Monday, November 2, 2015

November 2: Grinches

We will discuss Grinches who have come upon the scene both in Tenafly and Hoboken this election season.

Tenafly Grinches

The election of 2015 is this writer’s first experience of a mayoral contest in Tenafly. Because the politicking in this fair borough of suburban New Jersey is done largely behind the scenes, if at all, it is difficult for me to ascertain whether the negative tone of one of the campaigns is typical, particular to this candidate, or perhaps a product of our society’s supposedly overheated partisanship.

Be that as it may, the first public salvo in the current campaign took the form of an interesting lawn sign that popped up around town a few weeks ago. It’s text: “3 Terms Are Enough. Tenafly Needs a New Mayor.” I will do my best to set aside a grammatical quibble (which for me is in truth unresolved), whether it should be “three terms IS enough” rather than “ARE enough.” Maybe I am infected by that late 1970s sit-com, “Eight Is Enough,” and in truth I rather disliked that show.

A political or a grammatical statement?
What was interesting about these signs is that – in addition to the cool Halloween-themed color! – there is no suggestion as to whom the perpetrator of the signs thinks one should vote for, let alone why three terms is (OK, the singular is MY vote) sufficient for the incumbent mayor’s service.

Now, if this had been Hoboken, I would have been left entirely to my own devices to figure out the responsible party. By which I mean I would never expect a negative-campaign sign stuck to a telephone pole or hung in a window there (lawn signs are rare in the more urban setting) to bother to follow the law requiring campaign committees to take credit for their expenditures. No, in Tenafly it was only a matter of looking more closely at one of the signs.

In fact, the type was extremely small. Trespassing was required. I was undeterred, and my mission successful. The minuscule credit informed me that it was the campaign of Ron Cutro, Steve Savas, and David Simpson. More research was necessary. A simple Google search did not send me to a website or Facebook page to illuminate things. But I remained undeterred and looked more deeply, ultimately finding a Bergen County GOP website that lists current candidates.

I learned that Mr. Cutro is running for mayor, and the other two gentlemen are running for Borough Council. Mayors have a term of four years in Tenafly. Council members have a term of three years; each year there is an election for two seats and a total of six seats in all.

The sign is not aimed at a Democrat. Rather it is aimed at the incumbent, Peter Rustin, who is unaffiliated with any party. Mr. Rustin won office in 2003. I have been unable to ascertain whether that race included more than two candidates, only that Mr. Rustin defeated a Republican, Marge Kerge, an on-and-off member of the Borough Council (most recently defeated in a re-election campaign last year). In 2007, Mr. Rustin outpolled the combined votes for the Republican and Democratic candidate by a margin of two to one. And in 2011, when no Democrat ran, he beat the Republican by two to one. Mr. Rustin appears to have roughly 2000 supporters, while Un-Rustin has about 1000 supporters.

Of course that only considers those who vote. Tenafly has about 14,000 residents. There are about 9000 registered voters, of whom roughly one-third are registered Democrats, one-sixth registered Republicans, and one-half unaffiliated. In presidential elections in recent history, the vote has always gone to the Democrat by a substantial margin.

It is unknown to me how Mr. Cutro’s gambit was initially taken in, let alone what was his intent and that of his slate colleagues. My speculation is that the intent was to invoke outrage, outrage at a long-time incumbent without a direct confrontation, with the strategy not so much to win over Rustin’s past supporters as to make enough of them sufficiently disgruntled to stay away from the polls. There was at least one letter to the editor of a local weekly expressing outrage at the strategy (not quite what the campaign had in mind), with the writer evidently unaware of the source of the signs (only going to show that either not everyone is willing to trespass, or perhaps only that their presbyopia is more severe than mine).

For weeks, there were no lawn signs advertising the Republican slate. Only in the last several days did signs (matching Halloween color!) start to appear naming them (but not as Republicans) along with the slogan “Less Spending. More Democracy.” (I might again quibble that “Lower Spending” might be a more precise usage.)

Low, low prices on government!
Based on letters to the editor by the candidates, I have found that the basic platform of the Republicans is that under Mr. Rustin and a now unanimously Democratic council, we are taxed too heavily and spending is undertaken in a thoughtless manner. Property taxes are high in Tenafly, and generally in Bergen County. Not that it is the paragon anyone should hold up for comparison, but taxes in Tenafly are not very much different than what I experienced in Hoboken, and to compare the quality of public services between the two communities is, frankly, laughable. That does not mean that all the spending that happens is wise. (It is worth a reminder that only a portion of the spending is controlled by the mayor and council – much of it is in the domain of the local Board of Education and the Bergen County executive and Board of Chosen Freeholders. (Don’t you love that title?))

Mr. Cutro has no recent experience running for office. But one of his slate colleagues does, namely an unsuccessful run for a Board of Education seat. In that election, the avowed platform he shared with his slate was to represent “empty nesters,” those who do not currently have children in the local schools and who are outraged by how much money was being spent to that end, driving up tax bills. (The quote is from a slate member, but is inclusive of all three.) Whatever the merit of their arguments, the slate was thoroughly trounced.

Call it the Grinch Effect if you like, but whatever you name it, Outrage is an important component of politics, and while it does not always win the day, it can certainly be an effective tool. One need only look at the current presidential campaign to see that. (I personally think the candidate who wins the outrage contest is Carly Fiorina. I nearly had a panic attack as I watched this video from her own website.)

By the way, wouldn’t Freud have had a field day with the Grinch? Talk about an Oedipus complex! Dr. Seuss was brilliant. And let’s take a look at Scrooge. We know that the Grinch’s heart grows bigger, because we get to actually see it happen. But what about Ebenezer? Might it be more about fear and loathing when he gets to see his rags and bones picked over by poor people? Brilliant. And it’s even more brilliant because while we all know that while both characters turn over new leaves, nonetheless calling someone “Grinch” or “Scrooge” is not exactly a compliment.

Are Mr. Cutro & Co. the Grinches Who Stole Halloween in Tenafly? Perhaps. But what about Mr. Rustin. Isn’t he the Grinch Who Stole Christmas in Tenafly in 2013?

What? Yes! Mr. Rustin got national press coverage for waging the War on Christmas. (Yes! The Breitbart website, among others!) That has not been a part of the current campaign. Perhaps that means he won? I don’t know if he won or lost. I think maybe it was a tie.

You will wonder why I’d wait two years to share this tale. I plead guilty. I simply never got around to it.

So, perhaps Mr. Rustin has proven to be at least a little like the real Grinch – he apologized, sort of. Maybe. At least from the perspective of entertainment value, it is sad that the Republicans have not injected this episode into their campaign.

At least not yet.

Hoboken Grinches

Sure, Tenafly may suffer from politics, like anyplace in the wide world, but really now – it’s no Hoboken. And of course Hoboken has elections, too, this first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

In Hoboken’s case it is for six seats on the City Council, and three seats on the Board of Education. The latter has nine members, each serving for four years, with a crop of three seats up for election each year. The Council has nine seats, too, with members elected serving a term of four years – the six up this year are one for each of the city’s six electoral Wards, while two years from now (synchronized with the Mayoral election) the three At-Large seats come up.

I’m going to dispense with the Board of Education quickly. There hasn’t been a lot of evident excitement about these races, which pit a slate of “Reformers” against a slate of “Old Guard” candidates. (The former embrace their informal moniker; the latter not so much.) The real action in these races has typically been in finding out how many absentee ballots are cast. If it’s a lot, then either the Old Guard wins, or it’s close. If there aren’t so many, the Reform slate wins. It is not that no one is paying attention here, but rather that it’s relatively under the radar because there is considerable action for the Council seats, which are if nothing else more prestigious. (Council members also get a modest salary and health benefits; Board members serve on a voluntary basis without benefits.)

Five of the six Council seats are contested this year, and it was almost the case that all six were. Each race offers an interesting perspective on Hoboken politics, so I’ll take them in numerical order. There’s no especially good reason for me to do that, but it serves as a convenient excuse to save the best (or “best”) race for last.

The First Ward has been served for some 21 years by one Terry Castellano. Ms. Castellano is a cousin of the Third Ward member, Michael Russo, whose father served as Hoboken’s mayor, and was tried, convicted, and served time shortly after he completed his time in office. The elder Mr. Russo owes the city some hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution, but he evidently spends too much time at his house down the Jersey Shore to do anything about that. It is safe to say that Ms. Castellano is a member of the Old Guard, and more particularly of what is known as the Russo Faction (even called that in New Jersey court documents).

