name.
Frank seems to know a lot about local politics, and he’s trying to impart his institutional knowledge on a small group of volunteers who want Wainstein to be the next mayor.
Most of the people don’t recognize Frank, the man standing behind a podium inside Wainstein’s headquarters training volunteers, but they should.
Frank is Joe Mocco, who was once the undisputed political boss of North Bergen.
That was thirty years ago.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the Mocco brothers ruled North Bergen. Joe was the township clerk, the guy who ran the organization. His brother, Peter, was the mayor.
The Mocco brothers were toppled in 1989 when Joe was convicted on racketeering charges. Involving an illegal garbage dumping scheme. Three of their top appointees were convicted of taking cash and free labor from a municipal contractor. Another appointee said he solicited bribes from a local builder.
Peter Mocco’s troubles started a decade earlier. He lost his law license for one year when he forged the name of business associate on a legal document and then forged the name of a notary public – his brother, Joe. State education officials accused him of firing seven teachers who refused to do political work for him. He faced allegations of voter fraud for his role in helping Rep. Henry Helstoski defeat Assemblyman Byron Baer in a 1976 Democratic congressional primary
In April 1978, North Bergen voters recalled Peter Mocco and all four of his township commissioners by an 1,100-vote margin. Despite recalling him, voters re-elected Mocco by about 300 votes.
Later that year, news broke that Peter Mocco was the target of a state grand jury investigation into his fundraising.
Still, in November 1978, Peter Mocco was re-elected to his second term as a Hudson County freeholder.
The following year, more than 175 people were subpoenaed as part of the Mocco probe.
Peter Mocco decided not to seek re-election and instead become the township attorney.
In May 1979, a local gadfly, Anthony DeVincent, derailed Mocco’s succession plan. The DeVincent slate beat Team Mocco and took control of North Bergen.
State Sen. Nicholas Sacco, the mayor of North Bergen since 1991, began his political career as a Mocco appointee to the housing authority in 1979. Joe Mocco put Sacco, a popular local educator, on their ticket for township commissioner in the 1983 municipal elections, but he lost by 2,929 votes.
DeVincent wound up taking Peter Mocco’s seat on the Board of Freeholders but lost it in 1984 when Ronald Reagan helped Republican Octavio Alfonso beat him the general election. He was the first incumbent Democrat to lose a general election for freeholder since 1956.
In 1985, Joe Mocco organized a campaign to recall DeVincent and his commissioners. The Democratic municipal chairman and township administrator, Michael Pollotta, didn’t include DeVincent on his slate in the recall because he thought he couldn’t win.
Joe Mocco took control of North Bergen again in 1985, with Leo Gattoni as mayor and Sacco as a commissioner.
Mocco was fired after his arrest and in 1987 the old Mocco team, now led by Gattoni, won by a 5-1 margin. Gattoni stepped back four years later and backed Sacco for mayor.
He was convicted in 1989 and was sent to prison.
Joe Mocco has been seeking a comeback ever since but has never been able to break Sacco’s political machine.
Photographs obtained by the New Jersey Globe show Mocco inside Wainstein’s headquarters.
Wainstein, making his second bid against Sacco, downplays his connection to Joe Mocco, aka Frank.
“I meet literally thousands of people. He has been in my office, just like thousands of people,” Wainstein told the New Jersey Globe. “Mu doors are open to everyone.”
Wainstein said he was a teenager when the Mocco brothers ran North Bergen.
“It was literally a different era. It has nothing to do with me,” Wainstein said. “This election is not about Joe Mocco. It’s about ending 35 years of corruption.”
And Wainstein makes no apologies for Joe Mocco’s presence at his headquarters, even though he says the former township clerk does not play an active role in his campaign.
“He’s a citizen, just like anyone else,” Wainstein said. “I don’t run background checks on the people I shake hands with.”
As for Frank – Wainstein doesn’t know anything about that.