Fiery Exchange Caps off Freeholder Debate
Candidate's closing statement prompts shouting match.
Slander accusations, shouting and threats of a lawsuit concluded Monday night's otherwise civil District 4 Essex County Freeholder debate at Verona High School, which ended with an angry exchange between the candidates.
Though the candidates exchanged minor barbs throughout the League of Women Voters and NAACP-sponsored debate, it was a closing statement that ignited the powder keg.
Leonard Luciano, a Democrat from West Caldwell and the acting District 4 Freeholder, rose to his feet to deliver his final remarks, first asking League of Women Voters moderator Minna Greenberg if his opponent, Republican and Cedar Grove Deputy Mayor Joseph Chiusolo, would be given a chance to rebut.
When she agreed, with the caveat that no personal attacks be levied, Luciano held up a piece of paper which he said shows a contradiction between Chiusolo's words and deeds.
"My opponent's company had a contract with Essex County for thousands and thousands of dollars. It just expired in 2010. So while he doesn't collect a public salary, and may not collect a public pension, he does business with the County of Essex, so I'm a little confused how he can stand up here today and say he wants to halt spending when he's been on the take."
After a beat, the crowd gasped. Some booed, some even yelled profanity. Moderator Greenberg immediately intervened, calling Luciano's remark "uncalled for".
"I hope that tape is saved because that's a slanderous comment that is not true and I will confer charges against you. You're a disgrace," Chiusolo said.
"The fact is, I own a business with which a percentage of business is done with public bidding. My company submitted a quote to the County of Essex, and I was the lowest responsible bidder. There is no 'take' and that's a disgusting comment that you made, as a school teacher, with students here and my daughter.. you are a disgrace as a Freeholder. The fact is, my business is a private company that gets a percentage of business from public bidding. Check the facts, Mr. Luciano."
Chiusolo's company, Little Falls and Jersey City-based Turn Out Uniforms, provides uniforms and protective gear for police, fire and other emergency personnel. The audience applauded Chiusolo's response to Luciano, who shot back, accusing Chiusolo of political trickery.
"Before I was asked to debate tonight, my opponent said in a press release that I was ducking him. He never even asked me to debate, so that was political propaganda and an attack on me. As soon as I got it in writing, I agreed to it. Then I come here tonight under the circumstances that we agreed to that tonight's debate would not be filmed, because I didn't agree to it, but I did it anyway, and I'm tired of my opponent pointing the finger and saying I'm hiding from him or I have something to hide. I don't have anything to hide."
After the debate, Luciano approached Chiusolo, and the candidates continued arguing. A brief shouting match ensued before the candidates' campaign staffers separated the men and ushered them out of the cafeteria through different sides of the room.
Before the debate descended into an argument, the candidates discussed a range of county issues, and answered questions posed by the audience and sponsoring organizations. Chiusolo struck a populist tenor, frequently touting his small business experience as well as his public service career, which spans 14 years including 3 terms as mayor of Cedar Grove.
He said spending by the county is "out of control", and vowed to take on wasteful spending, even going so far as to call for a 12-month halt to all county expenditures until it gets its financial house in order. He called for more municipal control over shared services like leaf and snow removal, saying individual municipalities can perform such tasks better and cheaper than the county.
Luciano defended county spending projects as job-creating revenue generators which draw people to work, live and play in Essex County, most notably recent improvements to South Mountain Recreation Complex in West Orange, which recently added a Big Cat zoo exhibit, a mini-golf safari and is set to open a Boathouse Restaurant this week. In response to accusations of the county tax bill being too high, Luciano pointed out that of every dollar collected in county residents' annual tax bill, just nine cents is controlled by the County of Essex.
Regarding shared services, Luciano said he has not received a formal complaint in writing from anyone that leaf pick-up and snow removal had been an issue, and rattled off a long list of road improvement projects, including a $1.5 million bridge on Linden Avenue in Verona, and the paving of portions of Pompton Avenue, that were paid for with county tax dollars.
The District 4 Freeholder represents 11 municipalities, including Caldwell, Cedar Grove, Essex Fells, Fairfield, Livingston, Millburn, North Caldwell, Roseland, Verona, West Caldwell and West Orange.
Election Day is Nov. 8.