Possibly Ms. Castellano’s finest moment as Council member came in 2009. Michael Russo had questioned a line in the budget of the Hoboken Parking Utility. It seemed revenues were down drastically – by some $1 million – and he wondered why. The director of the Utility meekly agreed to do an audit. He came back with a rather strange one that I have written about. His answers seemed to satisfy certain Council members, notably Mr. Russo and Ms. Castellano, who can be quoted as saying, “It’s all cleared up.” It was not. The Utility’s director, John Corea, was skimming off quarters and how. The City pursued this matter, and ultimately he was convicted.

Ms. Castellano’s competition, endorsed by Mayor Dawn Zimmer, is Mike DeFusco. Mr. DeFusco served two terms on the Hoboken Zoning Board of Adjustment, and in fact was more thought of as aligned with the “Old Guard” than otherwise, but he seems to have crossed over and been accepted as a “Reformer.”

The Reform community seems to feel there is some optimism for success. Mr. DeFusco is described as energetic in his campaign and doing good grassroots work. However, Ms. Castellano’s base of support, which is seen largely as comprising residents of middle-income subsidized housing, presumably remains strong as ever.

For the past eight years, the Second Ward has been represented by Beth Mason, who will be familiar to the readers of these pages. Ms. Mason came up in Hoboken politics as a reformer, and in particular someone willing to go out and sue the city, at the expense of her own family’s considerable fortune, to get access to records and communications relevant to procedure and spending. The administration of Mayor David Roberts (definitely “Old Guard,” though a faction in opposition to the Russo family) certainly did not enjoy dealing with Ms. Mason. Ms. Mason won a seat on the Council in 2007 and it was widely expected she would be a strong “Reform” candidate for Mayor in 2009.

However, this plan was foiled by the rise of Dawn Zimmer, who also won a Council seat in 2007, in the Fourth Ward. Though both first won elective office the same year, Ms. Mason was generally seen as the more senior politician, she having been involved in civic matters for a substantially longer period. Ms. Zimmer initially indicated no interest in running for Mayor, but she soon changed her mind, saying that she felt the items on her reform agenda were not being addressed by Ms. Mason. Ultimately, both began campaigns for the 2009 election, which became a three-way race with Peter Cammarano representing the “Old Guard.”

Though Ms. Mason would describe it otherwise, what quickly ensued is that she took several steps that associated her with the Russo faction of the Old Guard. First, she supported the long-term extension of a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) for a housing development. More critically, when it came to naming a slate of at-large Council candidates, she chose three men strongly associated with the Russo faction.

The outcome was that Ms. Zimmer ended up in a runoff election with Mr. Cammarano, Ms. Mason coming in a distant third. Mr. Cammarano won the runoff, curiously with the help of some funds from the FBI that were supplied by an informant. But Ms. Zimmer had in the meantime become Council president, and when Cammarano resigned under pressure, she automatically became Acting Mayor. Literally on the day that all happened, Ms. Mason indicated her intention to run for Mayor. She did not fare well, with Ms. Zimmer winning a very strong plurality in a multicandidate race.

To say that the relationship between Ms. Zimmer and Ms. Mason has been strained is a something of an understatement. Ms. Mason became strongly aligned with the Old Guard faction of the City Council, and during a brief period when they were in the majority she served as President. At all other times, she has been at the forefront of opposing anything and everything that Ms. Zimmer and her supporters on the Council have supported.

Ms. Mason did not run for Mayor again in 2013. Instead she supported the campaign of Timothy Occhipinti, who now represents the Fourth Ward. Mr. Occhipinti, in this campaign, was sponsored by Frank “Pupie” (pronounced POO-pie) Raia (RAY-uh), a local developer. We’ll get back to him later. Mr. Occhipinti’s was a very well-funded campaign, but ultimately the one among three that got (by a substantial margin) the least number of votes.

Basically, Ms. Mason, while re-elected to her Council spot in 2011, really has not proven to be very popular in Hoboken overall. She aspired to bigger things. She put out a trial balloon to run for governor. She has donated lavishly to races all around the state. Her money is gratefully accepted, but it has not amounted to greener pastures, at least not yet.

It would appear she is tired of it all, at least as to being on the front lines in Hoboken, and she decided not to run for re-election to her Council seat. It does not mean the last has been heard from Beth Mason, but it does mean the seat is open.

Or maybe it has nothing to do with fatigue. Perhaps it has something to do with the court ruling on a defamation case brought by two of her supporters against Hoboken bloggers and others who are associated with Reform. Not only did the Mason supporters lose, they lost rather miserably and were assessed considerable (some quarter of a million dollars) in attorney fees. And perhaps it has something to do with the torrent of e-mails, produced during discovery, that have been published by those two entertaining bloggers, many of which posts make Ms. Mason and her coterie look, well, rather Grinch-like, and would no doubt have gotten considerable public play had she run.

In other words, maybe Ms. Mason came to the conclusion she would lose ignominiously.

Beth Mason.
Someone else.
There are two-and-a-half candidates to success Ms. Mason. Or maybe it’s more like 2.1, or 2.0001. OK, there are three names on the ballot. One is Peter Biancamano. He has long been associated with Mr. Raia, and currently serves on the Board of Education, definitely Old Guard, but of a particular flavor. One is Tiffanie Fisher, who president of a large condominium development in the Second Ward and is associated with the Reform camp. The other is Bonnie Murray. Ms. Murray is herself a political new-comer, but her husband, Brian, is not – he has been a very public and vocal supporter of the Old Guard, associated with the Russo faction, including as an unsuccessful candidate for the Board of Education.

Mr. Murray’s choice to run for the Board was curious, given that his line of work is as a realtor and his business model is about “escaping to the burbs,” in which he cajoles local residents to decamp in order to, among other things, access better schools. Community pride!

It was initially the case that there were two Old Guard council slates, one belonging to the Russo faction and the other supported by Frank Raia. Mr. Biancamano was part of the latter – but he has crossed over to the Russos. It was perhaps the case that Ms. Murray was allied with the Russos, but this is in fact unclear. She has essentially run no campaign at all. It is thought by some in the Reform camp that she is running in order to siphon off even a few votes from the Reform candidate, to bolster the chances of Mr. Biancamano. It may be enough.

Michael Russo has represented the Third Ward since 2003, and is the son of Anthony Russo, who was Mayor from 1993 to 2001, and subsequently convicted of accepting bribes, served time, and still owes restitution of some $300,000. Though he might state otherwise, the younger Mr. Russo’s career is not entirely uncheckered, in particular that part about being capture on video tape wheeling and dealing, and prospectively accepting a bribe, from Solomon Dwek, whose work for the FBI (hinted at above) brought down Mr. Cammarano. Mr. Russo ultimately backed off actually taking the money. Whatever the case, Mr. Russo has inherited his father’s mantle as the leader of an Old Guard political faction in Hoboken, indeed the leading faction.

It was not known until the last day petitions could be submitted whether he would have an opponent in this year’s election. But he did have one – Frank Raia. Mr. Raia and the Russos, though sometimes working together, only do so out of convenience. They have opposed each other before, directly and by proxy. They are both renowned for success in gathering Vote by Mail (VBM) ballots, some would say doing so in the form of payoffs, though this has never been proved, or even prosecuted, though there is some interesting circumstantial evidence.

Such was the state of the matter on August 31. But before the end of September, Mr. Raia announced he was withdrawing from the race, due to ill health, and seeking to have his name removed from the ballot. (It seems his name is nonetheless still on the ballot, but he truly is not running.) One Reform-oriented blogger has written that Mr. Raia withdrew in a deal through which he would be appointed the representative for Weehawken to the Hudson Sewerage Authority, but this same blogger has subsequently indicated that the deal may in fact not work out for Mr. Raia.

Why would Mr. Raia make that sort of trade? The position is unpaid, after all. Perhaps it is an interest in what is coming down the pipes. But the more widely accepted theory is that the position used to come with health benefits, and Mr. Raia is currently finishing out a term as commissioner for Hoboken and is grandfathered in with the benefits so long as his service is continuous. However, evidently, the current powers that be in Hoboken are not interested in reappointing him.

While the Reform camp didn’t exactly have a true favorite between Mr. Russo and Mr. Raia, Mr. Raia’s withdrawal means that Mr. Russo could exert his efforts – and resources – toward supporting others running for office. His faction includes Ms. Castellano, Mr. Biancamano, and candidates in the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth wards, as I will further elaborate.

