NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Mayor Jim Cahill appears poised to continue in office for another four years, without a prominent electoral challenge for the first time in his seven campaigns.
The Middlesex County Division of Elections confirmed this morning that no one has filed petitions to run against Cahill or his running mates, Councilman Kevin Egan and Councilwoman Rebecca Escobar.
Barring a dark horse candidate entering the field in the next 30 hours, Cahill will likely coast to re-election unopposed in both the primary and general elections, a first for the six-term incumbent.
Tomorrow, Cahill is expected to win the city’s Democratic primary where he faces no opposition. Republicans in New Brunswick have not put up a mayor candidate since 1998.
Independent candidates still have until 4pm Tuesday to file for a spot on the ballot in November’s winner-take-all election.
Candidates must currently live in New Brunswick for at least one consecutive year, be a US citizen age 18 or older, and submit 100 valid signatures from registered voters to the County Clerk’s Office at 75 Bayard Street.
A source close to Cahill said any new establishment candidate would need to be approved by the powerful Wilentz, Goldman, and Spitzer law firm based in Woodbridge, which has close ties to the city and county government.
The source said that Cahill’s family had wanted him to step aside and hand the keys to the kingdom to whomever was next in line for the job. But many of the powers that be are comfortable with his leadership style and wary of a political divide that may erupt if the mayor’s departure creates a power vaccuum.
Among those considered to be contenders within the political establishment to eventually succeed Cahill are Council members Escobar, Egan, and Elizabeth “Betsy” Garlatti, as well as assistant city attorney and Democratic Party Chairman TK Shamy, former Police Director Joseph Catanese, and Parking Authority Board Chairman Kevin McTernan.
But all are agreeing to stand down and support the Mayor, their longtime political ally, in his quest for an unprecedented seventh term in the city’s highest office.
A CAREER IN PUBLIC SERVICE AND CITY POLITICS
Cahill first took office in January 1991, and continues to point to the economic revitalization of the city that occurred on his watch.
Cahill is the 62nd mayor of New Brunswick, and a lifelong resident who owns a home in the Rutgers Village neighborhood.
Announcing his re-election campaign, Cahill said, “New Brunswick is the only home I’ve known and there’s no greater privilege than to serve one’s community.”
“As long as I can continue to work as an effective agent for positive change and growth, I’m honored to help lead our ongoing efforts to make New Brunswick the best it can be.”
Politically, the mayor has survived a variety of controversies and continued to dominate in elections. Though the election results might not indicate it, his administration has proven controversial for a variety of reasons.
For several of his 24 years in office, the mayor was working simultaneously as mayor, a lawyer for the county’s joint health insurance fund, and as a member of his private law firm.
He continues to profit from his law practice and also has ownership interests in several rental properties on Bishop Street. In 2003, he admitted to illegally overcharging his tenants and, under pressure, agreed to strengthen the city’s rent control law.
In early 2011, Cahill began collecting his $99,735 annual pension while still in office, in accordance with state law that was changed six months later to outlaw the practice.
A practicing attorney, he received his Master’s degree in criminal justice from Rutgers University and is now a partner in Cahill, Branciforte, and Hoebich, located at 24 Kirkpatrick Street.
But the future mayor once had set his sights on being a gym teacher as an undergrad student at Glassboro State University, later renamed Rowan University. That is, until he learned of a Law & Justice program offerred at the South Jersey school.
Cahill’s first job with Middlesex County began on November 18, 1974. After his relative John Lynch Jr. became mayor in 1979, Cahill joined the City of New Brunswick payroll as assistant city attorney the following year.
Cahill remained in the role until he won his first election as mayor a decade later. In 1990, when Cahill first sought elected office, he enjoyed the support of his predecessor. Lynch, a biological cousin of Cahill, decided against running for Mayor after serving three terms to focus on his role as President of the State Senate.
Cahill expressed disappointment after Lynch was convicted of corruption and jailed in 2006. Lynch was released in 2009.
Since then the support of powerful Democratic party officials like Lynch has kept Cahill protected and in power, seemingly untouchable.
IS MAYOR CAHILL VULNERABLE?
Cahill frequently points to his economic revitalization efforts, and the turnaround of dowtown New Brunswick, as a primary reason for keeping him in charge of the Hub City.
But the failure of Cahill’s most recent multi-million dollar, state-sponsored development project, a downtown supermarket called theFreshGrocer, could help a hypothetical opponent undercut that argument.
Cahill first announced plans for the downtown development during his last campaign four years ago. The supermarket opened in November 2012, but closed after just eighteen months.
On the other hand, a state-of-the-art fitness center affiliated with nearby Robert Wood Johnson Hospital opened above the grocery store. The Robert Wood Johnson Fitness and Wellness Cener has fared much better and offers a steep discount for city residents.
