At the Bergen County Democratic Committee meeting last evening Chair Lou Stellato made the call to order at 5:00 PM. He immediately entertained a motion to nominate candidates for the vacant position of Sheriff. There was a nomination and a second for Anthony Cureton, an NAACP local chapter head, retired detective sergeant from Englewood who had also worked in the sheriff’s office. Chair Stellato in rapid-fire succession asked several times “Is there a motion for another candidate” and after about six seconds hearing no further motion he closed the nomination process and announced Cureton the winner.
So what was wrong with this process?
The meeting was scheduled for 5:00 PM to 8:00 PM. Few attendees knew the formal meeting would take place at 5:00 PM sharp and could end seconds later. Indeed it was not until half an hour later when the number of attendees doubled, so many were not able to nominate another candidate or play a role in the formal proceedings.
Standing outside the site of the meeting was Saddle Brook Police Chief Robert Kugler handing out leaflets as a candidate for the same position. He said he had been told he could not enter the building ostensibly because he was not a Democratic municipal or county committee member. Outside there were many lawn signs for Cureton, but none for Kugler.
Attendees were enraged over the process. One individual made a motion that was quickly seconded to re-open the nominations. Stellato refused to do so until someone, probably the parliamentarian, told him the motion was proper and had to be obeyed. Kugler’s name was then entered into nomination. The two candidates were allowed three minutes each to make a presentation. The preview image above is Kugler making his presentation with Stellato on the left.
Although at this point Stellato sought to end the process, another motion brought forth the opportunity for attendees to ask the two candidates questions. During this period Stellato, seeming awkward, defensive and unhappy, failed to maintain order as many attendees were talking to each other. It was difficult to hear the questions and answers.
The nomination process was ordained following the resignation of the now discredited Sheriff Michael Saudino caught on tape making abominable comments. It was originally thought that Gov. Murphy might appoint an interim sheriff. However Secretary of State Tahesha Way ruled that a little-known statute requires a special election for sheriff if a resignation occurs outside a 37-day window. Such may be a reasonable statute, but it provides little time for candidates to launch their campaign and promulgate their positions to county party committee members.
Lou Stellato took advantage of the short period to quickly solicit and receive endorsements from leading NJ elected officials for candidate Cureton. Those committee members who had to vote, however, knew little about what was happening or even who the candidates were until the last moment. It was not until yesterday, for example, that as a committee member I learned that Kugler was a candidate.
In the end the rough tally was 418 votes for Cureton and 111 for Kugler. Cureton appears to be an excellent candidate. He is in a strong position to take on Hasbrouck Heights Mayor Jack DeLorenzo, the GOP candidate, in the November election.
Nonetheless, allowing such a short period before committee members must commit to a candidate is unfortunate. Worse were the undemocratic methods of Stellato to ram through his preferred candidate.
New Jersey has a storied, sordid history of party bosses, exemplified today by George Norcross and Joe DiVincenzo. Stellato helmed the committee beginning in 2011, spending years while Bergen County was under Republican control. Throughout the period there were rumors of him being replaced. However, in 2014 he led Jim Tedesco – a little known freeholder at the time – to a stunning win over Republican incumbent Kathe Donovan in the Bergen County Exec’s race. He followed that up with the victory of Representative Josh Gottheimer (D) over arch-conservative Scott Garrett (R). Today all members of the Bergen County Board of Freeholders are Democrats.
Certainly many others contributed to the dominant leadership position now held by Democratic officials in Bergen County. Nonetheless, Stellato deserves his credit.
It would not be a bad idea were Stellato to resign in the near future as he could bask in his glory. In spite of his achievements, it is time for new blood – someone who has more respect for transparency and democracy, who listens to broader concerns of committee members and willingly lets their voices be heard. The day of the iron fist should be over. It is time for an open hand.