The Fourth Ward is, arguably, a replay of the 2013 Mayoral election. Indeed, it shares two of the three candidates, both Mr. Occhipinti, who is the incumbent, and Ruben Ramos. Mr. Ramos is a former Councilor for the ward, as well as a former Board of Education member, and most recently New Jersey Assembly Member for the 33rd District, representing Hoboken, Jersey City, and West New York. Mr. Ramos served four years in that capacity, and supposedly left office at the end of 2013 in order to instead run for Mayor. However, most believe that he did not run for re-election by choice. As regular readers here know, the structure of the legislative branch in New Jersey is somewhat novel in that the State is divided into districts that each have one Senator and two Assembly members. (Voters may choose two candidates – or just check off one – when behind the curtain.) Senators serve four years, and Assembly members for two-year terms. Thus, they are elected together every four years, but the Assembly members also face the ballot in between as well.

In many cases, this ends up meaning that the Senator is the powerbroker for the Assembly candidates for the same party. That is certainly the case with the 33rd District, which is very much the fief of Senator Brian Stack, who is also the mayor of West New York. Every two years, we all (well, some of us) wait breathlessly to find out who he will choose. He sometimes seeks input from his neighboring mayors, sometimes not. Candidates bow before him, usually. He generally decides on or about the last possible day. And, given that Democrats seriously outnumber Republicans in Hudson County, his choices always win (as does he). In recent years, Ms. Mason has floated being one of his lieutenants, as has Mr. Raia, but also a Reform member of the Hoboken Council, Ravi Bhalla. Mr. Stack? He’s the boss!

Mr. Stack does appear to look to having a candidate each from Jersey City and Hoboken, to balance off his being from West New York. He also likes to have a Hispanic candidate and often an Indian-American candidate (he being neither). That’s good politics, to be sure.

Though there is no explicit information to support it, it seems that after four years, he’d had enough with Mr. Ramos and did not intend to support him as part of his team. Curiously, who he chose (and of course who subsequently was elected) was a close friend of Mr. Ramos’s – Carmelo Garcia, who took office in January 2014. Yes, we’ve read about him – and we will spill more ink if you can continue to count from four to six.

Mr. Ramos came in a not very close second to Dawn Zimmer in his 2013 run for Mayor. However, if one added together his votes and those for Mr. Occhipinti, that would have made a majority, and thus, if Mr. Occhipinti had not run, it is quite arguable that Mr. Ramos would have won. There is bad blood over that. Some might say that Mr. Ramos is running for his old seat – as part of the Russo faction ticket –  on the Council primarily to spite Mr. Occhipinti. That may be a factor, but it is far from obvious that Mr. Ramos also simply sees this as a chance to regain a foothold in elective office, and perhaps a future try for Mayor, or whatever.

This one is Mr. Ramos.
Much the same pose, but I honestly see no resemblance.
So, to the extent this is a grudge match, one can think of Mr. Ramos as a Hoboken Grinch. But I’m not done writing.

At the start of things, it was assumed that Mr. Occhipinti would be part of Council slate headed by Mr. Raia, but it is unclear whether Mr. Raia’s withdrawal has also meant a withdrawal of his material support. Further, Mr. Occhipinti has widely been written off by the Reform movement as a puppet of the Old Guard and not himself a strong player. Nonetheless, he is in the race for real, though most handicappers would expect Mr. Ramos to draw more votes.

The question is whether having both of them in the campaign will open door for a Reform candidate to win the day. That candidate is Dana Wefer. This is her first run for elective office, but she is not new to local politics or public service. She currently serves on the board of the Hoboken Housing Authority, as its president no less, and soon after she joined that board locked horns with the Authority’s executive director – Carmelo Garcia. The outcome of that was Mr. Garcia’s dismissal (and of course a lawsuit). Along the way, numerous questions have been lofted about the management of the Authority under the charge of Mr. Garcia, with certainly some interesting items audits – while Mr. Garcia’s supporters have stated that he was run out for purely political reasons, and also as a form of racial discrimination.

The Fourth Ward is particularly known as a nexus for supposed harvesting of illegal absentee ballots, but the allegations are that such gathering (in return for money) happens primarily in the buildings run by the Hoboken Housing Authority, which are largely located in that Ward. With Mr. Garcia no longer in charge, of course the environment for such alleged skullduggery would seem to be less enticing, but no one believes that will prove to be any blockade to such efforts. Not including any provisional ballots, Mr. Zimmer won the Fourth Ward in the Mayoral election by a single vote (824 to 823 for Mr. Ramos and 300 for Mr. Occhipinti).

The Fifth is one of two wards in Hoboken currently represented by a member of the Reform community, Peter Cunningham, who is seeking his third term. His opponent is Eduardo Gonzalez. Mr. Gonzalez has not held elective office, but he did until recently serve on the board of the Hoboken Housing Authority, where he was a supporter of Mr. Garcia. He was not reappointed by the Reform-controlled City Council – thus clearing the way for a clear majority that was not supportive of Mr. Garcia, paving the way for his dismissal. Not surprisingly, Mr. Gonzalez is part of the Russo faction ticket. Mr. Cunningham has twice defeated Old Guard candidates, and he will not be easy to beat.

Best for last! If it this is your first time reading the Hoboken Diary, you may wonder why Assembly Member Garcia would be running for the small-potatoes office of Sixth Ward Council member in Hoboken. That’s because he is soon to be the Former Assembly Member for the 33rd District, as after only a single two-year term, the all-powerful Mr. Stack chose not to designate him again, instead choosing a different Hoboken-based Hispanic, who also happens to be the spouse of the Hoboken Police Commissioner. It is thought by some that Mr. Stack regretted his choice of Mr. Garcia almost immediately. He did not always vote as desired (as was the case with Mr. Russo), but in addition, Mr. Garcia turned heads by secretly recording conversations, particularly a conversation with Mr. Stack’s predecessor in the Senate, Bernard Kenny, and the husband of Mayor Zimmer, Stanley Grossbard. I’ve written about this at length. Not that the relationship between Mr. Kenny and Mr. Stack is exactly close – Mr. Stack pushed Mr. Kenny out, effectively, and it would be a stretch to say Mr. Stack is in any way close to Ms. Zimmer. But Mr. Kenny is generally well-liked, and besides, wearing a wire does not inspire confidence in one’s colleagues, particular as the wire was clearly worn in order to attempt to incriminate for a lawsuit that was eventually filed.

Thus, Mr. Garcia’s not continuing at the Assembly could be put down as “Does not play well with others.”

Whatever, the case, it’s tough losing the well-paid and powerful Housing Authority job and the Assembly job at about the same time. While Mr. Garcia has found new public employment in Newark as his main gig, he is not done with politics, and is looking to unseat the other incumbent Reform-aligned member of the Council, Jennifer Giattino.

Ms. Giattino unseated an Old Guard council member, Angelo “Nino” Giacchi, in 2011 – which was by no means expected. She was a strong retail politician on her first time out. Interestingly, this despite being a Republican, though she hardly flaunts that affiliation. Mr. Giacchi cultivated a reputation as being a moderate member of the Old Guard, so his defeat was doubly painful for that side.

A candidate with the city-wide reputation (for good or ill) and resources of Mr. Garcia, as part of the Russo faction ticket, is not to be trifled with, and this race is one to watch closely. One interesting note: Mr. Garcia has evidently not filed either the 29 day or 11 day reports due to NJ ELEC, the commission that oversees campaign finances. The number of days in the report titles are a particular number of days before an election. ELEC has a reputation as a rather toothless sort of predator, but they did fine Ms. Mason rather heftily (at least by ELEC standards).

Right now, the three At-Large council members are all from the Reform side, and thus with Mr. Cunningham and Mr. Giattino, make a majority of the nine-member Council. However, six votes are needed for bonding issues, and thus the Reform side dearly wants not only to retain Wards Five and Six, but to pick up one more. And of course, the Old Guard desperately wants to pick off a Reform seat (or two) to regain a majority, which it has held only briefly since 2009, also as a catapult into the 2017 election for Mayor and the At-Large seats.

It is unknown if Ms. Zimmer will seek a third term as Mayor, and if not who from the Reform movement will step up. Her success, or that of any other Reform candidates from among the Council members, will rest in large part on success in this election. Similarly, one would expect – should expect – Mssrs. Ramos and Garcia to be viable Old Guard candidates for Mayor in 2017 if they win election this time (and it would be interesting how these two close friends work that out), but they would also potentially need to contend with Mr. Russo and with Freeholder Anthony “Stick” Romano, who I confess I have strained to mention because I adore his nickname.

