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Jersey City Mayor GlennCunningham enters race for

31st district Senate seat

By STEVE KORNACKI
PoliticsNJ.com

JERSEY CITY, March 5 - Jersey City Mayor Glenn Cunningham declared his candidacy for the State Senate from the 31st district today, and in so doing set the stage for a primary battle that will pit the mayor and his allies against the powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization.

Cunningham is aiming to succeed freshman State Sen. Joseph Charles, Jr. (D-Jersey City), who is expected to announce next week that he will not seek another Senate term.  Charles has been widely rumored to be up for a judgeship, but he has yet to be appointed to the bench.

"It's become very clear to me that mayors who advocate for their cities in the state Assembly and Senate are very successful at protecting the interests of their cities," Cunningham told an enthusiastic crowd at city hall this afternoon.

The mayor railed against proposed cuts in local aid that he says unfairly target Jersey City.  He said the state's plan to cut Jersey's City's aid from $10.5 million to $2 million is unfair compared to nearby cities, such as Union City, which is scheduled for a much less drastic cut.

"The state has serious problems and we all have to pay for them," he said.  "Just don't ask Jersey City to pay more than its fair share."

Cunningham -- a former U.S. Marshall who followed Bret D. Schundler as the mayor of the state's second largest city two years ago -- said the lack of help from the
state is hampering his efforts to extend the prosperity evident along the city's waterfront to its inland neighborhoods.

"Obviously being mayor is not enough," he said.

While Cunningham touted his crime-fighting credentials and various educational and development initiatives, the internal party battle that led to his announcement today was evident.

"Things are twisted up around here," Cunningham said in reference to his feud with county party leaders. "It's all about helping a few."

The mayor will be running "off the line" in the primary; that is, without the support of the party's organization.  He said he will be fielding a full slate for all legislative and county offices.  The party's ticket in the 31st will apparently be headed by Jersey City Council President L. Harvey Smith, and will also include incumbent Assemblymen Joseph V. Doria, Jr. (D-Bayonne), a former Assembly Speaker and the Mayor of Bayonne, and freshman Assemblywoman Elba Perez-Cinciarelli.

There are several other prospective anti-organization candidates in Hudson County's other legislative districts, and Cunningham today said he might be interested in aligning himself with them to for a countywide ticket.

At the heart of the acrimony is a falling-out between Cunningham and Rep. Robert Menendez (D-Union City).  The two parted ways last year when Cunningham backed Bernard Hartnett for election to the county executive's post.  That angered Menendez and other party leaders, who say they had a deal with Cunningham that Hartnett would serve for a year and that a new candidate would then be picked.

The party-backed candidate, Thomas DeGise, ultimately beat Hartnett in the primary, but there has been no thaw in the relationship between Cunningham and his party's county organization. 

State Senate Majority Leader Bernard F. Kenny, Jr., (D-Hoboken), a Menendez ally who serves as the Hudson County Democratic Chairman, said the party made attempts to reconcile with Cunningham earlier this year, in part to ward off a primary fight.

"There's just been too much hostility on both sides that it just became impossible," he said today.

In discussing the disproportionate local aid cuts between Jersey City and Union City today, Cunningham seemed tacitly to implicate Menendez in a conspiracy to undermine Cunningham's administration.

The mayor said the cuts came as a result of "powerful people putting pressure on the state not to give me what I need so that I can't say I kept taxes down two years in a row."

Both Kenny and Doria disputed that claim today.  Both said they believe the proposed cuts for Jersey City are too drastic, but Kenny blamed them on the state's belief that Cunningham and his team have mismanaged the city financially.

Kenny said Cunningham's outspokenness against the party organization should be measured against the strong support party leaders -- including Menendez -- gave
him in his 2001 campaign.

"He's obsessed with this notion that people are always out to get him," Kenny said.  "But that's just not the case."

But Cunningham allies say the mayor split with the party on principle.  Former Hudson County Sheriff Dominic Pugliese -- who introduced Cunningham at his announcement -- remembers the Hartnett-DeGise fight differently.

"When the time came to support Bernie Hartnett for re-election, (the party organization) wanted certain things, and (Cunningham) wouldn't do it," he said.

"It's about greed, as far as I'm concerned," Pugliese added.

While Cunningham will still have his mayor's job if he loses this campaign, many observers see this is the defining moment of his political career.  If he is victorious he will have beaten a powerful political organization and will stand on his own as a formidable political power.  But a loss could severely weaken his prospects for re-election as mayor in 2005, and strengthen the party's bid to oust him.

Cunningham seemed content today to let his fortunes ride on his outsider status.

"Sometimes you have to buck the system," he said.

Hartnett lost last year when he ran against the party line, but Cunningham is running in only a portion of the county.  The 31st district covers all of Bayonne and some of Jersey City, but Jersey City voters outnumber Bayonne voters by about 2-1 in the district.

A recent poll gave Cunningham strong approval ratings in Jersey City, and observers say he is particularly well-liked in the areas of the city that are part of the 31st.

"Whenever you're running against a mayor in any community, it's a battle," Kenny acknowledged.

There's also the question of redistricting, which is currently before the state's courts.  A January Appellate Court ruling said that the current scheme dividing Newark and Jersey City each into three districts is unconstitutional.  Cunningham said today he hopes to run in the 31st, but is committed to running in whichever district the courts place him.

Steve Kornacki can be reached at kornackinj@aol.com complements of www.Politcssnj.com
 


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