It’s time for the third (!) edition of our 50-state tour of the worst politicians in America. Today, we’re in New Jersey.
A reminder: Every two weeks, we’re going to highlight a different state, so that by the end, you’ll have a full panorama of the trash pile that is American democracy from coast to coast. You can click here to find our full, growing archive of entries. If you have ideas for bad politicians we should be focusing on, you can send us names by filling out our Google form—and you can submit the form as many times as you want, so don’t worry about narrowing down your list.
Our latest edition is about New Jersey, which a recent survey found was the 48th-least-liked state in America (sorry New Jersey). The Garden State is home to such monuments as the Jersey Shore cast, Donald Trump’s other house, bridge scandals, insert Sopranos reference here, and endless Bruce Springsteen origin stories. It is also a place that contains one of the richest, most vibrant collections of sleazeballs, doofuses, and straight-up (alleged alleged alleged) crooks in all of American politics. Judging from the volume and enraged tenor of the entries we received for this state from our readers, New Jersey residents hate their elected officials with a passion—and after sifting through the rubble, we get it. Let’s meet some of them! Here are the worst politicians in New Jersey.
Jersey City Councilman Rich Boggiano
Boggiano is a great example of the basic competency level of many Garden State pols. (That level? Rock bottom.) His seemingly endless capacity for flip-flopping could singlehandedly solve the energy crisis for the entire state, if not the Eastern Seaboard as a whole. Sometimes he reverses himself in the middle of a single meeting. Once he refused to vote for his own proposal (it failed). He’s also called for the privatization of Liberty State Park because of its “pathetic” bathrooms, and not-great food selection. He also got very angry at an attempt to move — not REmove, just move-move — a huge, extremely graphic statue commemorating the massacre of thousands of Polish officers by Soviet forces in 1940, saying “I’m sick and tired of all these new people coming here wanting to change everything about Jersey City.” (The statue has only been up since 1991.)
Then, there’s the conspiracy stuff. Last year, Boggiano stood in the way of plans to construct more than 70 5G utility poles across Jersey City, saying during a caucus meeting that “I want to know about radiation, it was on Facebook: there was a big thing on Facebook about it, warning people about the radiation from these poles.” Hoo boy.
Hudson County Officials Tom DeGise, Anthony Romano, and Anthony Vainieri (D)
Hudson County, we’re so sorry. Everywhere you turn, you are being represented by the worst people. Hudson County Executive DeGise is hellbent on keeping the county’s lucrative prison contract with ICE. He has been ably supported in this aim by Vainieri and Romano, the chair and vice-chair, respectively, of the Hudson County Board of Commissioners. In December, DeGise, Vainieri, Romano, and several of their colleagues filed a restraining order to stop activists protesting outside their homes. When members of the state legislature moved to prevent ICE contracts from being renewed, Vainieri protested by saying that taxes would go up if Hudson County wasn’t allowed to profit from ICE terrorizing immigrants. Romano, who likes to appear in Zoom meetings with a giant police badge patch behind him, got caught on video appearing to shove a protester. In March, the board, reading the public mood perfectly, voted unanimously to give itself, DeGise and other county officials a raise. Class acts, all three of them!
Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop (D)
Steve Fulop!!! This man is living proof that you don’t need to limit yourself in life or in the number of ways you can piss off your constituents. As the mayor of Jersey City, Fulop has been accused of appointing and maintaining a council of buddies who serve as a rubber stamp, and he continues to hold massive fundraisers to protect them and himself as he preps for a new campaign this fall, even though he is currently running unopposed and appears unbeatable anyway. During his tenure, Fulop has received a mountain of scrutiny for awarding tax abatements to developers focused on the downtown area of Jersey City (his stance on abatements has been inconsistent and the projects have had uh, mixed results), while being perpetually at odds with the Board of Education over school funding and budgets.
But it doesn’t end there: Fulop has publicly sided with cops, fought gallantly to fend off public access to the beaches near his summer home (in an entirely different state), tweeted vaccine misinformation, failed to notify residents of the presence of E. coli in Jersey City’s drinking water in a timely manner, failed to adequately address the issues facing Black constituents, and caught heat for blocking critics on social media. He’s also courted conservative allies, leading some to wonder if he’s making a broader right turn. Corruption, shady deals, two-facery, and a range of offenses that span from irritating to downright dangerous? Damn, we hate it when stereotypes are true.
Englewood Cliffs Mayor Mario Kranjac (R)
Englewood Cliffs is one of those weird, small, incestuous boroughs where you know some power struggle shit has gone down behind closed doors. Luckily for us, the borough’s mayor Mario Kranjac has done just enough of it in public to make clear that he’s definitely among the shadiest of them in New Jersey local government. Readers may remember Kranjac as being the mayor who tried to bill a young activist who organized a local Black Lives Matter rally $2,499.26 “for the police overtime caused by your protest.” He later walked back the bill, saying he “was told” that police were routine for private events, despite him being, uhh, the actual mayor.