Friday, October 23, 2015

October 23, 2015: The Frank Sinatra

The following post is not really about Hoboken, and certainly not about Hoboken politics or chicanery. But anything that references Frank Sinatra has a home here.

The Frank Sinatra

The title above may seem odd: just what is that definite article doing in front of the name of The Sultan of Swoon, The Chairman of the Board, The Voice, when it’s not in the form of a nickname? Sure, there was only one Frank Sinatra, born just shy of 100 years ago in Hoboken, but why bother?

Yet, if you are in the trenches of the classical music business, you read that title to mean something else entirely; you read it with the definite article pronounced “tha” rather than “thee,” and as something having very little to do with Ol’ Blue Eyes. Here is a true-to-life conversation between a couple of classical musicians:

Musician #1: Did you make it to Jane’s concert last night? I was bummed to miss it; I had a gig.
Musician #2: She played great. So did Jeff. [That would be the pianist.]
Musician #1: They always do. What was on the program?
Musician #2: The Beethoven E-flat, the Ravel, the Frank Sinatra, and some showpieces.
Musician #1: Sorry I missed it.
Musician #2: She asked after you backstage.

No, Jane and Jeff did not play an arrangement of “New York, New York” or “Strangers in the Night.” It wasn’t “Pennies from Heaven” or “September Song.” What they played was the Sonata in A major for Violin & Piano, written in 1886 by the Belgian composer César Franck (1822-1890).

The Franck Sonata – or rather, the Frank Sinatra.

Ol’ Blue Eyes? Perhaps eyes of blue, perhaps not, 
but certainly César Franck (photograph by Pierre Petit).
I do not know who is responsible for this nickname, but it so pervasive that musicians use it essentially to the exclusion of a more proper name, and it will pass by without even the hint of a comment or laugh. The work is only extremely rarely referred to as “the Franck Sonata” in any casual conversation between working musicians. Its name simply IS “the Frank Sinatra.” I find a similarity here to the old joke about a bunch of stand-up comedians sitting around a bar, and one says “Number 6!” and they all laugh, and another says “Number 82!” and they roll on the floor – except without the laughing and rolling. It is the “in” joke, par excellence.

Of course with each classical musician there is a point at which this joke is first encountered.

Earlier this month, Itzhak Perlman played at the Bergen Performing Arts Center, or bergenPAC. That is in Englewood, next door to Tenafly, so how could my wife and I not take our 10-year-old violinist son (and my 87-year-old mother) to that?

The anticipation of it brought back memories of a recital I attended with my parents in my hometown, New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1976, when I was fifteen. It was the violinist Joseph Fuchs (1899-1997) and pianist Artur Balsam (1906-1994). I had no idea who they were, but I was becoming very interested in classical music at that point. I listened to plenty of classical music on the radio (WGBH, WBUR, and WCRB), and was starting to assemble a collection of LPs that added to my father’s prized Beethoven symphony set (Toscanini and the NBC Symphony). But this performance was my first time hearing a live-in-concert duo recital.

It was life-changing. It was a SERIOUS program. I remember a friend of my parents approaching me after it was over and asking, “You like that long-hair stuff?” I did.

I do not have perfect recall of everything they played. It started with Mozart or Beethoven. There was definitely a Brahms sonata; I’m not sure which, but I think it was the A major. The program ended with the Frank Sinatra, which of course is not the name by which I or my parents knew it. (If the joke goes back that far, then Mr. Fuchs and Mr. Balsam certainly knew.) I remember being amazed by the Mozart-Beethoven and the Brahms.

But the Franck. The Franck!! That piece, that performance completely blew me away. How could a composer DO that? How did those musicians DO that? I’m enthralled to this day, my skin tingles just thinking about it, thirty-nine years later. I met Mr. Balsam in 1984 and I was able to tell him. I never met Mr. Fuchs, but I did once meet his younger sister, the renowned violist, Lillian.

As is common with Mr. Perlman’s recitals, there was no advance publicity about the program in Englewood. A few hours before the concert I was discussing that with my son. He was puzzled, and I did my best to explain that that is simply how things are with Perlman. Not that he hadn’t decided what he was going to play, but that it is part of the fun. You go because you need to hear him play the music – whatever music he chooses. (In fact, it was even unannounced who the pianist would be!)

My son nonetheless wanted know what I thought Mr. Perlman would play. I said, “Oh, probably he’ll start with a Mozart or Beethoven sonata. Then he’ll probably play something like the Ravel or Debussy sonata. Possibly a sonata by someone like Franck or Fauré. And then finish up with a bunch of encores, definitely including some Kreisler. You’ll love it.” I added, “The pianist is probably Rohan de Silva; they play together a lot. Perlman used to play a lot with Sam Sanders, who passed away much too young. Now de Silva is his regular. Sam and I were friendly.” (The last time I’d seen Perlman perform – far too long ago – was at Sanders’ memorial at Merkin Concert Hall.)

Mr. Perlman announced each piece (no printed program!) just before playing it. He and de Silva started with the Beethoven E-flat major Sonata (Op. 12, No. 3), then the Ravel, and then after intermission the Frank Sinatra and encores, including a couple by Kreisler. Each time a piece was announced, my son looked at me with wide eyes – wider each time. I told him he really shouldn’t be that impressed by my prowess (and he shouldn’t), but I didn’t mind looking rather brilliant. It keeps a Dad going, you know.

For whatever reason, I didn’t call the piece “the Frank Sinatra” when I predicted the program. But I made a good call, as you will see.

The performance – everything, most certainly including the Frank Sinatra (and I think in particular the Ravel) – was amazing, beautiful, all about the music. And entertaining, especially when you add the almost impossible charm and humor Mr. Perlman exudes when he talks to an audience. A block of granite couldn’t help but respond to a performance like this.

After the performance was over, my son was unexpectedly invited to join some other students to go backstage to meet Mr. Perlman. While my wife and I waited (it was a long wait – it turns out there were people from the Israeli Embassy, and they got to go first), I found myself standing at the entrance to bergenPAC, looking at this:

Itzhak Perlman plays the Frank Sinatra!
One might think it was planned. Itzhak Perlman plays the Frank Sinatra (even it is actually the Frank Sinatra Jr., in this case). Best of all, it provided the perfect way to introduce my son to the REAL name of that piece he’d just heard.

The reaction? A quick, appreciative smile and a flash of the eyes. Perfect. Next time he encounters the work, it will likely be among working musicians, and when “the Frank Sinatra” is invoked, I imagine my son will let it go by without acknowledgment but with full understanding – or he’ll be the one to use the nickname without missing a beat. I probably won’t be on hand, but I’ll be there in spirit.

If you don’t know the Frank Sinatra, I warmly recommend you get to know it. Here are links to performances on YouTube by four incredible pairs: Yehudi Menuhin and his sister, Hephzibah; David Oistrakh and Sviatoslav Richter; Arthur Grumiaux and György Sebök (one of my wife’s teachers); and Ivry Gitlis and Martha Argerich. There is an entire world in each interpretation – and a universe in all of them together.

Second movement:
Fourth movement:




I find no evidence that Fuchs and Balsam recorded the Frank Sinatra. They certainly did record together. Here is their interpretation of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, which I offer with my eternal thanks to these two masters who changed my life.

Second movement:

Friday, September 26, 2014

September 26, 2014: Masters of the Universe

It has to be frustrating for Chris Christie.

Master of the Universe?
Here it is, he’s the Governor of the State of New Jersey, supposedly one of the most powerful governorships among American states; he’s a Republican in a very “blue” state who triumphed in his reelection bid. He’s the sort of Republican, who though more “moderate” than average, seems to be taken seriously across the spectrum of his party. He wants to be President – very badly, it would appear: Since the beginning of his current term (January), he has spent one third of his time traveling out of state. This is supposedly stumping for other Republicans and also a trip to Mexico that was publicized as a trade delegation, but no one believes that. (Christie’s the guy, who when speaking to the Republican National Convention in 2012, nearly forgot to say two particular words, those words being “Mitt” and “Romney.”)

Now his popularity is slipping among the state’s citizens, let alone that he is seen as grievously injured as a potential nominee of the Republican party for the 2016 Presidential election.

Tolstoy would have had no hesitation about what has gone wrong here. If Napoleon couldn't control history, why would you think this gentleman could? Reasonable enough.

Not Master of the Universe
Now, some would say that what Mr. Christie has faced over the past year is much his own doing. Also reasonable enough. Let's take a look.

