By Ron Leir
Harrison Mayor Ray McDonough, a lifelong Democrat, did the unthinkable last week when he endorsed Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, for re-election.
McDonough and members of the Harrison Town Council got together with the state’s chief executive at the Tops Diner in neighboring East Newark last Thursday to make the announcement.
Only Second Ward Councilman Victor Villalta, who was otherwise engaged, couldn’t make it but Villalta told The Observer he, too, shared the love for Christie.
Said McDonough: “[Endorsing Christie] is something I’ve been thinking about for a while. I believe he’s best for the state because he plays bi-partisan politics. He’s shown me he’s willing to work with local politicians.”
McDonough said the governor demonstrated his commitment to helping Harrison by getting the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to move on an upgrade of the Harrison PATH station.
Plans for more than $250 million in improvements to the aging station were filed last Wednesday with the town’s Construction Department and the Harrison Planning Board is expected to hold a hearing on those plans later this month.
“That PATH station is being done only because of Gov. Christie,” McDonough asserted. “Six months ago, (P.A. Deputy Executive Director) Bill Baroni came to see me. I told him I got a billion dollar redevelopment going on around a non-ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)-compliant station.”
Soon after, McDonough said, Baroni informed the mayor that Christie wanted action on the station. Within days, the P.A. Board of Commissioners authorized an appropriation of $256 million for a new, stateof- the-art rail station that – for the first time – would accommodate physically-challenged commuters.
Now, McDonough, “they’re ready to start [the work]. And it’s only being done because of the governor.”
And, the mayor added, Christie “is looking to help me in other ways.”
Asked to explain, McDonough said he’s “hoping that Harrison gets included in a ‘transit hub’ bill [sponsored by State Sen. Raymond Lezniak (D-Union and Assemblyman Albert Coutinho (D-Newark)] that provides incentives for developers. It’s in the drafting stages now.”
Asked if Christie had mentioned the possibility of restoring Harrison’s representation on the depleted board of the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, which the governor has targeted for reform, McDonough replied: “No, I haven’t had discussions with anyone about that, although I understand that the Board of Commissioners will have to meet soon because they’ve got bond issues that have to be addressed.”
Elaborating on the reasons for his endorsement, McDonough said he’s made a point of going to “at least 20 to 25 of [Christie’s] town meetings in north Jersey. They make sure they have a seat for me. This guy’s a character but people love him because he’s saying what they want to hear. … His approval rating is 74%. I don’t agree with everything he does but, I think, on the whole, he has the interests of the state at heart.”
McDonough noted that a precedent for what he’s done was set – in Harrison – back in 1985 when then-Dems Mayor Frank E. Rodgers “had [GOP gubernatorial candidate] Tom Kean over here and we did the same thing.”
Still, neighboring Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos was having none of it. “It’s out of the ordinary,” Santos said. “It’s not something that [other] mayors in Hudson County – all Democrats – will do. I have a good working relationship with the governor. We have a responsibility to work together across party lines to get things done; however, at election time, I’ll be endorsing the Democratic candidate for governor.”
At this point, Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Edison) has emerged as the leading contender as the state Democratic Party’s primary nominee for governor.
Hudson County Democratic Organization Chairman/Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith didn’t reply to a request for comment.
And how does East Newark Mayor Joseph Smith feel about his neighbor’s crossing party lines?
“I’m not going to openly criticize or praise Ray McDonough,” Smith said. “I don’t know the reasons for his decision,” Smith added, “but knowing Ray, I think he takes people’s welfare ahead of his own point of view.”
Will Smith be jumping on the Christie bandwagon? “I have to make up my own mind,” he said. “At this point, I can’t make a commitment, one way or another.”
Was he surprised that his Harrison neighbor chose to make the endorsement at a diner in East Newark? Well, Smith said, “[McDonough] eats dinner there every day.”