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McGreevey stumps for Hudson organization candidates in Dem primary vs. Cunningham



BAYONNE, May 6 - Facing a stiff intra-party challenge to their organization's muscle, Hudson County Democrats hauled out the biggest political gun in the state tonight in an effort to prevent an embarrassing primary loss.

Gov. James E. McGreevey, who is dogged by low approval ratings in much of the state but who remains popular in Hudson, endorsed the Hudson County Democratic Organization's entire legislative ticket at a rally in Mercer Park in Bayonne.

But the setting of the rally told the real reason why the governor was there.  Located on the Bayonne-Jersey City line, Mercer Park sits in the heart of the 31st legislative district, site of the most contentious Democratic primary in the state.

There, Jersey City Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham is running against Jersey City Council President L. Harvey Smith for the State Senate.  Cunningham is locked in a bitter feud with the HCDO, which is wary of the power Cunningham stands to accrue if he adds a Senate seat to his resume.

Cunningham has also recruited Bayonne Councilman Anthony Chiappone and former Hudson County Freeholder Louis Manzo to be his Assembly running-mates, challenging incumbents Joseph V. Doria (D-Bayonne) and Elba Perez-Cinciarelli (D-Jersey City).

Smith, Doria and Perez-Cinciarelli all joined McGreevey on the stage, along with most of the members of the county's all-Democratic legislative delegation and County Executive Thomas DeGise.

Many of the speakers stressed the idea that the delegation is united and works as a team.  DeGise --  whose selection as county executive over Bernard F.  Hartnett, Jr.  last year ushered in the split between Cunningham and the organization -- took a not-so-subtle jab at the Jersey City mayor, who HCDO leaders have said has a problem being a team player.

"There's only one exception to this era of cooperation and unity in Hudson County, and we're going to put an end to that on June 3," DeGise declared.  In 2001, Cunningham defeated DeGise in the mayoral runoff election.

In his remarks, McGreevey didn't specifically mention the race in the 31st District -- the only contested legislative primary in the county -- instead focusing on the money that his administration has ear-marked for Hudson County in the areas of education, infrastructure and transportation.

"I believe Hudson County is on the verge of greatness," the governor intoned.  "We are about to make the single greatest capital investment the state has ever made in Hudson County."

He shared credit with the Democratic delegation, exhorting the crowd not to "change horses in the middle of the river."

"This is a team that works hard for you," McGreevey said.  "I am asking you to return the entire Hudson County team."

The governor also showered praise on the county's most powerful Democrat, Rep. Robert Menendez (D-Hoboken). Menendez has been publicly critical of McGreevey, branding the governor's office "amateur hour" after McGreevey reneged on a commitment to nominate Zulima Farber to the state Supreme Court last month.

Menendez,  a staunch Cunningham foe, was not in attendance at the rally, remaining in Washington where Congress is in session. 

Some observers believe the race in the 31st is in part a referendum on Menendez's clout in Hudson County. Cunningham has called Menendez "a classic boss," and said a few weeks ago that if he wins, "I don't know if [Menendez] will be less powerful, but I'll be a hell of a lot more powerful."

Polls have shown Cunningham enjoying an approval rating in the 70 percent range in Jersey City, and even Menendez conceded last week that the district seems "ideally suited" for Cunningham.  Jersey City's voters outnumber Bayonne's by about two-to-one in the district.

Cunningham downplayed the significance of the governor's visit, pointing out that he helped deliver Jersey City for McGreevey in 2001, even though the Republican candidate was Bret Schundler, who served for nine years as the city's mayor.

"The governor is a friend of mine and he's got all of these political bosses putting pressure on him," Cunningham said.  "When I get to be the senator, there's going to be a breath of fresh air in Trenton and we aren't going to have to deal with these political bosses again."

"The governor is on the right side of this issue, and I think he'll be glad when I get there, to tell you the truth," Cunningham added.

After the rally, Smith dismissed polls by Cunningham's campaign that give the mayor a two-to-one lead in the race.  Stressing how humbled he was to receive the governor's backing, he predicted the endorsement would give his campaign a boost.

"This is like winning the NCAA basketball championship," said Smith, who himself played at Cleveland State University, where he is fourth all-time in rebounds.

The council president said his ability to work with people would distinguish him from Cunningham.

"He can't even stay comfortably friendly with his council," Smith stated.  "I supported Bernie Hartnett over DeGise, and I was still able to maintain the respect of my colleagues."

McGreevey left the event without answering questions from the press, but Doria said he expected the governor would return to help the ticket before the primary.

The combination of the sluggish economy and a series of administrative gaffes has eroded McGreevey's statewide support.  His unfavorable rating has outpaced his favorable rating since the end of last year.

But in Hudson County, his numbers are reversed.

Doria -- who McGreevey worked to oust as the party's Assembly leader two years ago -- chalked it up to the Democrats' dominance in Hudson County.

"This is a hard-core Democratic area," Doria said. "These are Democratic voters, and they believe in what [McGreevey] is doing."

Steve Kornacki can be reached at 



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