Sen. Nick Sacco has built a political fortress in Hudson County, and he knows that no one can dethrone him after three decades in power.
So why not take advantage? Why not cast aside all shame and grab as much money as you can, pushing the legal boundaries to the limit?
Sacco just cashed in his chips, taking $270,000 in unused sick time, on top of his $220,000 pension. He’s 74 now, and for decades he’s been engorging himself with three public salaries that brought him over $300,000 in combined pay at his peak – as mayor in North Bergen, as senator in District 32, and as a senior administrator in the public school system, the one job he finally quit.
The superintendent of schools in North Bergen, George Solter, who was in theory Sacco’s boss at the school job, says that Sacco’s plunder in North Bergen is all by the book, part of a negotiated contract.
“It was part of the deal, and we have to live up to it,” says Solter. “We’ve tried to work on that in collective bargaining, but the union asks, ‘What are you going to give us in return for giving that up?’”
Sacco is just playing by the same rules as everyone else, we’re supposed to believe.
Except that in those negotiations, Sacco sits on both sides of the table, as a member of the union and as the political boss whose slate of candidates won all the seats on the school board. When Sacco wants something, the board gives it to him, which also explains how his salary was higher than the superintendent’s, and how 10 Sacco relatives got jobs with the public schools, too, according to an investigation by NBC-TV.
And is Sacco really a superman who can juggle three demanding jobs at once? I asked Solter if that seems a bit fishy to him.
“He was here all the time, and put in a lot of hours,” Solter swears.
Okay, but how could Salter know whether Sacco, behind closed doors, was really working on school business? “I didn’t keep an eye on that, but every time I went in there we talked about education,” Solter says.
You can see it’s a cozy relationship, all in the family.
“He’s been there a long time and controls every aspect of the government,” says Larry Wainstein, who twice ran against Sacco for mayor, losing both times in landslides. “It’s the power of incumbency. I went to a senior center during a heat wave to bring seniors donuts and water, and within minutes, four, five, six police officers arrived in riot gear and asked me to leave. If I’d go to the park, they’d send sheriffs officers to say I wasn’t allowed to hand out literature in the park.”
I’d like to tell you how Sacco justifies all this, but he wouldn’t talk to me, and his spokesperson didn’t return repeated calls.
But this is chilling stuff, and we’re bound to see more of it with the tidal wave of federal cash going directly to local governments and school boards. A lot of relatives stand to get jobs, and the fat paychecks are certain to get fatter.
Because while Sacco’s case is extreme, it speaks directly to the dysfunction of New Jersey politics that flows from machine dominance. Sacco doesn’t have to give a damn about exposure of his misdeeds because he and his crew decide who gets the party nod, the volunteers, the money, and the favorable placement on the ballot. With small turnout in primary elections, the win almost always goes to the insiders who set that table. No state legislator has lost a primary in New Jersey since 2009, and no Congressional incumbent has lost a primary in half a century.
NBC-TV has buried its fangs in Sacco’s ankle like no one else, with a series of rock-hard pieces that exposed his excesses — the patronage hires, the favoritism among insiders at the housing authority, the arm-twisting of city workers and teachers to donate money at the mayor’s annual campaign gala, and to volunteer on election day.
“People feared for their jobs,” one retired teacher from North Bergen told me, asking for anonymity. “He had this big ball every year, and the expectation was that everyone would buy a ticket, not just teachers. Everyone would go and the idea was you’d want to be seen. People feared for their jobs. That’s why they bought tickets.”
This isn’t the way democracy is supposed to work, a game played by and for insiders. And it varies from one county to the other, with Hudson and Camden considered the most closed systems of all, both on the Democratic side.
For years, reformers have pressed for changes to diminish the iron control of machines like Sacco’s, from fundraising rules to a fresh lawsuit challenging party control of the primary ballots. But none of it has shaken the grip of men like Sacco.
Here’s a prediction: The infusion of federal aid will lead to scandals at the local level as people like Sacco use it to help friends and family.
And here’s another: It won’t be enough to dethrone a boss like Sacco, who is destined to control his fiefdom until the day he decides himself to loosen his grip.
More: Tom Moran columns