The Hudson County link figures big in Senate race

The Hudson County link figures big in Senate race
Monday, October 16, 2006 The Record

For ridicule both earned and unearned about corruption, congestion and crassness, the United States has New Jersey. And New Jersey has Hudson County.

This geographic abuse is often jovial, but it has become a serious part of this year's U.S. Senate race. Republican candidate Tom Kean Jr. frequently deploys the county as a catchphrase -- shorthand for something that must not be good, because he uses it in connection with his Democratic rival, Hudson County's own Bob Menendez.

"A lot of voters out there are not going to forget he's from Hudson County," Quinnipiac University pollster Clay Richards said of Menendez, a longtime congressman appointed to the U.S. Senate in January. "I think it was the first thing a lot of people knew about Menendez."

In stories about the campaign in the state's largest newspapers, the county has been mentioned about three times more often than Kean's home county, Union. This has been driven partly by the Kean campaign's insistent repetition in press releases, speeches and advertising.

"I think that if he [Menendez] does for the state of New Jersey what he's done for Hudson County, I think we're in trouble," Kean campaign avatar Larry Giancola, a self-described Hudson Democrat, says during one typical riff in a radio spot. "Hudson County being the most corrupt county probably in the whole country."

Corruption is the ill most obviously invoked by Hudson County as it's imagined by Kean and perhaps most other people. Kean, whose campaign is based heavily on ethical charges against Menendez, begins one of his stock speeches by recalling Frank Hague, the infamous Jersey City mayor and Democratic boss who "walked away from his $8,000-a-year post a multimillionaire," as Kean puts it. The assumption is that Hague did not make the extra money on shrewd stock investments.

Although Hague's 30-year run began almost a century ago, in 1917, Hudson County's reputation has never quite escaped his shadow, said Francis Moran, a political science professor at New Jersey City University in Jersey City. Moran recalled searching for textbooks that touch on the area for one of his courses.

"The only time Jersey City is mentioned in any of them is Frank Hague," he said.

There has been no shortage of more modern examples to reinforce Hudson's associations with graft, Moran noted, although none of them approaches Hague's scope and influence. Hague, after all, was thought to be single-handedly responsible for the last elected U.S. senator -- and governor -- to hail from Hudson County, A. Harry Moore. Oddly enough, Moore won his seat in 1934 by defeating Sen. Hamilton Fish Kean, Tom Kean Jr.'s great-grandfather.

How about Monmouth?

History is mainly responsible for the current caricature of Hudson County, said Nick Acocella, the Hoboken-based publisher of the newsletter Politifax. When confronted with Bob Janiszewski, the former Hudson County executive now in prison for taking bribes in this very century, Acocella countered with federal authorities' continuing corruption sweep at the Jersey Shore.

"We're not as bad as Monmouth," Acocella said, referring to the county hosting what the U.S. Attorney's Office calls "Operation Bid Rig." He added sarcastically, "Except they have lawns, so they must be nicer."

Inevitably, any extended bout of Hudson-bashing extends to targets besides corruption. Kean's Giancola ad, for example, goes on to mention Hudson's "sky-high taxes" and "increased gang activity" before summing it up bluntly as "a terrible place to live."

The Kean message plays accordingly along the urban-rural divide. In Quinnipiac's most recent poll, urban voters judged Menendez "honest and trustworthy" by an eight-point margin, 42 percent to 34 percent. Suburbanites were almost evenly divided, 41 percent to 38 percent. And rural residents were almost the exact reverse of the cities: 34 percent deemed Menendez honest, while 43 percent distrusted him.

Menendez and his allies have periodically tried to turn the criticism around by suggesting that Kean, who represents New Jersey's wealthiest legislative district in the state Senate, is attacking not just corruption, but poor, urban immigrants.

"Are you casting an aspersion upon the people of Hudson County?" Menendez demanded after Kean contrasted their respective home territories in one early debate. Slapping his palm for emphasis, he went on, "They're hardworking. They're blue-collar people."

'Economic engine'

In a similar vein, Democratic state Sen. Bernard F. Kenny of Hoboken interrupted a legislative hearing on property taxes last week to defend the people of his county.

"We've been the economic engine of the state, contrary to what Senator Kean Jr. likes to say about Hudson County," Kenny said. He accused Kean of denigrating "half a million people, hardworking people, many of them immigrants."

With Menendez looking to remain the first Latino senator from the Northeast and only the sixth in U.S. history, some observers say the references to Hudson County effectively underscore his ethnicity.

"There are more than a few people here who believe that," Acocella said. "While I would not want to attribute that consciously to the Kean campaign, it does have that effect. There are people who are never going to vote for anyone with an 'ez' at the end of his name."

Kean, the son of former Gov. Tom Kean, noted that he comes from a long tradition of inclusive politics. He said his only target in Hudson County is its tradition of public corruption, which he believes Menendez is continuing. The Republican said he is speaking out for Hudson County residents who are paying exorbitant taxes to fund a corrupt system.

"The people of Hudson County have suffered enough under the tactics of Boss Bob," Kean said in an interview Friday. "Bob Menendez is trying to turn the U.S. Senate race into a class warfare situation, and that's disgusting."

Menendez argued that Kean is propagating an outdated, simplistic vision of his county.

"I think Tom Kean Jr. lives in a time warp, or a purposeful depiction of a county that doesn't recognize ... the greatness of a lot of people who started here, created successes and now live across the state," Menendez said in an interview at his favorite breakfast joint, the IHOP just off the Lincoln Tunnel approach in Union City. "The Hudson County I know is ... modern, it's bustling, it's raising the level of employment in the state with high-wage jobs. It's a lot of stuff to be proud of."

But Kean said Hudson County's politicians still offer plenty of causes for shame. He cited recently surfaced recordings that caught Menendez's longtime ally, attorney and political mover Donald Scarinci, invoking Menendez's name while apparently trying to micromanage county contracts and patronage.

The Scarinci tapes actually feature both of the competing visions of Hudson in the campaign. While raising the reputation for corruption that's being used as a cudgel, Scarinci also speaks to an underdog toughness that keeps returning the blows. At one point, Scarinci refers to an official from Bergen County as an outsider who "has everything handed to him in his life."

He adds, "He is not like us ... that scrape and earn what we have."

* * *

Notorious Hudson County politics

Frank Hague
Jersey City mayor and Democratic Party boss from 1917-47, had $14 million in the bank when he died, even though he made $8,000 a year.

Cornelius E. Gallagher
Former Democratic congressman from Bayonne went to prison in 1973 for income tax evasion linked to a political fund-raising scheme.

Thomas J. Whelan
Former Jersey City mayor convicted in July 1971 for collecting million of dollars in kickbacks from Hudson County businesses.

William V. Musto
State legislator and Union City mayor convicted in 1982 of accepting kickbacks from city contractors. Won reelection the day after he was sentenced to seven years in federal prison.

Gerald Mc Cann
Brash-talking Jersey City mayor during the 1980s, convicted on federal fraud charges in 1992 related to a failed Florida savings and loan.

David Friedland
Hudson County assemblyman who faked his death while scuba diving in the Bahamas in 1985 after learning he was facing charges of defrauding a union pension fund. Was captured three years later in the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.

Robert Janiszewski
County executive admitted in 2002 taking $100,000 in bribes and then triggered a windfall of corruption prosecutions. Serving a 41-month sentence in federal prison.

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