Clark mayor’s racist comments caused a furor. Can Dems use them to win in GOP stronghold?
Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso used racist language in recordings leaked to the media in March. Will his allies on the town's council face blowback on Election Day? (Courtesy of Clark Township)
It’s not unusual in New Jersey for elected officials to remain in office after high-profile scandals, or for powerful party machines to retain political control in small towns for decades.
So it may not come as a surprise that political observers believe leaked recordings of Republican Mayor Sal Bonaccorso using racist language probably won’t be enough to oust Bonaccorso’s allies from the council after Tuesday’s municipal election.
Four Clark Township Council seats are on the ballot, and even Democrats concede it will be tough to win them.
“All you can do is take it one day at a time and chip away, and I do see a more receptive attitude from voters than I’ve seen in a long time, but I can’t predict what’s going to happen,” said Nancy Sheridan, chair of the Clark Democratic Party. “But this is Clark.”
In March, NJ Advance Media reported Bonaccorso used a common racial epithet and misogynistic language in conversations with a police lieutenant who was secretly recording them. The town paid $400,000 to the lieutenant to avoid a lawsuit in 2020 that could have made the recordings public, according to the report.
The news made national headlines, and Gov. Phil Murphy and other officials condemned the language heard in the recordings and demanded Bonaccorso resign. After initially denying he used the language, Bonaccorso apologized for his comments in a video released by Clark Township, but he refused to step down. The video is no longer available.
This Union County town of 15,500 people is nearly 80% white and less than 2% Black, according to 2020 Census data. It has voted consistently Republican in local elections since the 1990s, and Donald Trump won 60% of the vote or more here in both of his runs for president. The 61-year-old mayor faced no Democrat in November 2020 when he ran for his sixth term in office.
And while Bonaccorso isn’t on the ballot this November, Democratic candidates see the township council race as a referendum on his racist language — and the support of his allies on the council, who voted to approve the $400,000 payout.
Sheridan said when she speaks to voters, they characterize the Bonaccorso recordings as old news.
“It’s a very Republican town. Even now, there’s people who are like, ‘Oh come on, you’re still talking about that?’” she said. “I find that really reprehensible that someone would feel that way, but this has shaken a lot of people up and I think we’ve got to see what happens with this election.”
Republican council members Frank Mazzarella, Patrick O’Connor, Steve Hund, and Brian Toal are all seeking reelection. Dario Valdivia, Michael Shulman, William Grzyb Jr., and David Hessler are the Democratic candidates challenging them.
Three of the four Democrats running got on the ballot as write-in candidates during the June primaries — in part because the mayor’s comments were revealed on March 30 and the filing deadline to appear on the primary ballot was the following week. Only one Democrat had officially signed up to run, Valdivia, who ran against the mayor in 2016 and lost 66% to 34%.
At an April council meeting, Shulman joined other residents in criticizing Bonaccorso’s racist comments. He said he was approached by the county’s Democratic Party leaders to run for council in the town’s 2nd ward.
“We needed competition because as bad as the language and behavior is from the mayor, what’s equally disappointing is the complete lack of accountability on the part of the seven people sitting up there,” said Shulman, a lawyer who moved to Clark from Cranford five years ago with his wife.
The Democratic Party recruited two other Democrats to run in the 3rd and 4th wards — Grzyb and Hessler. Bonaccorso has attacked them for jumping into the race in June via write-in campaigns, which Shulman says is “fear mongering” on the mayor’s part and part of a plan to confuse voters about who is a candidate.
None of the Republican incumbents responded to multiple requests for comment.
Since April, local Democrats have held events like barbecues and meet-the-candidate events to drum up support, and prominent officials including Sens. Joe Cryan and Dick Codey have appeared to throw their support behind the Democratic hopefuls.
But notably missing from most events stumping for Democrats in Clark is Senate President Nicholas Scutari, who also chairs the Union County Democratic Party. Local Democrats say they haven’t seen Scutari at campaign events in support of the Clark council hopefuls.
Scutari has not explicitly called for Bonaccorso to step down. He did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
When asked if she expected Scutari to campaign for Clark Democrats, Sheridan said Scutari “hasn’t said anything.”
“I would like to hear from him,” she added before declining to comment further.
Joe Signorello, the Democratic mayor of nearby Union County town Roselle Park, argued Scutari and other Union County Democrats want to see the town’s voters flip the GOP-held council seats but don’t see them as winnable.
“If the chairman of the Union County Democrats and if the Clark Democrats thought there was a pick-up opportunity, I have no doubt they would put resources there,” said Signorello.
With Election Day tomorrow, Shulman said some Democrats have stepped up their support of him in recent days. He’s knocked on hundreds of doors with his wife and daughter, he said.
“If we lose by the same margins as four years ago or eight years ago, it speaks volumes about the values of this town,” he said. “If we lose by 50 votes or less, then I say four years from now, we got to run it back.”
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