The most obvious thing is the George Washington Bridge scandal. Access to the bridge was severely restricted for four days in September last year. This was done without prior public announcement, and it seems to have been put into place by the New Jersey-oriented staff of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. No one has been able to link it directly to Mr. Christie, though it has been linked to his staff. A federal investigation continues.

That Mr. Christie is widely seen as a bully – without doubt he revels in being a tough guy – certainly contributes to the lack of widespread belief that even if he had no hand in the closure (which evidently was some form of political retribution exacted on the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee – where the lanes were blocked – for not endorsing Mr. Christie’s reelection), that he at least indirectly signaled the way his staff and supporters ought to use their creative impulses.

Not everyone by a long stretch believes the mayor of Hoboken (this is, after all, the Hoboken Diary), Dawn Zimmer, in her allegations that she was pressured by the Lieutenant Governor and other staff of the Christie administration to sign off on certain development projects that were arguably of value to the law firm of the now former chair of the Port Authority. However, plenty do. A federal investigation continues. (See above as to divining the Governor’s involvement or lack thereof.)

And that is the root problem for Mr. Christie. Even if he truly is clean handed, and does everything to keep his staff clean handed, not many people believe it, presumably because of the way he comports himself.

There is more.

Christie won election in November 2009, defeating incumbent Democratic Governor Jon Corzine, who had previously been one of New Jersey’s two U.S. Senators, and before that Master of the Universe (i.e., Goldman Sachs CEO). You determine whether that's a good career trajectory – I'll move on.

Definitely Master of the Universe
Christie had been U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, appointed by George W. Bush, and a protégé of John Ashcroft. As U.S. Attorney, Mr. Christie prosecuted a lot of corrupt politicians, and was quite successful. The fruit hangs low in New Jersey, and most of that fruit, simply as a matter of numbers, is Democratic fruit. But there's no doubt Mr. Christie harvested a lot of bad apples, to extend the metaphor.

In the meantime, and what with the onset of the Great Recession, Mr. Corzine wasn't managing to polish his image. Instead, he became widely known for spending a nice stretch of time recovering from a nasty accident precipitated by his official SUV traveling over 90 miles per hour on the Garden State Parkway – with the Governor not choosing to encumber himself with a seat belt. (See above, Master of the Universe.)

Mr. Christie entered office as the tough guy who would set things right. He would show those slothful public sector Union members. He would limit the upward march of real estate taxes. He would finally make sure the State made its annual contributions to its pension funds to restore them to solvency, something both Democratic and Republican governors had failed to do for many, many years. And if you fought him, he'd flatten you – just watch. He gleefully posted clips on YouTube of him abusing various people who had the nerve to challenge him publicly.

Both the State Assembly and Senate had (and have) strong Democratic majorities, something that has not changed during the Christie era; this was no Republican wave. Yet – being the deal making sort (and you can read "deal" on any level) – both chambers supported legislation to accomplish all of the above. Some would say the members were cowed. Others that they had their own fish to fry and found it more important to stay on the good side of an Administration that wasn't indicating it would be shy about using its power to do favors or not.

These steps were widely touted by the Governor and his supporters as leading to an ongoing "New Jersey miracle," and after Hurricane Sandy came through, a "New Jersey comeback."

And everything is going great!

That's why New Jersey has the highest unemployment rate (6.6%) among it and its neighboring states, and above the national average.

That's why New Jersey's bond rating has been lowered eight times since Mr. Christie took office – several of those in part due to Mr. Christie changing his mind about that pension fund solvency thing, and otherwise because of things like huge overestimates as to revenue coming to light, the generally sluggish economy, etc. It’s not hard to find reasons.

None of which is to say that many people miss having the Master of the Universe running things. Except that perhaps we only traded him for a new Master of the Universe. Perhaps Mr. Tolstoy will be on the ballot next time.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

August 10, 2014: We Can, We Will, Watch Us Get Canned

"We can, we will, watch us get canned."
--Carmelo G. Garcia (not really)

To be fair, Carmelo Garcia, the newly-fired executive director of the Hoboken Housing Authority is not known for using the Royal We. Yet there are certainly many in the self-proclaimed "Reformist" camp in Hoboken things political who might dispute that, at least in the philosophical sense.

I need to back up a bit here for anyone who doesn't follow Hoboken politics rather closely and even in the dog days of August.

First, I'll correct the quote:

"We can, we will, watch us."
--Carmelo G. Garcia (really)

Mr. Garcia has for some time, in particular most recently as a campaign slogan during his race (if you can call it that, for which more below) for one of the 33rd New Jersey Assembly District seats (seats?, yes there are two, patience please), used the slogan "We can, we will, watch us."

What he means in this slogan is that the disadvantaged can and will rise up to achieve its potential, much as Mr. Garcia, who grew up in the Hoboken's federally subsidized housing projects, has laudably accomplished for himself.

Yet Mr. Garcia has been having difficulties of late, arguably at least in part difficulties that he has imposed upon himself. I have written about Mr. Garcia in two of the prior three entries of this blog, the two entries immediately preceding my entry about the travails of Governor Chris Christie, and of course since then Mr. Christie has himself been engulfed by the somewhat seamy side of Hoboken politics (and real estate) himself, at least if you believe Mayor Dawn Zimmer's allegations. (Which I am not ignoring, you can rest assured. I simply haven't turned to writing about that yet.)

I need to make up for an oversight in my November 2013 entry, in which I stated that my readers know about the suit Mr. Garcia had filed against Ms. Zimmer, and therefore how her re-election and her coalition's control over the Mayoralty, the City Council, the Board of Education, and the Zoning Board could not spell good tidings to those in control of the Housing Authority, where the Board remained barely supportive (if that) of Mr. Garcia's continued service. I did not write about that suit. I will now, as well as the latest developments.

The suit was filed in August 2013, against Ms. Zimmer, her husband (Stan Grossbard), and the Housing Authority's then-Board chair, Jake Stuiver, accusing them of all kinds of things scurrilous, essentially ranging from making Mr. Garcia's work really unpleasant and hard, to conducting a campaign of "ethnic cleansing," and yes that phrase was used. It is not difficult to divine the identity of the attorney representing Mr. Garcia, at least if you follow the Hoboken Diary, one Louis Zayas.

Ms. Zimmer appoints only one member of the Housing Authority board. The Governor appoints one as well. The Hoboken City Council appoints the other five. When Zimmer had the opportunity to make her first appointment upon the termination of a term, she appointed a member who in fact turned out to be at least somewhat supportive of Mr. Garcia rather than aligned with the other Reform-aligned members. Initially Mr. Stuiver (of the Reform camp) was elected chair of the board, but he then - due to a switch by Zimmer's appointee, Jean Rodriguez, lost that post to Rob Davis III. So Mr. Garcia still nominally had the support of the Board, though things were hardly firm in hand as on any number of individual issues Ms. Rodriguez voted with the Reform group on the Board. Mr. Garcia filed his suit while Stuiver was still chair.

The suit was arguably rushed into process earlier than intended. During another of Mr. Zayas's legal forays - the case of Angel Alicea, in fact, for which continue on to get an update - a secret recording Mr. Garcia had made of a lunch he had with Mr. Grossbard and Bernard Kenny was referred to and became as a result part of the public record. Mr. Kenny is a Hoboken political power broker and former New Jersey State Senator (the predecessor of Brian Stack) and Assembly member. The lunch, which took place in January 2013, was supposedly arranged, with the aid of Mr. Kenny, so that Mr. Garcia could try to make peace with Ms. Zimmer.

Recording the affair was not on the menu at Jack Dempsey's. The recording includes a fascinating soliloquy by Mr. Garcia while in the restaurant's restroom. The transcript uses the admirable euphemism "bathroom noises" at one point. Mr. Garcia expresses in his soliloquy considerably more self-confidence than does a certain Prince of Denmark. (It is not lost on me that this suggests a further riff on Mr. Garcia's campaign slogan, which I chose to leave to your imagination to puzzle out.)

Here's the relevant page:

It is hard for me to believe that even many attorneys would have one-way conversations like this one.

Shakespeare is of course known for drawing from historical documents, and I think he might have made excellent use of this transcript, though I think in a different play than "Hamlet."
LADY MACBETH: Out, damned spot! out, I say! [Bathroom noises.]
In the recording Mr. Garcia offers to Mr. Grossbard to support Ms. Zimmer in the forthcoming election, to appoint as attorney to the Authority's Board a particular individual he supposed to be a favorite of Mayor Zimmer, and forge a lasting peace, all in return for "calling the dogs off." (Mr. Garcia wanted to have reappointed as attorney Charles Daglian. The Board wanted another option, to put it mildly.) The gist of Mr. Grossbard's response is that the Board might have more confidence in Mr. Garcia if he would simply work with them as to the choice of an attorney.

