The first time Mayor Vic DeLuca forged a comeback was on Election Night 2005 when he won back the Township Committee seat he had lost two years earlier.
Ironically that year he was teamed with rival Fred Profeta as the Democratic Party standard bearers of Maplewood. Profeta won re-election then while DeLuca returned to the seat he had lost in 2003.
When DeLuca and former mayor Jerry Ryan were voted out in the 2003 Democratic Primary to challengers Kathy Leventhal and Ken Pettis, some figured it was over for both. They had lost in part due to anger over the first major property tax reassessment a few years earlier, which spiked taxes for some by as much as 30%.
But few who knew DeLuca, who had served on the Township Committee since 1997 -- and as mayor from 2001 to 2003 -- counted him out.
The politically savvy mayor who knows how to count votes and win support laid the groundwork for his eventual candidacy, nomination and victory. The fact that he ran with Profeta, who had risen himself to a mayoralty that lasted four years, made for some interesting campaign moments in 2005.
During the victory party that night at St. James's Gate, a smiling DeLuca declared, “Two words: I’m back!” Just three years later, after being re-elected in 2008, he was in the mayor’s chair again on Jan. 1, 2009.
And he’s been there ever since.
But that was supposed to change this New Year’s Day.
Township Committee Member Greg Lembrich, who has been on the TC since he was elected two years ago, had lined up rookie committeeman Frank McGehee and incoming member Dean Dafis, elected in November, to support him for mayor.
Under our form of government, each TC member is elected town-wide and the mayor is chosen from among those five. That means anyone who can garner two other TC votes can be mayor.
DeLuca had been able to do that for the past nine years. But this year was supposed to be different.
In a year that saw the forced ouster of Police Chief Robert Cimino, the pending retirement of Township Administrator Joseph Manning, the first steps of a planned fire department merger with South Orange, and fallout from the latest property tax reassessment, change seems in the air.
Rumors had spread for months that Lembrich had the votes as DeLuca, no stranger to political pressure, apparently did his best to flip at least one of the supporters.
When the incoming TC members met in their annual caucus on Dec. 19, where Lembrich was supposed to get the preliminary nod, Dafis changed his mind.
During a 10-minute statement in which he revealed he’d promised his vote to Lembrich, Dafis said he was flipping it to DeLuca. He cited many reasons, among them concerns that his decision to back Lembrich had been leaked.
He also hinted at outside pressures, stating, “I’ve had conversations about this, believe it or not, beyond our legislative team, our state reps, at the county and state level, and outside of New Jersey to people who used to live here because that’s how far this has gone.”
He added, “It saddens me that whatever conversations were had earlier in the year as I was deliberating about this went outside of the private moment that I shared with a particular individual because it was disrespectful, I think, to the current leadership to do so, and highly disrespectful to the deliberative actions of this body.”
Dafis offered no specifics about who had been reaching out to him or to whom he was referring. In the end, he stated he would “throw my support to Mayor DeLuca for possibly one final year.”
No gasps were heard in the committee chambers, but the feeling of surprise was obvious. Lembrich said soon after that he was shocked, but did not elaborate.
Maplewood has not seen such a surprising mayoral shift since late 2008 when former Mayor Ken Pettis resigned both as mayor and as TC member after learning that DeLuca had procured the votes to replace him after just one year at the top spot. He did not even stay for a farewell meeting appearance.
But in Dafis’ case, he may have hurt his honeymoon period as a new TC member by turning against Lembrich at the last minute, and apparently without even informing him of his switch before the public declaration.
One wonders what went on behind the scenes and who was influencing who, and how.
Fast forward to New Year’s Day, and the impact of Dafis’ late decision is somewhat unknown as the new TC is seated and plans to take a formal vote on who will be mayor.
If Dafis does not switch his mind again, Deluca will enter his 10th straight year at the helm, and 13th overall: A year in which Lembrich is up for re-election along with TC member Nancy Adams, who recently announced she is battling breast cancer, which may or may not affect her decision to run again.
Either way, it will likely make for some awkward moments on the Township Committee dais during the first and third Tuesday’s of each month. Stay tuned!
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