Still, a hypothetical opponent would have no shortage of criticisms to hurl at the longtime incumbent.
In just the past four years, Cahill has weathered a federal investigation into his re-election, the overthrow of the mayorally-appointed school board, and more than a handful of police controversies.
Combined with an array of scandals implicating numerous members of his administration, Cahill is more vulnerable than ever in some ways.
The scandals included:
- election fraud and assault charges brought against one of the mayor’s longtime aides
- voter fraud and theft charges against a police lieutenant, who was later demoted
- the indictment of the former head of the police department’s internal affairs unit
- a theivery scandal at the parking authority that was questionably prosecuted
- a vice principal who was sent to prison for stealing fees paid by students
- a controversial police killing of an unarmed city resident in 2011
- the arrest of the city’s chief housing inspector, caught with a lot of cocaine in his city vehicle
- the city’s admitted cover-up and failure to notify the public of problems with its water
- a car crash where the city’s Fire Director was found to be at fault, injuring three children
Nevertheless, Cahill continues to enjoy the support of the vast majority of the political power structure in Middlesex County and beyond.
Just last week, he hosted a celebratory press event with Steven Sweeney, the State Senate President at the one of the city’s other supermarkets: Foodtown.
THE ECONOMIC ADVANTAGES OF INCUMBENCY
Due to Cahill’s lengthy stay in office, he enjoys an edge in soliciting donations from those who have benefitted financially from his administration, or stand to do so if he gets another four years in office.
Furthermore, he has amassed large streams of public and private funds for himself, including business income and a steady pension from working other government jobs.
Though the mayor job only pays $40,000, he is supported by a Mayor’s Office staff that collected a combined $358,206 in 2013.
In New Brunswick, the mayor’s position is technically part-time, so Cahill can afford to take the relatively low salary, while making far more money as a private attorney and landlord on the side.
He also earns tens of thousands of dollars each year working for the Ford Avenue Redevelopment Commission, an obscure government body based in Milltown, and one that is helping to clear the way for a large development by city-based real estate giant Boraie Development.
Cahill, who was a city attorney for ten years before he assumed the mayoralty, is also already collecting a pension for his first three decades of public service, as both a city and county employee.
When Cahill took over in 1991, his salary was just $20,000, and the budget for the Mayor’s Office personnel was also roughly half of what it is today.
At first, Cahill said he didn’t want the pay raise that Mayor Lynch had proposed on his way out of office.
But the City Council, which has traditionally been hesitant to oppose Cahill or Lynch on any issue, agreed to double the Mayor’s salary the following year, and gave Cahill a retroactive raise.
“I said I would not accept an increase unless and until we were able to stabilize taxes in the city and we’ve accomplished that,” Cahill said at the time.
“In 1990, we needed to raise $12.5 million from taxpayers for the operation of the city. In 1991, we reduced that by 21 percent to $10 million.”
Twenty-three years later, that figure is now closer to $30 million and the salary for the difficult job remains relatively low, compared to other cities. Combined with the heavy workload of running a bustling city with serious problems, it has effectively helped deter qualified candidates with a few notable exceptions.
“As you know, we have a track record for nominating incumbents,” said TK Shamy the Chairman of the New Brunswick Democratic Organization, which endorsed the mayor’s campaign in March and gave the first donation ($1,000) to Cahill Egan and Escobar 2014, the official campaign fund for Cahill and Council candidates Kevin Egan and Rebecca Escobar.
Even without opposition in the primary election, that committee has raised $90,400 this year according to their latest required report, and spent just $17,196 of it.
The mayor’s personal campaign fund, Friends of Jim Cahill, also has $27,494 cash on hand, and the New Brunswick Democratic Organization has $68,946 as well.
CHALLENGERS RARELY COME CLOSE TO BEATING CAHILL
In each of the six prior contests, Cahill faced a challenge, either in the Democratic Party’s June primary election, or from independents or Republicans in the November general election.
In June 1990, Cahill defeated David Meiswinkle, a city cop who had long been a thorn in the side of the Lynch administration.
Cahill’s team attacked Meiswinkle for running against Lynch as a Republican in 1986 before switching parties to run against him in the primary. He prevailed with 56% of the vote, in what proved to be Cahill’s closest election.
A few months later, Cahill came out on top in a four-candidate field defeating independents Thomas Clark III and James Neal, another city cop. Bruce Parker ran as a Republican but threw his support behind Clark six days before the election.
All together, Neal ran against Cahill five consecutive times, each as an independent in the November election.
Along with Neal, two other candidates sought to take down the Cahill regime in 1998: Michael Shapiro, a Rutgers University student who would go on to start a network of successful online newspapers, and Republican Party Chairman Frank Bright.
