January 29, 2023
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A primer on the political career of Tom DeGise

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Tom DeGise wanted to be the mayor of Jersey City but wound up turning his consolation prize into a 20-year stay as the longest serving county executive in Hudson County history.

DeGise started out in politics in 1973, helping his sister, Lois Shaw, win a city council seat in 1973.

Elected age 30 on a slate with reform mayor Paul Jordan, Shaw took on a 1940s ordinance that banned women from drinking at local bars or being employed as bartenders.

Ge ran for the first time in 1989, as a 38-year-old social studies teacher at Snyder High School.  He had served as president of a local neighborhood association

In a race for the ward council seats representing The Heights (then called Hudson City), Daniel Waddleton, an ally of Mayor Gerald McCann, led DeGise by a 27%-12% margin.  McCann on his runoff against Glenn Cunningham by 10 percentage points, and Waddleton edged out DeGise by a 56%-44% margin.

In 1993, DeGise ran at-large on a slate in a non-partisan election on a slate headed by Mayor Bret Schundler, a Republican who had won a 1992 special election following McCann’s criminal conviction.  Since there are no runoffs in municipal special elections, Schundler was able to win with 17% in a 19-candidate field.

Schundler defeated Freeholder Louis Manzo by a 68%-29% margin – Waddleton received 2.5% — and eight of his nine city council candidates were elected.  DeGise was the top vote-getter in the at-large race, easily ousting incumbents Anthony Cucci, a former mayor, and Willie Flood, and defeating Junior Maldonado, now the county clerk.

DeGise immediately became the council president.

He sought re-election on Schundler’s ticket – the mayoral race against former Municipal Court Judge Jeramiah Healy was closer  – and was forced into a runoff.   DeGise was again the top vote-getter, running for that 2,500 votes ahead of Flood, who had run on the Healy slate.

Schundler ran for governor in 2001 and DeGise ran to succeed him.

In the May election, Glenn Cunningham, a former councilman, freeholder and U.S. Marshal, finished first with 38% of the vote, leading DeGise (24%) by 5,366 votes in a five candidate field.  (Manzo finished third with 20%.)

Cunningham defeated DeGise in a June runoff by 2,475 votes, 43%-47%.

That year, Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski suddenly disappeared and later resigned.  It was later revealed that Janiszewski was the target of a federal corruption probe and was in federal protective custody at the time.  He would later go to prison for accepting bribes.

Hudson County Democrats picked Bernard Hartnett as an interim replacement for Janiszewski, but when he ran in a 2002 Democratic primary to keep the job for another year, he faced a challenge from DeGise.

Hartnett had served as the Hudson County Democratic Chairman before resigning to become county executive.  He was replaced by Bob Menendez, then a five-term congressman from Union City.

The Hartnett vs. DeGise primary set off a warette in Hudson County that year between Menendez and Cunningham.  Cunningham wanted Hartnett to stay on, while Menendez and a majority of the Hudson mayors backed DeGise.

DeGise, who had lost a runoff election for mayor to Glenn Cunningham the previous year, beat Hartnett by a 73%-27% margin.

Hartnett was a key ally of reformer Paul Jordan, a 30-year-old Jersey City physician who mounted a successful insurgency to win a 1971 special election for mayor that followed Thomas Whelan’s resignation.  Whelan had been convicted of federal extortion charges.

Jordan later took control of the local Democratic organization and Hartnett became the Jersey City Democratic Municipal Chairman.

In 1974, Jordan convinced Gov. Brendan Byrne to name Hudson County Democratic Chairman Francis Fitzpatrick, the three-term mayor of Bayonne, as the executive director of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority.

That cleared a path for Hartnett to become county chairman.

In 1976, Hartnett backed Assemblyman Byron Baer (D-Englewood) for Congress in his primary challenge to Rep. Henry Helstoski (D-East Rutherford) in a Bergen-based districts that included the Hudson Democratic strongholds of Union City and North Bergen.

Union City Mayor and State Sen. William Vincent Musto and North Bergen Mayor Peter Mocco were backing Helstoski.

Helstoski led Baer by 106 votes, but the margin expanded after more votes from Hudson suddenly began to materialize.  Hudson added 1,642 new votes for Helstoski and just 79 for Baer.

Allegations of fraud surfaced quickly, and Hudson County Superintendent of Elections Jerome Lazarus, a Hartnett ally, ordered the absentee ballots impounded. As Lazarus was impounding the Hudson County votes, Helstoski was in Federal Court for a 10 AM arraignment on federal corruption charges.

Baer maintained that the Hudson results were fraudulent and quickly challenged the election in court. Baer said that irregularities in the absentee ballots included erasures and similarities in handwriting.

The challenge lasted well into the summer.

Baer picked up 200 votes on June 24 when Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Brien ordered a recount of voting machines in North Bergen. On August 11, more than two months after the primary, Superior Court Judge John Marzulli ordered that a new primary election be held on September 21.

Helstoski willingly agreed to the new election, partly out of fear that the Judge was prepared to disqualify enough votes to certify Baer as the winner.  Fueled by the Union City and North Bergen machines, the six-term congressman beat Baer in the do-over primary, but then lost the general election to former Republican State Sen. Harold Hollenbeck (R-East Rutherford.)

Following the election of Thomas F.X. Smith as mayor of Jersey City in May 1977, Hartnett stepped down as county chairman.  He was replaced by Smith’s choice, former State Sen. Frank Guarini (D-Jersey City). The following year, Guarini leveraged his post to oust freshman Rep. Joseph LeFante (D-Bayonne) and replace him with himself.

Smith’s upset victory ended Jordan’s gubernatorial.  Jordan and Hartnett had backed Bill Macchi to replace him, but lost by 28 points.

After Jordan’s exit from the race, Hartnett endorsed Byrne.

Hartnett’s father, Bernard M. Hartnett, was elected Hudson County Supervisor in 1951 as part of a slate backed by the county political boss, Jersey City Mayor John V. Kenny.

The two had a falling out and Hudson Democrats dumped Hartnett from their ticket in 1954.

The Hudson Democratic war of 1958 set up a massive battle between Kenny and the current mayor, Charles Witkowski.

Hartnett sided with Witkowski and ran for freeholder on the anti-organization Victory slate that included former world heavyweight boxing champion James J. Braddock of North Bergen.  Hoboken Mayor Fred DeSapio ran for county clerk on the Victory ticket, along with former Rep. T. James Tumulty (D-Jersey City), seeking to regain the congressional seat he lost two years earlier.

The Kenny forces won the primary.

DeGise on a four-year term in 2003 with 71% in the Democratic primary against Melba Walsh (25%) and Jaime Vasquez (4%).   He won 60% in the 2007 Democratic primary against Noemi Velazquez, now a Jersey City school board member.  That was his last competitive race.

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