Published in the Star-Ledger, Friday, September 29, 2006
Mayor fights the political machinery in Roselle
Friday, September 29, 2006
The first sign that something was rotten in Roselle came when the absentee ballots were counted.
The council candidate backed by the Democratic machine won those votes overwhelmingly, giving him a narrow victory.
Then stranger news arrived. Some of the people who supposedly voted for the winner swore in open court the signatures on their documents were not their own. One of them didn't even live in town.
Then came word that dozens of ballots were not put in the mail -- they were personally delivered to borough hall by a councilman who now admits he broke the rules designed to prevent fraud.
The only consolation in this tawdry tale is that the bad guys did not get away with it this time. A judge in Union County on Tuesday threw out 31 questionable ballots, and reversed the results of the election.
But the Democratic machine in Union County is not dead. It is only injured. And that means the real fight in Roselle is only beginning.
On one side is Mayor Garrett Smith, a dissident Democrat who describes the county machine as a cushy club designed to enrich its members.
"It's a business to these guys," he says. "It's all about jobs and contracts."
On the other side is the Democratic establishment, which would like nothing more than to beat Smith down and grind him to dust.
"This isn't over," vows Charlotte DeFilippo, the county chairwoman. "His problems started when he refused to be part of our organization."
Smith says the fighting began in January 2004, almost immediately after he was sworn in.
He received an urgent phone call one day from a supporter on the Borough Council who told him Assemblyman Neil Cohen, the machine's point man in Roselle, was secretly meeting with the entire council at a private home in town.
Smith decided to crash the party. He considered it an illegal meeting, for one. And if they were discussing public business, he wanted to be there.
"I was shocked," the mayor says. "They were going over appointment lists. No one was saying anything except Neil. He was doing all the talking. I had no idea the level of control they had."
Relations went south from there. Smith's supporters on the Board of Education removed Cohen as their counsel. And later, Smith himself removed Cohen as counsel to a dormant board in Roselle that handles rent control issues.
"I told him it's a no-show job and the only reason he has it is because he's municipal chairman," Smith says.
Cohen, of course, denies that. And he says he feels no bitterness toward Smith over losing those two jobs.
"I understand when the other side wins an election, they get their pick," he says. "I'm a big boy."
Notice the machine-think in that statement. Cohen suffers from a disease of the brain, common in New Jersey, that leads normally rational people to think of government jobs as rewards for political friends.
He doesn't even argue that the job should go to the best person. And DeFilippo, the county chairwoman, sees it the same way.
"Should I help my political enemies," she asks. "Does that make any sense?"
Fighting that machine mentality is the real challenge in front of Smith now. And it won't be easy.
This is his first elected job. Roselle, a former factory town that is struggling to attract new businesses, has big problems. And Smith is a combative fellow, which is often a bad fit for politics.
Wish this man luck. He has a one-vote majority on the council now, thanks to this week's court ruling.
So change may be coming to Roselle -- whether the machine likes it or not.
Tom Moran's column appears Wednesdays and Fridays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-1823.
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- Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.