County Democrats endorse Speziale; Sheriff pick angrily opposed by union
Robert Ratish, Staff Writer
(PATERSON, N.J.) -- County Democratic leadership chose Jerry Speziale as the party's nominee for sheriff Saturday afternoon, prompting cheers from supporters and outrage from a union that said it would support a different candidate.
The party also chose Bloomingdale Mayor Craig Ollenschleger and Ken Morris of Paterson to run for the Passaic County Board of Freeholders, endorsed state Sen. John Girgenti and Assembly members Nellie Pou and Alfred Steele, and supported Jim McGreevey for governor.
For sheriff, the party leaders, the Democratic chairmen in each of Passaic's 16 towns and other senior party officials, unanimously nominated Speziale after interviewing him and two other candidates, Paterson Detective Pablo Maute and Hawthorne Police Officer Mark Michalski.
Republican Sheriff Edwin Englehardt said two weeks ago that he would not seek reelection. Englehardt, the sheriff for 28 years and one of the most popular politicians in the county, made the announcement after his department came under a grand jury investigation.
"Ultimately they came out with the conclusion that Mr. Speziale has the best opportunity to bring the sheriff's job in the Democratic column," said the party's county chairman, John Currie.
Maute and Michalski pledged their support to Speziale, Currie said.
But the nominee faced 1 vigorous opposition from the Communications Workers of America local's vice president, Albert Vigorita, who spoke against Speziale, alleging that he was among the sheriff's officers who tried to intimidate him on Election Day in 1999.
The other officer, George "Ricky" Rosario, was indicted by a federal grand jury last month for allegedly assaulting one Democratic campaign worker and threatening another. The U.S. attorney said at the time that the office continues to investigate allegations of Election Day violence.
At the time, Rosario was a subordinate of Speziale, who has since left the department to work for the Bergen County sheriff.
"Speziale and Rosario assaulted me on Election Day, Nov. 2, 1999,"Vigorita told the party leaders. "CWA Local 1081 pledges its support for any candidate you may choose, other than Speziale."
Vigorita was campaigning for the Democrats at the time of the alleged incident.
When the party announced that Speziale was its choice to run for sheriff, the union issued a statement saying it would support an alternative candidate in the Democratic primary.
"To nominate somebody who has admitted to being part of the incumbent sheriff's process of voter intimidation is mind-boggling," said David Weiner, president of CWA Local 1081.
"We have to hope that there are some courageous Democrats within the system who will stand up and say we can't go with this guy," hesaid. Weiner said the union had not yet decided whom it would back for sheriff.
Speziale denied Vigorita's allegations. "I was present. We had a verbal disagreement over distance limitations. I did not assault him, and I did not threaten him," he said.
He also said he planned to continue working with the CWA, which does not represent any Sheriff's Department workers, but does represent many employees of the county Board of Social Services.
"I'm going to continue to try and work with them, and I hope we can get past our differences. I understand their concerns, but they have to realize that the sheriff's officers working elections has been a long, long problem, long before I came there," he said.
Speziale said that as sheriff he would put an end to having sheriff's officers at the polls on Election Day.
1 His supporters said that if Speziale had been involved in voter intimidation, he would have been indicted in the federal investigation.
"I believe the FBI did a thorough investigation, and the outcome is the outcome," said Thomas Duncan, a retired sheriff's officer and longtime friend of Speziale.
About 50 supporters assembled outside the Democratic headquarters holding signs in support of Speziale as party leaders deliberated inside.
"If Jerry had done something wrong, we wouldn't be standing here talking about what he is going to do next," said Sgt. Lou Camacho, a sheriff's officer. "Enough of the politicians. We need a real law enforcement officer on the job."
Retired Undersheriff Curtis Taylor and Warden Felix Garcia spoke on behalf of Speziale. Both are registered Republicans.
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