Whether Mr. Garcia took any of that in is not clear, but we do know one thing, which is that Mr. Garcia was not reticent in referring his place in the world (or more broadly), to wit:
GARCIA: I know I am destined for greatness.
Now, that really is Shakespearian.
MALVOLIO: ... some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon 'em.
Mr. Garcia will want things to work out differently for him than they did for Malvolio.

In early January 2014, the suit was dismissed without prejudice, meaning that as it was filed it would not stand further action in court, but Mr. Garcia was given a month to revise the suit, if he cared to, and in particular instructed to find some other way to express things than through the use of the phrase "ethnic cleansing." The suit was refiled, and it seems we are now waiting.

The Reform camp's interpretation of these machinations is that Mr. Garcia was aiming for a couple of things: First, an attempt to incriminate Ms. Zimmer and Mr. Grossbard. Second, to lay the groundwork for getting a pot of gold at such point he lost his job as the Authority's executive director, either by firing or non-reappointment upon the conclusion of his contract, or to have the hanging suit serve as a way to protect his job.

In early May 2014, the City Council had the opportunity to appoint two members of the Housing Authority. They chose - in a 5-4 vote, of course (move over, U.S. Supreme Court) - Dana Wefer and David Dening. The Authority board then proceeded to a reorganization, electing Ms. Wefer as chair. The board was now firmly in the hands of the Reform camp, with four members very clear and a fifth (the Governor's appointee) also generally sympathetic.

As might be imagined, fun diversions followed. The Board decided to appoint a special counsel to investigate some things. Mr. Garcia and Mr. Daglian objected, and protested to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (the Authority being federally-subsidized housing), and HUD ruled that the Board was out of line making such an appointment, and the contract with that attorney was canceled.

Members of the Board raised objections to several contracts, including some with firms that turned out to be contributors to Mr. Garcia's race for the Assembly. While it was far from clear that there was anything illegal about those contributions, and no illegality was officially alleged, the issue with more teeth was that 20 months after Hurricane Sandy wreaked considerable havoc on the Authority's buildings, Mr. Garcia was continuing to award contracts for considerable expenses on an emergency basis, allowing for the bypassing of bids, and for monthly rather than longer-term work. Members of the Board expressed concerns that this was questionable and possibly illegal, and in the least not their preference.

At the end of July, the Board called a special meeting on August 4, for which the agenda was a resolution to terminate Mr. Garcia.

Mr. Garcia's contract is a five year deal expiring on August 31, 2015. In my reading, other than when for cause, the Authority is given the right to terminate unilaterally with 120 days' notice. And indeed, as part of the process at the meeting, it was ordered that Mr. Garcia be proffered a check as quickly as feasible, which check, incidentally, would be for something in the vicinity of $56,000. Whether that check has as yet been presented to Mr. Garcia and whether he has accepted it is unknown to me.

Based on reports, the special meeting was quite an event. Mr. Garcia addressed a protest march of evidently some 200 people, from the Authority, chanting (Mr. Garcia's version of) "We can, etc." along the way, to City Hall, where the meeting took place. There was utter mayhem soon after the outset of the meeting, forcing a recess before a vote could be called on the resolution. No surprise that immediately after the meeting was called to order, Council member Beth Mason made a statement that she considered the meeting to be illegal. Her complaints were that the meeting was not sufficiently noticed and that not everyone who wanted to attend the meeting was able to fit into the room (which latter certainly was true, though it's not obvious that such is required).

Here is the beginning of the meeting:

There was quite a bit of procedural wrangling. Mr. Garcia denied receiving notification that his employment would be on the agenda, the so-called Rice Notification. That notice gives a recipient the right to have the discussion about his employment determine that it will be done in closed or public session. Ms. Wefer read into the record the certified mail receipt number. Mr. Garcia stated that as it was sent to his office (rather than home) that did not suffice. But it was clear he was aware of the meeting and the agenda, and had determined that his attorney was on vacation and thus not present to give him counsel.

Per standard procedure, the executive director of a housing authority is also the Secretary for its board meetings, and there was a huge set-to as to whether a temporary secretary should be appointed for this meeting. It's all in the transcript.

The resolution to terminate Mr. Garcia passed 5-2, with the prior Board president Rob Davis III, and Ms. Zimmer's appointee Jean Rodriguez, being the dissenters. There was a further vote to appoint, effective immediately, an interim executive director, Richard Fox. Then followed public comments, concluding with Mr. Garcia's own, and the meeting was adjourned.

The upshot, for now, is that Mr. Garcia has lost his primary employment, at least as to salary (pay for the Assembly is $49,000; for the HHA position $165,000), though not without a not insubstantial severance. There has also been considerable speculation that his political career was already irreparably damaged by his decision to wear a microphone, which was turned on from the time he met Mr. Kenny in the PATH train station in Hoboken on the way to Manhattan to meet Mr. Grossbard. Politicians certainly do not like that in general.

Mr. Garcia now evidently joins Ruben Ramos - a close friend and his predecessor as Assembly member, and loser to Dawn Zimmer in last November's mayoral election - in suffering a major career setback. They are also the two most prominent Hispanic politicians in Hoboken. Not that anyone should assume that either Mr. Garcia or Mr. Ramos are finished (let alone that Mr. Garcia is, after all, still a member of the Assembly).

I referred to Mr. Garcia's race for Assembly in scare quotes above, and this will be the opportunity to point out that in New Jersey, unique among American states to my knowledge, the districts for the two houses of the state legislature work from duplicate district boundaries, and each district is represented by one Senator and two Assembly members. The result is that at least in some cases there are tickets comprising a Senate candidate and two Assembly candidates anointed by that Senate candidate - and that the Senate candidate is the dominant factor. Such is certainly the case in the 33rd District, home of Senator Brian Stack. There is plenty of speculation that Mr. Stack must rue the day he invited Mr. Garcia to join his ticket, though certainly there has been no public statement to that effect.

The Housing Authority board will now appoint a new executive director, and with that all the levers of Hoboken government will be in the hands of the Reform camp, and out of the hands of the so-called Old Guard.

For now.

A major outcome is that this would appear to bury Mr. Garcia's proposed "Vision 20/20" rebuilding of the Authority property, which would have involved substantial luxury real estate development opportunities, but was bitterly opposed by Mayor Zimmer and the City Council members aligned with her. (Opponents consider the proposal to be an informal public relations document.)

There was of course input from Louis Zayas as to these developments. He is quoted in the Hudson Reporter as saying, the day before the vote by the Board, "Instead of just recognizing their mistakes, their wrongdoing, and taking corrective action to stop what they were trying to accomplish, they have decided now to fire the whistle blower." The "they" (per the Reporter quote) is Dawn Zimmer and her allies. Also, "I don't know who is giving the mayor or the Hoboken Housing Authority legal advice, but this gamble that they have undertaken is going to backfire badly for them and the taxpayers of Hoboken."

It should be mentioned that Mr. Zayas has not been without significant success in Hoboken lately. The larger item is that a jury found in favor of his client Angel Alicea, who sued Ms. Zimmer and the City for wrongful termination from his post as Public Safety Director. Ms. Zimmer's stated reason for terminating him is that he had lied about not meeting with Solomon Dwek, the real estate developer who was used by the FBI to bring down former Hoboken mayor Peter Cammarano, as well as many other New Jersey politicians (and rabbis and organ traffickers) in 2009, leading to Ms. Zimmer's assuming the mayoralty.

Mr. Alicea had been a hold-over from Mr. Cammarano's brief administration, and it had presumably been Ms. Zimmer's intent to try to keep some at least modest representation of that camp as part of her administration. It is certainly imaginable that she would be rather annoyed to find that he had withheld such information, but apparently a jury did not believe that the meeting in which Zimmer claims she asked Alicea whether he'd ever met Dwek took place - though it made the curious distinction that Ms. Zimmer was not liable, while the City was, and awarded $1,065,000.

It is interesting that it is evidently to be rewarded, generously, when a Public Safety Director - a law enforcement officer - has lunch with someone who proceeds to offer him bribes and then makes no mention of that to anyone until years later and when the evidence is, well, "thrust upon 'em."

The matter is under appeal.

There is more. Not long after Mr. Alicea was fired, so was Jennifer Maier, the Director of Environmental Services. Details were not clear at the time as to what was behind this - she had no prior connection to Hoboken, let alone the Old Guard or any political camp. But it appears she may have been sympathetic to Mr. Alicea and encouraged him to sue, and that possibly Ms. Zimmer was not pleased about that. Imagine!

