Passaic County Freeholder Debates

On 2 consecutive evenings this week, I attended debates between candidates for the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders. The first, held in Wayne and sponsored by the League of Women Voters, as well as the second, held at Passaic County Community College in Paterson and sponsored by the Herald News and the Record, pitted the Democrat incumbents James Gallagher, Sonia Rosado, and Tahesha Way against the Republican challengers Arthur Soto, Keith LaForgia, and Erik Lowe.

Here is what the Herald News had to say, and you can scroll down for audio files (mp3) of each debate.

Predictably, my coverage will be more detailed and will definitely hit harder. I will first go candidate by candidate and give my impressions on each individual. Then, I will highlight some of the juicier exchanges of the evening. Finally, some general observations and a summary of the campaign.

James Gallagher:

Without a doubt, Gallagher, who is aiming for his 4th term and has served as a Freeholder since 1997, possesses the strongest and most comprehensive knowledge of County government than any of the other 5 candidates. His grasp of the budget and the various departments shone through very clearly in the debates, particularly when asked specific areas that he would seek to cut. His answer to this question was the most specific, the most substantial, and the most confident.

However, Gallagher seems exhausted. I cannot help but think that in his heart of hearts, he would prefer to lose on November 7 and no longer serve as a Freeholder. He just does not demonstrate the passion to do the job, unlike his 3 opponents and his running mate Tahesha Way. Even when making his personal appeal during the debates, Gallagher fumbled through a poignant and otherwise effective biographical story about growing up poor, excusing himself for repeating it during past campaigns. Overall, Gallagher does not seem "happy" to be a Freeholder.

This discontent manifests itself in Gallagher's go-along-get-along manner of governance. Despite his claims, I find it hard to accept that, after seeing 9 budgets come and go Gallagher actually believes that the current Passaic County budget is "austere". I do not know what is driving this denial – perhaps a desire to avoid party infighting that always accompanies one-party rule, or perhaps something else.

Gallagher clearly has the experience and knowledge, but has been all too willing to accept a detrimental and intolerable status quo.

Sonia Rosado:

If I had to describe Sonia Rosado in one word, "arrogant" would certainly be among my top choices. As I mentioned in a previous post, her condescending attitude toward taxpayers is appalling. She refuses to accept that mistakes have been made during the past 6 years, leading to the current budget crisis, and repeatedly attempts to blame tax increases on previous Boards as far back as 25 years ago. Let's get real. The voters are simply not that stupid.

As an example, when questioned directly by Erik Lowe about the 2005 County Audit Report, Rosado didn't seem to know what it was or whether it had been filed. She excused herself by saying, "We don't have all the County finances here." When Lowe rightfully retorted, "You’re a Freeholder!" Rosado replied, "So?" Arrogance, plain and simple.

Rosado's closing pitch on both nights seemed to be: Vote for me and the other Democrats, because none of us have gone to jail. Congratulations. But that is of little comfort to the senior citizens who wear winter jackets indoors because they can’t afford to heat their homes, since Rosado and her Democrat colleagues have raised county taxes 65% in the past 6 years.

Tahesha Way:

Ms. Way, with degrees from Brown and UVA, is the best-educated office holder in Passaic County, and one of the best-educated office holders in this state, period. She has an outstanding profile and makes a very good presentation. She demonstrates passion for the job, and has clearly embraced her role as Freeholder, which manifested in a few very effective anecdotes that she related during her debate answers.

Way strongly asserted on numerous occasions that she is the sole Wayne resident on the Board, and that she is a mother of 3 children. These were both good ways of communicating with suburban voters in particular. She also touted her working class roots. I do believe that Way could be an exemplary role model, particularly to the many aspiring young black women of Passaic County – not because she is married to a sports star, but because her own abilities have enabled her to be a successful career mother.

However, I feel that Way is serving far below her potential. While I understand as well as anyone the difficulty of being, politically speaking, the "new kid on the block", I think that Way has demonstrated far too little independence from her other 6 Democrat colleagues and far too much readiness to endorse their harmful status quo. Furthermore, some of Way's debate answers and assertions, especially regarding the Sheriff's Department and the County Audit Report, suggest that she is far too trusting of the Democrat machine. I would like to see an elected official of Way’s intellectual capacity question some of the Democrats' untouchable assumptions and demand accountability within her own Party. She is too talented to be just another Passaic County Democrat Kool-Aid drinker.

Arthur Soto:

Art, the brother of Passaic Councilman Jonathan Soto, also lives in Passaic with his wife and 2 children. As a technology professional at Horizon BCBS, he brings an impressive analytical approach to his campaign and has clearly done his homework and studied the budget. Accordingly, one of the highlights of the 2 evenings was Soto's rebuttal to Gallagher's proposal to cut the Economic Development department in order to save money. Soto slammed his opponent when he pointed out that the said department had only 2 employees, out of a total of 2,500. This was picked up and quoted in the newspaper article about the debate – a very astute move on Soto's part.

