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War in Passaic County threatens to topple Democrats

A bitter Democratic primary in Passaic County threatens to topple control of the county's Democratic organization.

After Sheriff Richard Berdnik shot himself in January, nearly two years before the end of his term, his predecessor Jerry Speziale announced he would run for his old post in the Democratic primary. Speziale, who now serves as Paterson's public safety director, is running against Thomas Adamo, a police officer and the son of a former Republican landowner.

With his high name recognition and a $500,000 war chest dating back to 2010, Speziale was immediately a formidable candidate in a planned offline campaign. But when U.S. District Judge Zahid Quraishi abandoned the office block vote, the lesser-known Adamo lost his most valuable asset.

The biggest threat to longtime Passaic County Democratic leader John Currie is in the race for three county commissioner seats, which pits three candidates running with Speziale against those backed by the organization: incumbents John Bartlett and Sandi Lazzara and their running mate, Rodney DeVore. The other incumbent running for re-election, Nicolino Gallo, is a Republican.

Passaic is the only county in the state where the Democratic county commissioner candidates' slates are together on the ballot. Sean Duffy, Devra Taskin and Pedro Liranzo appear in the top three spots on the ballots for the office blocks under the slogan “Team Special Democrats for Passaic County.”

Duffy is the son of longtime county commissioner Terry Duffy. If the entire Speziale team wins, it could mean the end of a regime that Currie has built piecemeal since he took over as party chairman in the 1990s, when Republicans had a 7-0 majority.

Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop has endorsed Speziale – Currie is likely to run with either Josh Gottheimer or Mikie Sherrill in next year's gubernatorial primary – and could count on significant support in Passaic County in 2025. Speziale has also secured the backing of several unions, including the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 825 and the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters.

Adamo, who is endorsed by Gov. Phil Murphy, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson), has accused Speziale of making false statements about the accomplishments of both. He has denied allegations that he, as a former Republican, voted for Donald Trump. Democrats have taken to calling Speziale “MAGA Jerry.”

In turn, Speziale criticized Adamo for allegations of workplace harassment at the Passaic County Sheriff's Office, where he is chief.

Speziale, a former New York City police detective, had won three sheriff elections in the early 2000s. After Edwin Englehardt, a nine-term Republican, resigned amid ethics concerns, Democrats chose Speziale to replace incumbent Sheriff Ronald Fava, a former deputy, Passaic County prosecutor and Paterson Municipal Court judge. Speziale won a particularly bitter campaign by less than one percentage point. He was re-elected in 2004 with 75% of the vote; Republicans did not bother to field anyone against him in 2007.

In 2010, Speziale left the sheriff's post and became deputy chief of the Port Authority Police Department. Adamo has characterized the circumstances of Speziale's hiring as a dirty political deal with Republican Gov. Chris Christie and his past support of Republicans, but falsely claims that the FBI was investigating the matter.

He considered running against Berdnik in 2019.

Anna Harden

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