By Ron Leir
Harrison lost its longtime chief executive when Mayor Raymond McDonough collapsed at his Town Hall office and subsequently died of an apparent heart attack on Wednesday afternoon, officials said.
Paramedics tried to revive him as he was rushed by ambulance to St. Michael’s Hospital, Newark, but McDonough, 65, was pronounced dead at the hospital, officials said.
A funeral Mass was held Monday at Holy Cross Church, Harrison, where the mayor was a longtime parishioner. Mulligan Funeral Home, Harrison, handled the arrangements.
Tributes to the late mayor came from public officials on all levels of government:
* Rep. Albio Sires (D-West New York) called McDonough “a champion for all people … [whose] legacy will live on throughout Harrison for years to come.”
* Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise lauded McDonough as a “true Harrisonian” who continually fought for the townspeople. DeGise remembered when the mayor was lobbying the N.J. Sports & Exposition Authority to finance construction of a soccer stadium in Harrison and NJSEA President/CEO George Zoffinger rejected it, claiming there’d be little public support for soccer. That response, DeGise said, infuriated McDonough, who ultimately got the Red Bulls to invest in a stadium.
*Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos said he hoped that Harrison residents would be fortunate to find a replacement with as strong leadership capability as McDonough. And East Newark Mayor Joseph Smith expressed gratitude to McDonough for the support and assistance he willingly provided the borough.
*Harrison Councilwoman Carol Mandaglio said McDonough “was one of the most fair, hardworking, sensitive and caring persons I had the privilege of knowing and working with. He leaves Harrison and the world a better place for having lived. No one will fill his shoes.”
Former Municipal Court Judge John Johnson, a lifelong friend and currently special counsel to the Harrison Redevelopment Agency, said he spent several hours with the mayor Wednesday morning at Town Hall, which was closed for the Presidents’ Day holiday.
But the mayor had arranged to come into the building to confer with Johnson on redevelopment-related matters. Associates of the mayor noted it was typical of McDonough to work on town business at any time, including weekends.
Johnson said he and McDonough discussed details of a financial agreement for the Harrison Commons redevelopment project and were on several conference calls dealing with other redevelopment matters.
“The last thing he said to me before I left him at around noon was, ‘I’ll give you a call around 3 o’clock,’ ’’ Johnson recalled.
Instead, Johnson said, he got a cell phone call on the road telling him that the mayor had been stricken. “I immediately turned around and headed back to Harrison,” he said.
At Town Hall, the mayor had been discovered lying on the floor by Town Attorney Paul Zarbetski, CFO Gabriela Simoes and attorney Greg Castano Jr. Emergency medical personnel tended to him and then placed him in a MONOC ambulance which took him to the Newark hospital.
By the time Johnson returned, the mayor had passed.
“I not only lost my boss but a great dear friend and confidante,” Johnson said last Thursday. “I’m at a loss for words. I haven’t slept all night. It’s chilling.”
It seemed somehow fitting that McDonough would spend his final hours on official business dealing with the minutiae of redevelopment matters since that appeared to be the mayor’s primary focus in recent years.
A reporter who made periodic visits to the mayor’s Town Hall office – where there was always an open door policy – would invariably be greeted by McDonough offering an inventory of each redevelopment project’s status. The mayor would produce a yellow notepad filled with notes and recite a list of appointments with developers for the coming week.
Longtime friends and associates such as Freeholder Al Cifelli and Councilman Larry Bennett agreed that it was McDonough’s most fervent wish to get Harrison back on track after losing many of the industries and thousands of employees that once made Harrison home.
To that end, McDonough pushed relentlessly to attract new tax ratables for the town’s decaying 250-acre waterfront development district along the Passaic River. “We were just starting to gear up for the beginnings of that effort when 9/11 happened and that set us back a bit,” Cifelli said. “Then, after the Red Bulls committed to break ground [for a soccer stadium], the recession hit,” he said.
But through all the disappointment and frustration, McDonough persevered, Cifelli said. “A lesser man would throw in the towel,” he added.
And those efforts have begun to bear fruit, with the development of the Red Bull Arena, Hampton Inn, Panasonic Research & Development Center, River Park apartment complex, phase one of the Harrison Station residential/hotel/retail cluster, 1,400-space Harrison Parking Center, and the beginning of a $260 million upgrade of the Harrison PATH station.
Additionally, the town has signed contracts with several redevelopers involving the old Hartz Mountain site and other former factory properties further inland.
And while some of the mayor’s political opponents have chided him for neglecting Harrison’s downtown, McDonough managed – with help from government bureaucrats and developer contributions – to find funding sources to pay for a 15-unit affordable senior citizen residence on Harrison Ave. and to partner with the North Hudson Community Action Corp. to deliver state-of- the-art clinical services to uninsured and underinsured local residents later this year.
McDonough’s political legacy officially dates from 1978 when he made his initial – and successful – bid for elective office, representing the Second Ward on the Town Council. “I hung [election] signs for him,” Bennett remembered.
But it seemed preordained that McDonough would enter the political arena, given that his godfather was the legendary Hudson County pol, John V. Kenny. Not to mention that McDonough’s dad served as a county freeholder in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Like his dad, McDonough became a union plumber – a skill that served him well during his tenure as a supervisor with the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission.
McDonough – who’d excelled on the basketball court as a student at Essex Catholic High School – continued on the Town Council where he devoted much attention to local recreation – until his election as mayor in 1995. He was in the final year of his mayoral term and, according to Bennett, he’d made up his mind to run again.
For now, Council President Michael Dolaghan will serve as acting mayor. Members of the county Democratic Committee in Harrison have 15 days from last Wednesday to submit the names of three people to the Town Council who then must select one as interim mayor within 30 days. The interim mayor will serve out the remainder of McDonough’s term which ends Dec. 31.
A final word of praise for his former friend and colleague from John Johnson: “If you cut Ray’s arm, it would bleed blue for Harrison.” (Harrison public school teams’ nickname: the “Blue Tide.”