Union City Mayor Brian Stack raised over $450,000 at a gala on Thursday evening that attracted some of the state’s most powerful elected officials.
Senate President Nicholas Scutari, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Middlesex County Democratic Chairman Kevin McCabe and top political insider Gary Taffet were all at the event, along with Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and Anthony Vainieri, the chairman of the Hudson County Board of Commissioners and the front-runner to become Democratic county chairman in June.
North Bergen Commissioner Julio Marenco and West New York Mayor Gabe Rodriguez were also present.
Stack, who also represents part of Hudson County in the New Jersey State Senate, is unopposed in his bid for a seventh term as mayor. He chairs the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee.
But his lack of an opponent doesn’t mean Stack, the GOTV King, won’t mount a full-scale campaign. He frequently says that they key to maintaining a strong political organization is to work every election to prevent them from atrophying.
Last month, when legislative redistricting placed Stack and State Sen. Nicholas Sacco, the mayor of North Bergen, in the same district, the showdown between the two Hudson legends never came to be. Within a week, Sacco announced that he would not seek a ninth term in the Senate and instead endorsed Stack. Stack will back Sacco for re-election as mayor next year, and is supporting Vainieri for county chairman.
Stack has been involved in Union City politics since he was a teenager in 1980s as a young political prodigy and protégé of William Vincent Musto, the legendary former mayor and state senator. Stack once skipped school to attend Musto’s sentencing on racketeering charges in 1982; the next day, Musto was re-elected mayor.
But he wasn’t always on the winning side.
After Bob Menendez won the mayoral race in 1986 against the final vestiges of the Musto machine, Stack was part of the out of power faction. (Menendez later went to the Assembly, moved up to the State Senate, and resigned as mayor after his 1992 election to Congress.)
Menendez’s successor as mayor was Bruce Walter. Menendez, Walter and attorney Donald Scarinci had all grown up together in Union City and formed a team that eventually dominated local politics. After Walter died young in 1998, Menendez backed a young Cuban American rising star, Rudy Garcia, to become the new mayor.
Stack led an unsuccessful slate of candidates to run against the Menendez protégé Garcia and lost. In 1999, Garcia had a falling out with Menendez and backed Stack for a seat on the Hudson County Board of Freeholders against a Menendez ally, incumbent Neftali Cruz. The ambitious Garcia sought to replicate Menendez’s path when he also took a seat in the State Assembly.
By 2000, Garcia had problems at home. Union City was experiencing severe financial problems and residents rebelled against his proposed tax increase.
Stack formed an alliance with Menendez and in what was clearly the political coup of the decade, knocked Garcia from power in a matter of days. With Menendez’s support, Stack was quickly elected Union City Democratic Municipal Chairman. The two agreed there would be no deals with Garcia, whom they would oust as mayor within the next few months, and from the Assembly the following year.
Much of the credit for the implementation of the coup goes to Scarinci, the hands-on tactician. Garcia had dropped him as the city attorney, but Scarinci emerged from the new alliance with extraordinary power.
Menendez already had two of the five Union City Commissioners: Rafael Fraguela and Michael Leggiero; Garcia had tried to recall Leggiero but failed when he couldn’t convince Stack to join him. The new alliance flipped another commissioner, Tina Yandolino, from Garcia to Stack. The new majority stripped Garcia of some of his responsibilities, and removed the lone Garcia ally, Commissioner Ray Lopez, as the Public Safety Director.
On Day 2 of the coup, the new alliance took control of the Union City Board of Education. Garcia ally, Felina De Nodal was removed as board president and replaced by Carlos Perez, a longtime Menendez loyalist. They flipped firefighter Lenny Calvo, who was once a close Garcia ally, and a third member, Addie Leon.
The board quickly severed its ties with Garcia and threw out the board attorney, Bob Murray, who had been a partner at Garcia’s law firm. Instead, the new school board attorney became Herb Klitzner, a close ally of North Bergen Mayor/State Senator Nicholas Sacco – a public demonstration that Sacco was no longer aligned with Garcia. Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and West New York Mayor/Assemblyman Albio Sires were also aboard.
Hudson County Executive Bob Jansizewski had backed Garcia in his effort replace Cruz with Stack on the freeholder board, but after the coup, he quickly signed on to the coalition. In exchange, Menendez and Stack agreed to back Janiszewski for another term as County Chairman. That left Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo as Garcia’s sole ally in Hudson; in 2001, Menendez ally Dave Roberts beat Russo in the mayoral race.
Garcia had been planning to challenge State Sen. Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken) in the 2001 Democratic primary, but instead was knocked off the line for Assembly. Fraguella was his replacement. Some insiders believed around that time that had Garcia remained part of the Menendez political team, he might have become Assembly Speaker after the 2001 election and not Sires.
Last year, Stack was among the first Hudson mayors to commit to backing Menendez’s son, Robert J. Menendez, for the congressional seat Sires is now giving up.