Even when Soto chooses to ridicule another individual, he does so politely. This "son of a preacher-man" is no doubt the "good cop" of the 3 Republican candidates. He is quite articulate and makes a very professional appearance behind the microphone. His presentation style is smooth, like that of Gallagher; he is sure and steady and speaks with confidence. Soto is a minister himself and it is quite obvious when talking to the man that he is firmly guided by principle. He is honest and conscientious. He condemned pay-to-play in stronger terms than anyone else in the debate, and even used one of my favorite phrases – "legalized bribery" – to describe it. That moral fortitude, coupled with his analytical approach, would make him a strong asset to Passaic County taxpayers.

Erik Lowe:

Lowe is one feisty character. He is definitely a pleasure to watch in action, and adds some entertaining color to the debates. He is the most willing to mix it up and pick fights with his opponents. As mentioned earlier, he had no hesitation to turn to Sonia Rosado and cede his time to have her blunder her way through a question about the non-existent 2005 County Audit Report. By contrast, that is not Soto's style. So Lowe plays the role of "bad cop", and with a delightful urban flair. At several points I had to bury my face in my lap because I was laughing out loud hearing Lowe yell, "It's RIDICULOUS!" when describing the tax situation facing Passaic County.

Lowe speaks passionately about the city of Paterson, where he lives, and advocates for low-income families. His experience with budgets and risk as a bank manager would also provide a valuable set of skills to the Board. I must add that this is a key strength of the Republican ticket this year. All 3 candidates – Soto, Lowe, and LaForgia – have private sector experience, and are not living off the taxpayers.

Former Republican Elease Evans, who also hails from Paterson's black community, clearly has issues with Lowe. For some reason, he gets under her skin something fierce – in fact, she heckled him from the audience on both evenings. He handled it beautifully. The first night, he paused and said with a stern and confident look, "May I finish?" and the second night he came out firing and attacked one very controversial topic – former County Clerk Ronni Nochimson's job (see the transcript further down the page).

Keith LaForgia:

In my first blog post about Keith LaForgia, I mentioned a discussion I had with a Clifton politico. We discussed LaForgia's desire to enter the Freeholder race, and I asked this individual what his impressions were. His response: "If I was going to war, I'd definitely want Keith in my foxhole."

Well, if LaForgia's no-nonsense, don't-mess-with-me debating style is any indication, that Clifton politico nailed it right on the head. I too would definitely want Keith in my foxhole, because he knows what he believes and will fight to defend it. He doesn't apologize for his convictions, and will not be shy to rebuke anyone who dares to question his principles. If Soto is the "good cop" and Lowe the "bad cop" of the Republican candidates, that definitely makes LaForgia the "enforcer".

He demonstrated two striking examples of this vigor in the debates. During the first night, when a very hot question about the Sheriff's Department was posed, LaForgia did what very few Passaic County politicos have ever done: he directly and publicly confronted the Sheriff (who had criticized LaForgia in a recent newspaper article) and said in no uncertain terms that the Sheriff's budget had to be cut.

Secondly, LaForgia (who has served as a Clifton School Board member since 2004) used his opening statement in the second debate to assail Tahesha Way's suggestion from the previous evening that his mere endorsement of a Clifton School Budget referendum equated to a vote to increase taxes. His clever quip, "I'd like to see the county budget increase of 12.36 percent this year go before the voters of this county" scored a hit in the newspaper article as well.

LaForgia is not the most eloquent of the individuals running for Freeholder this year. He doesn't have to be. Though his presentation style is a bit rougher around the edges, he finds no problem delivering a compelling message. LaForgia successfully drove home several key points, the first being his experience in the private sector, specifically in the construction industry. He pointed out that he has had the opportunity to manage multi-million dollar projects in a corporate setting, where budgets matter and you get fired if you don't perform. Coming from a similar background, I personally have tremendous confidence in LaForgia's ability to contribute his extensive project management skills to the benefit of Passaic County residents. I have no doubt that he will attack the budget and cut the fat.

Here is the link to the mp3 file of the Wayne debate.