The cherry on top, however, is that Kranjac was reported to have used his council chambers “emergency button” to summon police eight times in 2018, and said he viewed it as his “call button” for when he wanted police presence during a rowdy council meeting (police calls and meeting ejections are the norm, apparently!). One of the people Kranjac called the cops on was Al Wunsch III, a now-former city attorney whom Kranjac later threatened to punch over a different issue. The city council voted to censure Kranjac for the threat, and have censured him two other times, though one of those censures smells kind of fishy. Alas, that’s weird, small, incestuous local politics for you.
Sen. Bob Menendez (D)
The corruption allegations against Bob Menendez, which ended in a mistrial in 2017, are well-known. What we want to focus on is what sets Menendez apart from other corrupt New Jersey politicians: his exceptional and unrelenting hawkishness. Menendez voted against the Iran deal and quoted John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage to explain why, and he’s doing his best to keep it dead. Menendez personally escorted Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to his speech before Congress in 2015, and AIPAC couldn’t have built a better ally in a lab. And Menendez has been one of the loudest voices in the Senate for keeping the Cuba embargo in place and thus prolonging the suffering of Cubans until they learn to rise up and overthrow their own government and extradite Assata Shakur. In February, Menendez spoke virtually an event held by the Museum of the Cuban Diaspora which was attended by members of the CIA-trained Brigade 2506 which tried to invade the Bay of Pigs sixty years ago and promptly got owned.
Making matters worse: Menendez is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In 2018, a no-name primary challenger who raised a few thousand dollars held him to just 62 percent of the vote. Menendez is planning to run again and already activist Larry Hamm, who lost a primary challenge to Cory Booker last year, announced he’d run against him. It’s four years away, but for the sake of everyone in the crosshairs of the American empire, it’s never too early to hope he loses or gets indicted or is otherwise forced to leave office in disgrace as soon as possible.
Unelected Boss George Norcross (D)
Technically, Norcross is in the insurance business, and has never been elected to any political position, but that hardly begins to describe the role he actually plays in New Jersey politics. Norcross is the kind of unaccountable backroom boss that you might have thought didn’t exist anymore, but he is very real, and he exerts a staggering amount of influence over what goes on in the state. For instance, one investigation found that somehow (wink wink) his companies and buddies managed to get almost two-thirds of the tax breaks that were steered to his hometown of Camden. Things like that just happen for George. He’s a lucky man! Norcross has always loved his power—he got caught on tape bragging about how every governor in New Jersey has no choice but to bend to his will. And he’s long had most of the state’s biggest politicians in his pocket, such as State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (see entry below). Norcross is starting to have his power seriously challenged, but we have a suspicion that he’ll turn out OK whatever happens.
North Bergen Mayor and State Sen. Nicholas Sacco (D)
Sacco is somehow allowed to be both a state senator and the mayor of North Bergen, and guess what, he sucks in both jobs! (For a while, he was also helping run the local schools? Like, huh?) Mayor Sacco appears to enjoy handing out lots of jobs to his family and other assorted cronies; one investigation found that his relatives alone were taking at least $800,000 from the public coffers every year—and that’s before you get to his friends, allies, and their associates. State Senator Sacco likes to swim in similar waters; last year, he infamously added an amendment to a criminal reform bill that would eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for corrupt public officials, something that was widely seen as a way to help his girlfriend’s misbehaving son. (Mandatory minimums are absolutely wrong, but let us not pretend that true justice was the motivating force here.) Corruption: it’s fun if you do it in multiple political jobs at the same time! Sacco also allegedly likes to leave kind, gentle voicemails.
State Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D)
Of all the submitted politicians for this series, few drew as much ire as Sweeney, the president of the New Jersey Senate and longtime political boss known for cozying up to former Gov. Chris Christie and his reign as a classic conservative Democrat.
Sweeney is a union ironworker by trade, and that’s about as far as his progressive bonafides go. He helped delay cannabis legalization in the state, has been accused of being a hostile presence with women, and is sufficiently weird about Israel. There’s no budget Sweeney doesn’t seem horny to slash, but he’s especially drawn to teachers’ healthcare plans and state pension funds. And surprise, surprise, he’s forcefully against raising taxes on the wealthy (even with a Democratic governor literally begging for them) to help pay for needed services. (It took the pandemic for him to give in.)
It’s really hard to overstate how much teachers in the New Jersey hate Sweeney: In his most recent re-election campaign in 2017, the state’s largest teacher’s union backed the Republican candidate, spending so much that the race is believed to be the most expensive legislative election in U.S. history, with $18.7 million spent on an election where just around 50,000 people voted (Sweeney won by 18 points).
Update, 5:50 pm. ET: Readers pointed out that we hadn’t included Nick Sacco’s (alleged) threatening voicemails, so we added them.
Images, in order: RBoggiano/Facebook; TomDeGise/Facebook, Romano For Mayor 2017 Campaign, FriendsofAnthonyVainieri/Facebook; steven.fulop/Facebook; Mario Kranjac/Facebook; MenendezForNJ/Facebook; NJ.com/YouTube; Nick Sacco for Mayor; njsenatepres/Instagram