Follow the money Mayor leads way in getting campaign contributions

All of those glossy political flyers you find in your mailbox, those slickly produced television commercials, and spacious Washington Street headquarters cost money. Campaigning in Hoboken can be an expensive endeavor – particularly this year, when five candidates are battling it out for mayor in the May 10 election.

Campaign finance reports, which had to be filed about two weeks ago, show who is funding each campaign.

Administration in the lead

As is traditional with every level of New Jersey government, the sitting administration and incumbents have a major advantage when it comes to raising money for political campaigns. Mayor David Roberts has raised over $350,000 for his re-election bid through the Hoboken Democratic Party, which Roberts chairs, and Team Roberts, his political organization. This is several times as much as his competition has raised.

Carol Marsh has raised $67,743, Councilman Michael Russo has raised about $65,229, Board of Education member Frank Raia has self-funded his campaign to a tune of $125,000, and Evelyn Smith raised $5,000, according to state reports.

Not every bit of money from the Hoboken Democratic Party has been used for Roberts’ campaign; a minimal portion was spent on presidential and county elections last November. But the overwhelming majority of the money has been raised for Roberts’ re-election bid.

Where is Roberts’ money coming from?

The largest single group of contributors to Roberts’ campaign is real estate developers, who have contributed over $83,000, to Team Roberts and the Hoboken Democratic Party since the beginning of 2004, according to the reports.

This group is lead by the Applied Companies of Hoboken, with $16,100; Lawrence Bijou of Bijou Holdings with $14,000, and the principals of URSA Development with $9,600. All three have major projects under construction or in the planning stages in Hoboken.

The second largest group of contributors is lawyers, who have given nearly $44,000. The Secaucus-based Scarinci and Hollenbeck is one of the most powerful legal firms in Hudson County, and is one of Roberts’ larger contributors. According to state ELEC reports, Scarinci contributed $6,500 to the Hoboken Democratic Party. Last year, Scarinci and Hollenbeck received a $355,000 contract to be special legal counsel in Hoboken.

Pay-to-play rules followed, but how far do they go?

Critics of Roberts’ administration say that with so many vendors giving to the campaign, “pay to play” issues might be relevant. “Pay to play” is the practice of giving professional services contracts to favored campaign contributors, but there is a fine line between people donating to get a contract and donating because they like or are allied with the administration.

If a job, project or contract is given out in return for a campaign donation, that’s illegal – but some will give money, or believe they should give money, to get favorable consideration. Whether there is a direct cause and effect is very difficult to prove. This is why, in order to cut the possibility, a municipal law went into effect in Hoboken last year cutting the amount that certain types of vendors can contribute to Hoboken if they want to hold contracts here.

However, the amount does not usually apply to developers, who build projects rather than getting contracts. Developers wanting approval for projects may still believe they have to “pay” to “play,” but they are not prohibited from doing so.

But since pay-to-play laws do apply to contractors, how has Roberts collected so much money from city vendors? According to his campaign finance reports, he collected the vast majority of his money before the new law went into effect, much of it in the second half of 2004.

On Sept. 13, 2004 the Hoboken Democratic Party, headed by Roberts, held a campaign fundraiser at Mayfair Farms in West Orange. At this event alone, the Hoboken Democratic Party raised $147,492, with the vast majority of the money coming from Hoboken developers, firms with municipal contracts.

While this fundraiser was completely legal, it was widely criticized by the reform community.

A new law

In the past two years, there has been a major movement throughout the state to cut down on the possibility of giving donations to get contracts. It was in November that Hoboken voters mandated, by a 9 to 1 margin, to limit contributions form city vendors on a city level.

Throughout the referendum process, Roberts maintained his distance from pay-to-play reform. It was only a week before the final vote that Roberts announced his support for the public initiative. But Roberts said he questioned the possible effectiveness of the reform, saying that “honesty and integrity cannot be legislated” and that people who still skirt the rules will find the loopholes. Roberts said that he plays by whichever rules are in place, and that is what he has done this campaign season. The new law went into effect at the beginning of this year. And according the most recent ELEC reports, all of the candidates have followed the rules.

Roberts attacks Marsh

Even though Roberts has accepted many times contributions from developers and vendors, his camp has launched a series of aggressive attack ads criticizing candidate Marsh for soliciting campaign contributions from developers and vendors. Their point is that Marsh is running as a “reform” candidate, but is calling up the same developers and vendors that they have. In one case, Marsh recently called Hartz-Mountain in Secaucus seeking a donation, but the development company – which has no projects in Hoboken – declined.

Roberts also notes that when he ran with Marsh four years ago, Marsh didn’t stop his campaign from collecting donations on her behalf.

In all Marsh’s campaign this year has raised $67,743, which five times less than what Roberts has raised. While there are some small contributions from professionals and vendors who do business with municipalities, that total is relatively meager, only about $9,000 total.

“What we have is a whole lot of people that have given $50 to $100,” Marsh said. “Ninety-nine percent of our contributors are our friends and neighbors. If you look at the [campaign finance reports] it’s clear that this is a true grassroots campaign.”

While she didn’t deny calling several developers and municipal vendors, the most resent campaign finance reports clearly show that Roberts has collected much more from these groups that do business with the city. But this isn’t unusual in New Jersey, where there is a huge advantage for sitting incumbents.

Marsh also said that many of the vendors that she called were afraid to give money to other campaigns, which she believes is part of the pay to play problem. She said that those who contributed to her campaign did so because they want someone to bring a fair and open process to Hoboken.

“They are among the many firms that believe that the quality of their work stands for itself,” Marsh said. “They [are vendors] that feel they can compete fairly in an open bidding process. They want a process that is available to everybody.”

Roberts’ other contributors

Another large firm that was a big contributor to Roberts this year was Sarkisian, Florio & Kenny. A partner in the firm is state Sen. Bernard Kenny, a Roberts ally. In 2004-2005, the firm received a contract for $300,000 to be special legal counsel. In 2003 and 2004, the law partners at the firm contributed a total of more than $27,000 to Hoboken United and the Hoboken Democratic Party. Other major contributors include engineers, architects and planners, who gave over $24,000, insurance interests that gave nearly $20,000, and accountants who gave just under $10,000. Other contributors include the Hudson County Democratic Organization, which has given $17,200, and Sen. Jon Corzine who contributed $7,000.

It should also be noted that Roberts is one of his own biggest contributors, and is spending $25,000 of his own money on the campaign.

The other candidates

Businessman/developer Frank Raia’s self-funding is second only to Roberts spending. Other than himself, he has taken no other developers’ money, according to the state’s finance reports. Russo was about to raise $65,229, mostly from Democrats who live outside of Hoboken. His biggest contributor is former State Sen. John Lynch, who is a major Democratic power in North Jersey.

Smith raised $5,000, with the biggest contribution being a $2,500 contribution from former Jersey City Police Chief Ronald Buonocore.


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