Of the challengers, Neal did the best, with Shapiro coming in a close third. But Cahill more than doubled both of their vote totals.
Elementary school teacher Keith Thomas challenged Cahill as an independent in 2002, but neither he or Neal were able to garner more than 1,000 votes.
Cahill’s biggest landslide came in 2006, when he earned nearly 80% of the vote against Neal, his sole opponent.
But in 2010, local attorney Patrcia Bombelyn gave Cahill the fiercest challenge he had seen since his very first election.
In the contentious Democratic primary, both sides strived to get votes not only on election day, but through a new law that permitted county residents to pick up and drop off mail-in ballots for up to ten voters.
Cahill also criticized Bombelyn for her ties to Republican Governor Chris Christie, and prevailed with 61%.
Despite the failed electoral effort, Bombelyn’s campaign may have had the biggest impact because voter fraud charges were brought against mayor’s aide Kevin Jones and police lieutenant Robert Tierney.
The FBI eventually became involved in the election investigation, raiding county offices, but no further charges were filed. Jones and Tierney kept their city jobs after receiving minor punishments.
NO ONE INTERESTED IN RUNNING AGAINST CAHILL THIS TIME
One man who could potentially challenge the mayor this year is David Harris, a longtime city resident and vocal critic of Cahill’s administration, who runs a popular daycare center.
In 1970, Harris ran for Mayor and lost, following it up with a couple of unsuccessful runs for City Council.
But he told NBToday this week that, although he is torn, he will stand aside this year to stay focused on his city-based daycare operation rather than take on the powerful mayor.
“This [2014 Mayor election] is the race I feel the most prepared to join, but I have decided against a run at this time. As we enter our 45th year in child care, we have stumbled upon an excellent approach for dual language learners to gain proficiency in English and Spanish.”
“A campaign would take me away from the center for months. So, faced with the choice between a very public contentious fight for the city’s highest office and remaining committed to the work we started in 1970, I cast my lot with the city’s youngest most vulnerable children and families.”
On January 29, Harris had posted to the popular HubCityNJ listserv “Each day, I consider leaving my dream job of 44 years to place my name on the ballot for the top City Hall job.”
“I cannot believe that the voters would demand another four years of division, corruption and backroom dealing over an open administration which placed its priorities on the families that live in the Hub City over the money changing special interests who demand and receive tax abatements diverting much needed funds from schools, pools and libraries.”
“Control is the name of the game in this great college town where Rutgers continues as our main asset,” he began, attacking the city’s machine mentality.
“This is a place where even the most minor question or criticism is not tolerated by the powerful public/private partnership.”
“This is so sad. One becomes an enemy of the state in this town for telling the truth about the powerful cabal which runs every inch of city life.”
Harris wrote that his sadness deepened when comparing New Brunswick to South Africa under apartheid, criticizing Johnson & Johnson for their role in local and international politics.
“Their behavior strongly reminds me of the role they played in South Africa… J&J refused to join the world’s leading businesses as they pulled out of the economy led by the white minority government. The world’s leading health care products company with its world headquarters located in this majority minority town continues to side with the white minority government which rules with an iron fist.”
Neal, the former city cop who challenged Cahill three times told New Brunswick Today he does not plan to run this year, but didn’t mince words calling Cahill’s administration corrupt.
“I’m going to lay low… and let [Cahill] expose himself,” Neal told New Brunswick Today.
Bombelyn, who gave Cahill the most fearsome challenge in recent memory, did not respond to inquiries if she is running this time around, but it is not expected that she will seek elected office this year.
NEW BRUNSWICK MAYORAL ELECTION RESULTS (1990-2010)
|1990 Primary||David Meiswinkle (Democrat)||
Thomas Clark III (Independent)
James Neal (Independent)
Bruce Parker (Republican)
|1994 Primary||NONE||1,989 (Cahill)||—|
|1994 General||James Neal (Independent)||
|1998 Primary||NONE||843 (Cahill)||—|
James Neal (Independent)
Michael Shapiro (Independent)
Frank Bright (Republican)
|2002 Primary||NONE||877 (Cahill)||—|
Keith Thomas (Independent)
James Neal (Independent)
|2006 Primary||NONE||788 (Cahill)||—|
|2006 General||James Neal (Independent)||
|2010 Primary||Patricia Bombelyn (Democrat)||
|2010 General||NONE||3,816 (Cahill)||—|
Editor’s Notes: The author of this article worked with former Mayoral candidate Michael Shapiro’s TheAlternativePress.com as part of The Citizens Campaign, and supported Patricia Bombelyn’s 2010 campaign.
Richard Rabinowitz also contributed to this article.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate, a community organizer, and a former independent candidate for mayor of New Brunswick.