Ms. Maier filed suit - you know who is her attorney, of course. This past week, the City Council authorized a settlement offer for her case, and the Hudson Reporter has reported that this comes in response to negative developments before the presiding judge. The amount of the settlement is unknown.

Did I mention that a School Board election is coming up in November?

Monday, December 23, 2013

December 23, 2013: Have Mercy

This essay is not about Hoboken. Or Tenafly. It’s about New Jersey and our very famous Governor, Chris Christie.

First some background:

New Jersey and New York are neighbors. We eye each other warily at times, but no doubt we are inextricably linked. Many of us file tax returns in both states. We visit frequently. We hurl insults. Perhaps we even love each other. Opinions vary.

But opinions do not vary that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (even if it is not the Port Authority of New Jersey and New York, did you ever notice?) binds us together. Each state’s governor gets to appoint highly-competent bureaucrats (otherwise known as hacks) to well-paid positions running this massive and important enterprise (otherwise known as divvying up the pork). Sometimes the appointees from one state talk to the appointees of the other. Mostly, not.

Now the story:

David Wildstein, appointed by Mr. Christie as the Director of Interstate Capital Projects, is an old friend of the governor, dating back to their high school days. Mr. Wildstein ordered the closure of two out of three lanes in one part of Fort Lee onto the George Washington Bridge in early September. He seems to have worked this out with his boss, the Authority’s Deputy Executive Director, Bill Baroni (a former state senator), also a Christie appointee. They say it was for a traffic study. A SECRET traffic study. So secret, they didn’t tell the Authority’s Executive Director, Patrick Foye, an appointee of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. When Mr. Foye found out about the pleas for mercy keening from Fort Lee, he ordered the closure reversed.

It has been suggested that the traffic study was really a political experiment (otherwise known as retribution) for the non-materialization of an endorsement by Fort Lee’s Democratic mayor, Mark Sokolich, of the Governor’s re-election. Mr. Christie denies this, as do his appointees. In fact, Mr. Christie has denied even ever meeting Mr. Sokolich, though photographs of them gazing fondly at each other have emerged, as in this image from the WNYC website accompanying an excellent introduction to the characters in this drama.

Mr. Sokolich on the far left and Mr. Christie on the far right. A political tableau?
Both Mr. Wildstein and Mr. Baroni have resigned. Mr. Christie says he was going to replace them anyway. Everyone believes that.

This is national news now, with calls for investigations by Congress, etc., etc. You can read all about it everywhere, so rather than delve more deeply, I’ll celebrate in verse.

First – of course – a limerick:
Do you know about the mayor of Fort Lee,
Who failed to endorse Governor Christie?
                The outcome was grim
                Unless you like to swim
Or can hitch a ride with a nice manatee.

A haiku seems unavoidable:
Governor Christie.
Governor Christie Smash Bang.
President Christie?

I even got in the reference to a change of season (political season), get it?

And this being the holiday season, and given my great interest in Western early music, here’s something (along with a translation) you could call the beginning of a Parody Mass, and it uses as a basis something that is most certainly profane, though not as profane as the offering that concludes this entry.
Kyrie eleison.
Chris Christie eleison.
Lord have mercy.
Chris Christie have mercy.

To finish things off, here’s a contribution by the man himself, Governor Chris Christie. Like me, perhaps he is a great fan of the Pantoum from Ravel’s piano trio. Perhaps not. The Scherzo of that work is titled and follows the structure of a pantoum, a Malaysian poetic form that was popularized in Europe by Victor Hugo. What follows comprises twelve characteristic sayings of Mr. Christie, who without a doubt is a finer poet than yours truly.

          Are you stupid?
                    the guy out there, in overalls and a hat.

          I am tired of you people. What do you want?
          Cut the crap, OK?
          I worked the cones, actually. Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually 
                    the guy out there, in overalls and a hat.

          Cut the crap, OK?
          We’re going to turn the page now.

          Thank you all very much and I’m sorry for the idiot over there.
          He acted like an idiot. He’s an idiot. I don’t have any regret about it at all.

          I’m just not going to waste my time or my breath.
          I’ve heard more about this than I ever wanted to.

          Your rear end’s going to get thrown in jail, idiot.
          Are you stupid?
          You really are not serious with that question.
          I wouldn’t characterize myself as angry.

Monday, November 25, 2013

November 25, 2013: In Search of Lost Elections

Mayor Dawn Zimmer, her council slate, and the School Board slate she supported were all victorious at the polls earlier this month. Even the rent control referendum she was against came out her way, if barely. But if Zimmer and her cohort won, then others lost. Let us reminisce.

Book 1: Dawn’s Way

Ms. Zimmer won 47% of the vote (6,123 votes), besting Ruben Ramos’s 35% (4,552) and Tim Occhipinti’s 18% (2,287). On its face, that’s a resounding margin of victory. Except it’s a plurality rather a majority. It’s a higher percentage than she polled in the November 2009 special election by just over five percentage points. Not bad, but not exactly a mandate (and the prior election in a larger field). The point is that this is still a very divided electorate, and Ms. Zimmer was clearly vulnerable, more so than this writer previously believed. But that changed when Mr. Occhipinti joined the race in early September. Until then, Mr. Ramos was the sole candidate of what is commonly called the Old Guard (as opposed to the self-anointed Reformers). How is it that after four years of gradually lowering municipal taxes, and local and national recognition for good work in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, that Zimmer could not eke out a majority? How is it that even moving the election to November (from separate municipal and school elections in the spring) that a larger turn out did not bury the Old Guard’s possibly-nefarious GOTV efforts?

And what of the increased turnout by moving the elections to November? The 2009 municipal election, in May that year, drew a little shy of 10,800 voters. (There were 10,614 machine and absentee ballots, but I can find no documentation including provisional votes. Were I slightly more serious, I would do an OPRA request.) The November 2009 special election drew 13,713 votes. The total of 12,962 in 2013 is down 5% from the 2009 special election, which was, locally, an unusually high-profile occasion. But it was up roughly 20% in 2013 compared to the May 2009 mayoral election, which is not negligible.

But is the correct comparison to that May 2009 election, or to the June 2009 runoff that resulted from that election? There were 12,115 votes in that runoff between Zimmer and Mayor-for-a-Month Peter Cammarano. If you use that point of comparison - a turnout increase of 7% - then the movement of the election to November didn’t necessarily accomplish any turnout miracle. And we will never know what a December runoff between Zimmer and Ramos would have brought, other than another entry in the Hoboken Diary.

Book 2: In the Shadow Lots of Money

Certainly it is possible that some Occhipiniti voters would have voted for Zimmer, or not at all, if he hadn’t run. Moving 359 of his votes to her column would have given Zimmer a majority. However, it would be hard to place Occiphinti as some kind of compromise between Zimmer and Ramos, drawing much the same support from each of them. Occhipiniti himself is a relative newcomer to politics and to Hoboken, so it is possible he may have been appealing to some voters who just wanted something new, Zimmer being an incumbent and Ramos trying to move from the Assembly to City Hall, and prior to that having been on the City Council for many years. It is possible that what seemed to be Occhipinti’s sole campaign issue, namely re-establishing the Hoboken St. Patrick’s Day Parade on the first Saturday of March (Zimmer refused to issue a permit, citing annual mayhem, and offering to allow a parade on a weekday, which was refused by the parade committee), might easily have drawn some younger voters (and others who enjoy rivers of urine).

Yet no doubt the lion’s share of Occhipinti’s votes would have been scored by Ramos. Possibly Zimmer would have worked harder at her GOTV had it been head-to-head with Ramos. But then, if the Old Guard had not splintered, arguably their own GOTV would have been stronger. And if there had been a runoff? (Remember runoffs were eliminated by a Zimmer-supported referendum last year.) To say the least, it would have been very interesting to see the results of Zimmer versus Ramos sine Occhipinti.

Occhipiniti’s campaign was an odd one. It was heavily supported by Beth Mason, the representative of the 2nd ward on the City Council. And the under ticket (three at-large council candidates) was headed up by Frank Raia. It was widely speculated that the purpose of the campaign was not to beat Zimmer, but rather to slap Ramos, and especially to try to pick off one seat on the City Council. But one thing is certain: Mason and Raia mean money. The best funded campaign was Occhipinti’s, followed by Ramos’s and taking up the rear was Zimmer’s. I guess, even in Hoboken, money does not assure victory. Well, except for the part about slapping Ramos. That worked.

