By Max Pizarro | December 16th, 2009 - 2:32pm
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Unger and Schneider: LB's version of the odd couple meet in head-on mayoral contest
Long Branch Councilman Brian Unger Credit: Andrei Jackamets   

This two-man collision course in Long Branch defines politics here.

It's been building for at least three years, with Mayor Adam Schneider - a small town Robert Moses to his defenders - on one side, and renegade Councilman Brian Unger - adamant defender of the little guy and the poor, to his champions - on the other, and the fate of Long Branch in between.

For Unger, who plans to formally launch his campaign for mayor in the new year, Schneider has glutted himself for the past two decades on mostly high-end waterfront development that clashes with the working class roots of the city, Monmouth County's storied "Newark by the Sea." 

"He doesn't value the diversity of the city," said the challenger. "We're a community of Irish and Italian Americans, Mexican Americans, African Americans and now we have a large Brazilian population. This mayor's use of eminent domain has been brutal, arrogant and shocking. His desperation to hold onto power has been stunning and depressing.

"What I'm worried about - and this is what I'll worry about as mayor - is the area of the city west of Ocean Boulevard," added the 57-year old communications consultant. "We have a gang problem in Long Branch. We had a gang murder a week ago. And the mayor's never at the crime scene."   

The councilman claimed a key victory last year in the developers versus residents war when an appellate court ruled, in the case of one particular neighborhood under threat of government seizure to make way for new building, that the city failed to adequately demonstrate the presence of "blight" as defined by the New Jersey Constitution.

"This is a mayor who took eminent domain one block too far," said Democratic Party political strategist Pat Politano, who's aligned with Unger.

Part of the nature of this willful rivalry between two registered Democrats - veteran mayor and dissenting first-term councilman - includes the independent streak both men routinely exhibit, which has led them by turns to extremities as Long Branch continues the dramatic redevelopment of its shorefront property and the environs.

Breaking with U.S. Rep. Frank Pallone (D-Long Branch) and the local Democratic Party, Schneider in turbulent political weather forged a coalition with local Republicans, including Councilman Anthony Giordano, and remains dependent on key GOP support; an "odd amalgam," in Unger's opinion.

A disaffected Democrat in the early years of the Bush II era, Unger broke ranks and became a Green Party standard bearer as a candidate for state senate and, in 2005, for freeholder.

"The Green Party has great ideals," Unger said on reflection of his freeholder campaign, in which he netted the coveted endorsement of the Asbury Park Press on his way to receiving 11% of the vote. "These are people who really believe in honest, clean and transparent government. I don't know if there will ever truly be a third party. When I look at the progression of this healthcare bill, it makes you wonder where the soul of the Democratic Party really is."

But after his loss four years ago, he reached out to Monmouth County Democratic Party Chairman Vic Scudiery. They talked. Some Democrats blamed Unger's strong place showing for ensuring Republican control of the freeholder board.

But they also grudgingly liked him.

For Unger, the connection was there with Scudiery.

And when Councilman John Zambrano became entangled in Operation Bid-Rig and unraveled amid federal bribery charges, Unger, a staple since his youth of the Long Branch surfing community, stepped up and won that council seat in a 2006 election.

An ally of Pallone's, he promptly turned into the mayor's biggest headache on the governing body, with Unger's chief and ongoing complaint being Schneider's exertion of eminent domain on the working class and Section 8 neighborhoods on the waterfront, and the mayor's eagerness to bulldoze - in snyc, said his rival, with the same local attitudes that once led to the demolition of President Ulysses Grant's summer home.

"Does Pier Village connect with the whole community?" the councilman asked of the new development anchor restaurant and storefront on the beach. "Probably not. But it's there, it's complete.

"I was the councilman who objected to the presence of million dollar condos while out kids couldn't afford to go on the beach, and when I initially objected, the council said, 'Let them get a job,'" said Unger. "I thought it was callous and bad public policy and ultimately shamed them into supporting changing the rules so kids under 17 could go to the beach for free. Look, we have a city in which the average salary is barely above the poverty level."

Other stages or proposals part of the ongoing development connected to the village need refinement, in his view - or simply, in some cases, to be scrapped.

"I'm not convinced, for example, that a ferry service there is viable," Unger said of a design plan for which the city has so far spent $1.7 million. "I don't want the taxpayers subsidizing a ferry service that is basically serving a small, high income population.

"We intend to run a tough and aggressive campaign," said councilman, who, like the mayor, lives in the Elberon section of Long Branch. "We're not Spring Lake and I don't want to be Spring Lake. Somebody has to stand up for the working class in this town. We need better code enforcement. We need a cleaner city."

Schneiderproduced a double digit victory in his last mayoral race while spending around $250,000.

"In the last election, his opponent had under $50,000," Unger said. "I don't need to match him dollar for dollar, but I will build a healthy war chest. I'd like to raise $150,000 to $175,000, and that will include no money from developers or lawyers doing business with the town. Those contributors will also understand that there will be no quid pro quo."

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quote of the day

"Christie’s method for coping with scandal has been more complicated. In January, the seemingly-local issue of lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, which created a massive traffic jam in the Hudson River town of Fort Lee, became one of national interest when it was revealed that one of Christie’s closest staffers had ordered them—for what looked like political retribution against a Democratic mayor. The scandal was quickly dubbed 'Bridgegate,' and unfortunately for Christie, it played into his reputation as a bully. Christie's response was to act unlike himself: humble." - Olivia Nuzzi

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