Indexing for Wayne:

0:00 – Opening statements
3:10 – County roads
6:00 – Pay to play
11:15 – the ESS AYCH EE ARE EYE EFF EFF rumble (note the conspicuous throat-clearing)
17:50 – Taxes, taxes, taxes (excuses, excuses, excuses)
24:15 – Homeland Security
26:00 – Courthouse disrepair
31:55 – "Will you vote for a tax increase?"
38:00 – PCUA debt (yawn)
45:55 – Closing statements (Republicans are convicted felons)

Here are excerpts of the best bit, regarding the Sheriff's Department:
LOWE: I'll take this one. There has been a lot of – I'm gonna call it what it is – CRAP that has been said that we have said about the Sheriff's Department. I'd like to know where it came from. It came from, first of all, a PR person who is no longer employed by this organization – the Passaic County Regular Republican Organization. The Sheriff's office has done a great job, and they're getting better at what they do. What I think should happen, more closely in my city and other urban cities is that the Sheriff's officers should work closely with local law enforcement to help curb drug activity, prostitution, and crime. Now don't get me wrong – and I'll say it again – the Sheriff's office is doing a great job doing that but everybody know that a lot more can be done EVERYWHERE.

LAFORGIA: I have been personally attacked by our Sheriff for something that he said that I had said about his department. I've never once mentioned Sheriff Speziale in any of my comments, but I'm gonna mention him now. I believe in strong Homeland Security. I believe in strong Law Enforcement. I also believe in an economically sound way of doing it. There's a lot of fluff in every department in this County, including the Sheriff's Department. There needs to be accountability in every Department in this County, including the Sheriff's Department. I have never once attacked the man, he sends me an email attacking me. I look forward to, when I am elected, sitting down with Sheriff Speziale to work out these issues.

WAY: For anyone to ever challenge or say something negative about the Sheriff's Department is entirely wrong. (yes, this is an exact quote, listen at 15:38)
Here is the link to the mp3 file of the Paterson debate.

Indexing for PCCC:

0:00 – Opening statements
7:10 – What is a Freeholder?
13:15 – How can a double-digit tax increase be avoided next year?
20:05 – What are some of the untapped revenue sources in the County?
26:10 – Sheriff's budget
33:10 – What would you cut?
39:25 – How can you minimize patronage?
45:45 – Should the jail be renovated, left alone, or rebuilt?
52:05 – How can County facilities be maintained?
57:50 – Open Space Fund
1:02:55 – Should the County be in the Health Care business?
1:08:50 – What is your personal strength?
1:15:05 – Closing statements

Here are excerpts of the best bit, Erik Lowe responding to heckling from Elease Evans during his closing statement:
LOWE: As I said earlier, the majority of the budget is salary. In the 2003 and 2004 Audit Reports there are salaries there that cannot be justified. Positions have been created to favor friends.

EVANS (from the audience): That's not true.

LOWE: It's not true?! Let's look at Ronni Nochimson's position. It was created. And she has a county car. THAT'S TRUE. That's true. We have to stop with the rhetoric. Last night, Freeholder Gallagher said that the 2005 Audit Report was in Trenton. I hold a letter here, right now, from Keith Kazmark, that it has not been adopted by the Passaic County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and that Audit Report is not in Trenton. We've got to CUT THAT OUT.
In general, I enjoyed the debates. They were entirely issue based and devoid of personal attacks, unlike the childish and disgusting US Senate debates that we have had the agony of watching.

On the whole, the Republican Freeholder candidates made a stronger case, and demonstrated a firm grasp of the numbers to drive home the message about high taxes. The Democrats, by and large, responded merely with lame excuses about the PCUA and other Thriller-era sins. But still, I don't think the Republican candidates went far enough. It's one thing to point out the patronage jobs, but they seemed gun-shy to reach the obvious conclusion that some people are going to have to lose their jobs in order to cut taxes. I would also have liked to have seen more specific ideas for cuts, even if not definitive.

But the Republicans, led by Keith LaForgia, fired a shot across the bow of Sheriff Jerry Speziale, who is on the ballot next year. I think at this point it is clear that his budget will no longer be beyond reproach. The further we get from September 11, 2001, the degree of scrutiny to which Homeland Security related spending will be subjected will only increase, and Speziale needs to prepare for that.

I also found that the Republican debate strategy was far more effective than any of the campaigns I have witnessed since 2003. Instead of focusing on who stole spoons from the County kitchen, or some other insignificant Grand Street gossip, the 3 candidates hammered the numbers: 12.4% tax increase this year, 65% since 2000, 350 new jobs (one per week), etc.

It was a pleasure to see Walter Porter turn up for the debate in Paterson. He sat beside Chairman Scott Rumana and their quips had me laughing throughout the debate. "What are they, golden beds?" – regarding the over-budget improvements to the Preakness HealthCare Center. Porter looked happy and healthy and I was pleased to see him supporting the ticket.

All in all, the debate received relatively little coverage (the newspaper article was not lengthy), so the fundraising advantage enjoyed by the Democrats will enable them to deliver their message with more frequency as we approach Election Day. The newspaper endorsements also remain to be made – at a minimum, we should expect a split endorsement. Good luck to all the candidates.