Secaucus Democrats will hit the polls on Tuesday, June 2, in a primary election seen as a referendum on the administration of three-term Mayor Dennis Elwell, who is facing an insurgent challenge from the town’s public defender, Peter Weiner.
In vying for another term, the 64-year-old Elwell points to major projects like the library, day-care center and recreation center as key accomplishments during his term, as well as historically low rates of crime, the town’s designation as the “#11 Best Place to Live in New Jersey” and a steady hold on taxes.
Elwell — who is running on the slogan “Putting Secaucus First” with councilwoman Dawn McAdam (1st Ward), newcomer Frank Trombetta (2nd Ward) and Deputy Mayor John Reilly (3rd Ward) — cruised to victory unchallenged in his last primary in 2005, going on to defeat challenger Frank MacCormack in the general election that year by a margin of more than 2-to-1.
The path to the November election will not be as easy this year.
Challenging the Elwell slate is Weiner, 61, running under the banner of “Democrats for Change in Secaucus” with a slate that includes Joe Morano (1st Ward) and Susan Pirro (3rd Ward).
The “Change” slate has been a thorn in the side of the mayor at council meetings as they leveraged the public exposure that the meetings provide. Volleying criticism over the uncertain cost of the new rec center, lawsuits involving councilman Michael Gonnelli and the Damascus Bakery, and noise complaints surrounding the Feelgood Lounge, to name a few, Weiner’s group also says the town needs to be more open about expenditures and other issues.
Elwell’s supporters contend that the mayor has served in a hands-on role with town issues and pushed forward large projects like the library that were stagnant for years, while still making house calls to check on potholes and flood issues.
Both Elwell and Weiner are veterans of the war in Vietnam.
The winners of the primary will face Gonnelli and his Independent slate in November.
|Dennis Elwell, a Secaucus lifer, is the three-term incumbent mayor and earlier served on the town Council and school board. He is president of a 40-year-old family-owned trucking company, N.H. Elwell & Sons. He and his wife, Annette, have two children and lost a son in 1989.|
|Peter Weiner has been an attorney for 18 years, the municipal court’s public defender for 15 years and has also served as legal counsel to the planning board. His law practice has offices in Secaucus and Union City. He and his wife, Mary Ann, have two children.|
|Joe Morano owns a local insurance brokerage and consulting firm and is married to Dr. Lisa Rossetti-Morano, a dentist on Paterson Plank Road in town. The couple have a daughter at Huber Street School.|
|Dawn McAdam took over the council seat vacated by Richard Kane earlier this year. She is manager of Riverside Audi in town and married to Dave McAdam, a 21-year Dept. of Public Works employee. They have a daughter.|
|Frank Trombetta runs a carpeting and flooring company, FTC Carpet, in Lyndhurst and serves on the school board. He is the father of five children and led the Secaucus Little League for several years.|
|Susan Pirro, a mother of three daughters and administrator in the Union City School system, served two terms on the Secaucus Board of Education, including a term as president, but she’s been shadowed by an ethics complaint that arose while serving that board.|
|John Reilly, a councilman for 17 years and volunteer fire fighter for more than 30, is a retired United Parcel Service employee who serves as deputy mayor of Secaucus. He focuses on emergency services issues and is on the board of Meadowlands Hospital.|
Forecast: Elwell has the backing of the Hudson County Democratic Organization, the powerful perch of incumbency, and an army of fervent supporters and volunteers. You’d be hard pressed to walk down any street in town and not see an election sign for his slate, and the “Putting Secaucus First” flyers are a ubiquitous presence in mailboxes.
Weiner, on the other hand, has turned a long shot bid into a credible challenge in a relatively short time to the point where seasoned Democrats have told us that this primary election is far from in-the-bag.
It would be a stunning upset to topple Elwell in the primary, but not entirely out of reach for the challengers, who are using bread-and-butter issues like sidewalks and ambulance service to woo voters. [The quirky YouTube videos probably haven’t hurt, either. ]
As always, turnout will be crucial, which means weather (40% chance of rain) and get-out-the-vote reminders could have a profound effect, especially for Weiner’s slate. Two crucial voting blocs will be seniors — who have favored Elwell in the past and cite a prescription drug program with the town and an active senior center as reasons for that support — and backers of the Indepedent slate led by Gonnelli, who may sit this one out for the fall showdown, if they are registered for this contest at all.
Another key question is whether the vocal support the challengers have received at council meetings will translate into ballots cast in their favor.
A Few Issues and Where They Differ: Both Elwell’s and Weiner’s slate back televised council meetings, but Elwell’s team, citing legal reasons, is wary about airing the often contentious public comments portion of the bi-monthly events. Weiner’s platform is in favor of airing the entire meetings, although the council has moved forward with a plan closer to Elwell’s vision.
Weiner says the town should pass a so-called “pay to play” law, while Elwell contends that state laws are appropriate and eliminate the need for such legislation. Such rules limit donations from companies or individuals who seek contracts with municipalities or the state.
The mayor has said he wants to pull the town out from under the purview of the Meadowlands Commission. Because about 80% of the town falls under NJMC jurisidction, Secaucus forked over more than $3.4M in taxes to the group in 2008.
The town has not put together its new budget, so a large issue is off the table for the primary election.
Weiner has pushed for a free recreation area for the town’s youth at the old rec facility at 145 Front Street. Elwell has said bringing the building up to code for use could cost as much as $60K.
For more info:
Team Elwell – http://elwellteam.com/
Team Weiner – http://www.changesecaucus.org/index.html