Battle flags fly over Bayonne: Political Insider


Former 31st District Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell, left, will face off against Bayonne Mayor Jimmy Davis (right) in next year’s mayoral election. 

It’s hometown boy versus hometown boy in next May’s mayoral battle in the Bayonne municipal election. Although one (the incumbent) of them spent sometime away in Rahway before returning to the Peninsula City, as some critics point out.

A few columns ago, I predicted that former Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell would challenge for the city’s top government executive office. It was inevitable. There appeared to be a dearth of potential mayoral candidates and if one were to pop up he or she had to be familiar with local and Hudson County politics. We’re talking all Democrats here, even though the city race is (ahem) nonpartisan.

O’Donnell, a part of former Mayor Mark Smith’s administration, was the obvious choice to oppose Mayor Jimmy Davis because O’Donnell was always somewhat ambitious and has local connections. He’s more comfortable on the home field. When he first stepped into state politics, there was a wee bit of a stumble, although some said he won some fans.

ROOKIE PAINS

On election night in November 2010, after his Assembly victory, O’Donnell exuberantly decided to take on Republican Gov. Chris Christie, using the phrase “go to hell.” Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak criticized O’Donnell’s comments as showing a “lack of interest in bipartisan solutions.” Later O’Donnell would back track his remarks, just a bit. It didn’t stop him from having high aspirations in Trenton.

In 2013, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop announced that 31st District Sen. Sandra Cunningham was co-chair of the Fulop transition team along with Freeholder Bill O’Dea, the first elected official to endorse Fulop. It was apparently part of a pre-election arrangement to prevent Sen. Cunningham from endorsing anyone for mayor. It was also expected to help the new Jersey City mayor oust Smith as chairman of the Hudson County Democratic Organization.

In a 2013 column I wrote:

Fulop feels that Smith lied to him when the two men met and the Bayonne mayor said he would not take sides in the Jersey City election. A week or so later, Smith endorsed Healy and he wheeled thousands of HCDeadO money into Healy’s campaign coffers. The idea was to make Assemblyman Jason O’Donnell look like a power broker should the extra cash save Healy’s administration. O’Donnell is fighting for the state Democratic Party chairmanship. I don’t think the Bayonne lads predicted the repercussions.

The Jersey City mayor-elect called Smith and used unlike-Fulop language to say what he thought of the Peninsula City leader. By the time the Hudson County Democratic reorganization comes around in June, Fulop will have nearly half of the county’s committee votes.

Assemblyman Vincent Prieto of Secaucus, a vassal of state Sen. Nick Sacco of North Bergen, will become the next HCDeadO chairman. The only worry is whether Prieto will be able to parrot Sacco’s orders and not mix them up with those he receives while chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. We can expect the new HCDeadO logo to say, “We’re just not about plumbing.”

In my mind, a worse sin was when state Sen. Barbara Buono’s people called me asking if I’d like to interview O’Donnell about his effort to become the party’s state chairman.

“… I said sure and I was promised he’d get back to me — since they knew I’d be in the office late into the night. O’Donnell never called. I should have told the Buono people that I have been trying to call O’Donnell a few times and he has yet to return a call — same with Smith. And I thought we were pals when they first got into office …”

O’Donnell didn’t seek re-election — having little choice — and left Trenton at the end of 2015. These days he’s been quite responsive to calls.

I recall first meeting O’Donnell when he introduced himself at one of those giant rallies for Union City Mayor Brian Stack at Schuetzen Park in North Bergen. He and a couple of new Bayonne Democrats were on hand to study how someone runs a successful political operation. This was a year or two before Smith ran for mayor.

“Watch Bayonne,” he said. “We’ll be organizing doing some good things there.”

READY, SET …

We’ve come full circle and we’re going to learn if O’Donnell has learned anything the past decade — or not.

His Wednesday speech at the Knights of Columbus sounded like it came from a template.  He asked Bayonne voters if they are better today than when Davis took office. And he answers the question, essentially, Bayonne deserves better. The former assemblyman wants to become the city’s lifeguard.

Here’s a few quick excerpts:

“… A fight to save our residents and taxpayers from the out of control spending and ever rising property taxes imposed by this administration. A fight against bad development deals that threaten to ruin our children’s future. A fight against the favored few, on behalf of the so many across Bayonne struggling to make ends meet every day …

“… Let’s be very clear, I am in no way opposed to development. But I believe that smart and well-planned development that fully funds our schools, creates jobs and builds our tax base is what works best for Bayonne. Now … and in the future …

“… The fact remains, Mayor Davis’s actions have left him open to a federal civil rights investigation for creating a hostile work environment, sexual harassment and retaliation which, if found to be true, could end up costing taxpayers millions of dollars. This is all simply unacceptable …

“… Mayor Davis and his out of town Business Administrator will spend that time trying to convince you everything is going really well in town. They’ll try and distract you with potted plants and painted boxes while your tax money continues to be given away to big-time developers and the mayor’s revaluation of all of our home’s comes due. Just remember, paint fades and plants wither, but the lasting effects of the Davis Administration’s bad decisions will live on …”

BATTLE FLAGS

As in his past elections, expect O’Donnell to receive support from unions and this time around the developers will smell a good horse in the race and worth the investment (donations, directly or indirectly, likely through a Super PAC).

As for those politicians outside of Bayonne, there are some key biggies who are already making some noise about backing O’Donnell. The exception is North Bergen where Mayor Sacco loyalists feel they have a friendly employer in Davis.

On Thursday Davis did his kick-off rally at the traditional spot, The Chandelier, where Paramus resident and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez introduced the incumbent. Menendez still has respect among the county Democrats, despite the federal headaches, and he has a habit of backing most incumbents. Past mayors Doria and Lenny Kiczek made appearances as did two of the county’s three state senators, Sandra Cunningham of the 31st District and Jersey City and the aforementioned Sacco of the 32nd District.

Missing was the third state senator, the 33rd District’s Stack — and I took pains to point this out — and Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop was absent , no doubt preparing for upcoming local election debates. Also, despite the inferences by O’Donnell in his speech about alleged sexting and related public attacks against Davis on the issue, there was no Harvey Weinstein endorsement for the incumbent. Expect this “irresponsible conduct” to get more play during the campaign forcing the administration to take some defensive measures. Still, Davis has the benefit of being in office.

In the coming months, O’Donnell will highlight the “spending” and “failures” of the administration and the Davis faction will try to link the challenger to any weaknesses of the former Mayor Mark Smith administration. In between, the throwback candidates will try to convince an ever growing diverse electorate that they have an agenda for Bayonne’s future.

Now that the Bayonne race is officially underway, countywide interest can begin and go into fourth gear with the New Year. We hope to provide you with the leaks, gaffes and hometown-flavored high jinks — oh, and important issues.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Agustin C. Torres’ columns appear on the nj.com opinion website on Saturdays and occasionally in the print edition of The Jersey Journal.

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