Bergen County Democratic Chairman Louis Stellato doesn’t seem to be receiving the accolades he deserves.
Whether you liked Joe Ferriero or not, there was no doubt that his success in bringing a county Democratic organization back from the dead and actually winning elections is what made him one of the most powerful County Chairman in New Jersey.
When Stellato won in 2011, Democrats were in a rough patch. Ferriero had been convicted, his hand-picked successor, labor leader Buzzy Dressel, also had legal issues. Democrats had lost the County Executive and Sheriff posts in 2010, when voters tossed incumbents Dennis McNerney and Leo McGuire; they also lost three Freeholder seats that year, giving Republicans control. The new Republican majority was propped up by a Republican Governor.
A former Lyndhurst mayor, Stellato had been the Democratic Municipal Chairman for two decades. He had mulled a primary challenge to State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Wood-Ridge), but decided instead to run for Chairman. Democrats were unhappy with the interim leader, Michael Kasparian. One of his first tasks was a name change: the Bergen County Democratic Organization became the Democratic Committee of Bergen County – a symbolic gesture of a leader who acknowledged that the party preferred a leader to a boss.
In 2011, Stellato helped protect State Sen. Bob Gordon (D-Fair Lawn) and the two 38th district Assembly seats in a tough year, won two Freeholder seats, and engineered the victory of John Hogan for Bergen County Clerk against the incumbent, Lisa Randall, a former Assemblywoman and Whitman cabinet member. Democrats won back control of the Freeholder Board in 2012 when Steve Tanelli and Tracy Zur beat a pair of GOP incumbents.
By 2014 – a Republican year nationally – Stellato had transformed Bergen to solidly Democratic. Paramus Mayor James Tedesco ousted GOP County Executive Kathleen Donovan. Democrats now have a 7-0 majority on the Board of Freeholders. Democrat Josh Gottheimer unseated Rep. Scott Garrett (R-Wantage) in 2016.
In 2016, Stellato played a key role in convincing Sheriff Michael Saudino to switch parties and seek re-election as a Democrat. District 38 was drawn to be politically competitive, and while Gordon gets most the credit, it happened under Stellato’s careful watch.
Last week, former Bergen County GOP Chairman Bob Yudin called on his successor, Paul DiGaetano, to resign. Democrats, Yudin said, have beaten 40 Republican local elected officials since 2016.
Stellato has had some set backs too. He was prepared to endorse Steve Fulop for Governor, and was as surprised as anyone when Fulop mysteriously withdrew. Most Bergen Democrats were on the wrong side of the Assembly Speaker fight; now Stellato ally Gary Schaer (D-Passaic) lost his powerful Assembly Budget Committee chairmanship, and Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Englewood) was shifted to a less influential committee chair.
Bergen delivered a plurality of nearly 35,000 votes to Phil Murphy last year, and Democrats are solidly in control of county government. That means Stellato, without all the drama, has a better record of electing Democrats than Ferriero ever did.
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated the year of Saudino’s party switch. It was 2016.