Published: October 31, 2008

Development Fuels Bayonne Mayoral Race


THERE’S a two-mile spit of land here with magnificent views of Manhattan, within commuting distance of Wall Street, that has so much potential as a maritime port that shipping companies and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey are fighting over it. But its most valuable feature can be summed up in five words: it’s not yet fully developed.

The biggest issue in the city’s special mayoral election on Tuesday is what to do with the 437-acre Military Ocean Terminal that was once an Army base.

The city was forced to have an election when its two-term mayor, Joseph V. Doria Jr., resigned a year ago after being named to run the state Department of Community Affairs. The new mayor will not only lead the peninsula’s development but will also control the lucrative contracts to be doled out to lawyers, planners, architects, engineers and builders.

Five candidates are running, but local political observers say the race is really between two: Patrick D. Conaghan, a former municipal judge, and Mark Smith, the police director. And just as the presidential election has become a referendum on George W. Bush’s policies, the Bayonne election has become a referendum on those of Mr. Doria, whose popularity fell when he left for Trenton as the city faced a $22 million budget deficit.

Critics contend Mr. Doria blew it on the peninsula’s development, saying he could have helped this blue-collar town by creating more commercial property on the old base that would have brought in more jobs and more tax revenues. Instead, under Mr. Doria, officials approved a plan that emphasized residential development, which puts more of a burden on city services and brings in less revenue.

Construction has begun on a 65-acre portion on the peninsula’s east end, known as Bayonne Bay. It will have 500 units of residential housing and a hotel. But nine years after the Army terminal closed down, the fate of the bulk of the property is still up in the air, and many people here blame Mr. Doria for drawing out the process.

Supporters of Mr. Conaghan say that if Mr. Smith were elected, he would continue the policies of Mr. Doria.

“People realize Doria is the reason the city is almost bankrupt,” said Anthony Chiappone, a State Assemblyman and a member of the Bayonne City Council who works for Mr. Conaghan’s campaign. “Smith is trying to run a campaign saying he’s not with Joe Doria, when in fact everyone who was with Doria is now with Smith.”

Despite strong ties to the same Democratic Party organizations that supported the former mayor, Mr. Smith, 45, says he is independent. His campaign literature states he is “Not Somebody’s Puppet.”

“To paint me with that brush is unfair,” he said.

Mr. Conaghan, 71, also believes his opponent is receiving the backing of the party apparatus that helped elect Mr. Doria. He said so many of his campaign posters have been taken down, he has been forced to order 200 more.

“Who am I going to complain to? The police department?” he asked.

Mr. Doria, for his part, says Mr. Conaghan has been criticizing his administration’s handling of the peninsula since the last mayoral election, in 2006, when Mr. Conaghan ran against Mr. Doria and lost. Development takes time, he said, particularly when environmental cleanup is involved. As for the deficit, it predates his tenure as mayor, he said.

“He’s trying to run a campaign against me, but I’m not running,” Mr. Doria said.

Mr. Conaghan’s supporters say he did not lose that election to Mr. Doria by much: 53 percent to 47 percent. They say Mr. Doria won because of a last-minute boost from the Bayonne and Hudson County Democratic organizations, whose workers distributed fliers.

“They sent in troops to bail him out,” said Louis Manzo, a former Hudson County assemblyman, noting they would most likely do the same for Mr. Smith. “They have a vested interest in seeing Smith win.”

Both sides acknowledge the race is tight. One voter, Neil McCabe, 56, a lifelong Bayonne resident who stocks shelves at a ShopRite supermarket, believes that both Mr. Smith and Mr. Conaghan are capable of fixing Bayonne’s woes. After seeing the way the old administration handled development at the peninsula, he just wants new blood in City Hall.

“This town is so close to Manhattan. You’d think it would be marketed a little better,” he said.

Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company