Book 3: Frank’s Way

Then there is that portion of the vote, that done absentee, officially termed VBM (Vote by Mail), always controversial in Hoboken, which must be considered. There were over 1,000 absentee ballots cast in this election. Now, there is of course nothing illegal about casting an absentee ballot, and New Jersey law allows it at will. What has been under question in recent years is a correspondence between absentee ballots and payments in the amount of roughly $40 to campaign workers. This correspondence has been particularly noted in the columns of Old Guard candidates. Raia is purported by Reformers to be the master of GOTVBM, and they feel his persuasion is not based on candidate planks, but rather by petty cash, or petty to him, anyway. However, Ramos won 407 of them, Occhipinti 356, and Zimmer 252. There has been plenty of speculation that with the Old Guard divided in this election, it was not going to happen that any single candidate could harvest an overwhelming number, and indeed such appears to be the case.

Book 4: Sodom and Gomorrah

Other than the Urine Day Parade issue, there was one other big issue coming out of the Occhipinti-Raia-Mason camp, which was an effort to discredit at-large councilor Ravi Bhalla, who was running for re-election on Zimmer’s ticket. Indeed, much more was put into this issue than any other, supporting the theory that this was not about trying to elect Occhipinti as mayor, but instead about electing Raia as councilor-at-large. Some blood was drawn, with Bhalla getting the least number of votes within his slate, but the deficit wasn’t nearly enough to knock him out – and this approach evidently did nothing to improve the picture for Raia, who came in seventh place, behind the Zimmer slate and Ramos slate.

Book 5: The Prisoner

The crux of the effort to defeat Bhalla and install Raia was based on two principle issues. First was a matter from four years ago in which a vote came before the Council as regards an attorney who happened to be sharing office space with Mr. Bhalla. They did not practice law together, nor did their businesses have any relationship beyond the sharing of physical space. When the matter arose, Bhalla inquired with the Corporation Council whether he should recuse himself, and was advised that he did not need to do that. (Perhaps he should have anyway?) Long after that the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (which does not win many 100-yard dashes) ruled that the advice had been in error and therefore Bhalla was wrong to vote. However, they waived the extremely modest fine that would apply for such a violation based on the facts of this particular case.

The second matter, dating to the current year, was Mr. Bhalla’s move to join the Florio Perrucci law firm at the beginning of August. Florio Perrucci (that’s Florio as in former Governor James Florio) specializes in municipal law and did have some billing to Hoboken on a case that wrapped up in January 2013. Mr. Bhalla states that he did not enter negotiation with the firm as to employment until mid-June, at which point he advised the City’s Corporation Counsel of that, and that he would recuse himself in any matters relevant to the firm. Florio Perrucci had also been providing some labor negotiations counsel to Hoboken, which counsel was terminated in early July. Mr. Bhalla also states that Florio Perrucci has agreed not to do any business with Hoboken as long as Bhalla is an elected official of the municipal government and an employee of the firm.

Ms. Mason interprets matters otherwise. She attempted to bring a resolution to a Council vote that would have required referral of the matter to the “Mayor of Hoboken, and also to the New Jersey Office of Attorney Ethics and the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs with a request that they each investigate this matter and take any action that they may deem appropriate.”

There was also a YouTube video released aiming to compromise Bhalla.

The Corporation Counsel removed Mason’s resolution from the council meeting agenda on the grounds that it contained material that was not factual and could legally compromise the City. Bhalla was not willing to leave it at that and issued a statement that said in part, “While I remain focused on this election, please rest assured that after the election is over, I intend to file a defamation lawsuit against Ms. Mason to protect my reputation as a proud member of the Hoboken community. If what Ms. Mason says is the truth, she will have an opportunity to present that defense under oath in a court of law. I know she will fail completely.” He added, “These are no ordinary election year dirty political tricks. Ms. Mason’s defamatory conduct towards me has negatively impacted my reputation within the Hoboken community where I reside with my wife and two children, as well as my private employment.”


Book 6: The Fugitive(s)

Ms. Mason’s response? “Mr. Bhalla is now threatening to sue me after the election for daring to raise these issues. But I believe that if he truly has nothing to hide, there is no need to wait until after the election. If he is as committed to the truth as I am, I am willing to immediately provide, at my own expense, a court reporter at the conference room of the W Hotel, or any other convenient location, so that he can answer the following twenty questions under oath.”


This could be fun. Or, to borrow from the excellent Twitter campaign of Mr. Occhipinti’s campaign’s publicity director: This. Could. Be. Fun.

In the meantime, I realize I have not been back to Hoboken since August, and if Ms. Mason would care to arrange a room for me at the W, I’d be happy to answer some questions. From what I can see, a romantic weekend for me and my spouse, parking included, would manage to come in barely in the three-figure range. I’m really puzzled that Mr. Bhalla didn’t take Ms. Mason up on her offer. It. Would. Be. Fun.

What could also prove interesting is what happens next at the Hoboken Housing Authority. As my readers know, the Authority’s executive director, Carmelo Garcia, has filed suit against Ms. Zimmer. He cannot be very happy about her victory and what it may mean as to ongoing appointments to the Authority’s board. On the other hand, he just got a new job as a New Jersey Assembly member. So he has two jobs. Actually, make that three – he is also an aide to Hudson County Freeholder Anthony “Stick” Romano. (It is always a particular pleasure to get Mr. Romano into one of these posts. I just adore that nickname.)

But not four! He must resign his seat on the Hoboken Board of Education, which is unpaid, very much unlike the Housing Authority job.

That Assembly job for Mr. Garcia is the one that Mr. Ramos is vacating. But if Mr. Ramos did not win a new job in City Hall, he retains his post as a public school teacher in Paterson. Some have observed that as he won’t have reason to spend time in Trenton, his students will see a bit more of him.

Mr. Occhipinti particularly raised eyebrows towards the end of the election cycle by resigning his position at a financial services firm in Manhattan, according to him in order to be able to concentrate on his Mayoral campaign. There was no lack of speculation over whether he was in fact shown the door, or in any case what he could possibly be thinking. Certainly the latter in retrospect, and in any case Mr. Occhipinti is now down to one job, representative for the 4th ward of the Hoboken City Council, which pays $23,000.

For now. It has been widely noted that all three mayoral candidates currently serve or previously served as 4th ward representative, and rumors are circulating that Mr. Ramos may want to exact retribution, or perhaps just restock his job stocking, by trying to unseat Mr. Occhipinti in November 2015. Which of course could create an opportunity for another terrific three-way election also including a candidate endorsed by Ms. Zimmer. That. Would. Be. Entertaining.

Book 7: Election(s) Regained

The sideshows apart, Mayor Zimmer now has a majority on the Council for the next two years. That’s helpful to her, but not a free ride, as many issues require six votes to pass, such as bonding and redevelopment. And how firm is that 5-4 majority, anyway?

It seems that the councilor for the sixth ward, Jennifer Giattino, was displaced by Hurricane Sandy, and since last fall has been living just outside her ward, though still within Hoboken, while repairs are made to her home, which she expects to move back into shortly. Given that she still owns the damaged property, most would question whether a temporary relocation of this sort could possibly put into question her legal ability to serve her constituents. Others might think it classy to not look to make an issue of the matter. But evidently not everyone would agree, certainly not everyone in Hoboken.

There were elections here in Tenafly, too. Of most note is that the remaining Republicans were swept from the Borough Council, which now comprises six Democrats. The mayor is an independent. (One Republican decided not to run for re-election and thus there was one open seat; the other Republican was defeated.) Two factors probably contributed in particular to this outcome, namely the two main issues of controversy in Tenafly these days, which are whether the Tenafly Nature Center should be allowed to build a new welcome center which according to their plans would mean moving the Center’s entrance to another road; and whether Geissinger Field should get lights and artificial turf which would allow much more extensive use of that facility, which is owned by the Board of Education (which is in turn hoping to get a major contribution from a Borough fund to pay for the work).

In each case, a separate group of residents has called for a referendum, in large part on the principle that in both cases there had been prior referendums that in one case designated that area affected by the Nature Center’s plans as to be left undeveloped, and in the case of the athletic field voting against exactly this sort of change. Many, however, would assert that these are ultimately NIMBY issues.

That said, this does not appear to be necessarily a partisan issue in that the sitting Democrats on the council were overall supportive of these actions. However, the two Democratic candidates made it clear they support there being referendums. And so it appears likely there may be.

Maybe Tenafly will get interesting after all.