The wackiest mayor in America Hoboken’s Tom Vezzetti was known for his kooky antics

Editor’s note: The full version of this article originally appeared in the Daily News Magazine on Feb. 2, 1986.

On the first day of the 1985 City Council race in Hoboken, newly elected Mayor Tommy Vezzetti was campaigning for his candidates on Washington Street, trying to drown out the hecklers on the steps of City Hall with a bullhorn that he called his “liberty bell.”

“Help the Vezzetti reform movement fight bossism,” he bellowed. “We already chased out ex-Mayor Steve Cappiello. Now we need your help to chase the rest of his crooked cronies out of our city government.”

“Awww, go on, Vezzetti!” another bullhorn boomed back. “You ain’t competent as mayor. You even got fired as a security guard. You shoulda stood in that flophouse your family owned, where your mother usta make gin in the bathtub.”

Whirling around like a Western gunfighter, the mayor aimed his bullhorn at his only amplified antagonist, a former Parks Department employee known as Bee Bee the Ballbuster.

“My mother never made gin!” Vezzetti barked, breaking into that zany grin of his, with the two missing front teeth, “she wasn’t that talented!”

Then, turning sternly political again, he said, “Don’t worry, we’ll get rid of you Cappiello lackies too, just like we got rid of your boss.”

Tommy Vezzetti’s Mad Hatter antics, especially when attacking his political enemies, make even Ed Koch look like a mild-mannered introvert by comparison.

Longtime rabble-rouser

As a private citizen, Vezzetti had regularly disrupted public meetings, hurling insults and accusations at elected officials. And as a councilman, he did not modify his rambunctious style.

Sometimes he had to be physically removed from City Council meetings for turning them into shouting and shoving matches.

Although growing up in a flophouse had turned him into a confirmed teetotaler, Councilman Vezzetti was occasionally seen snoozing on the benches in City Hall. And until his advisers coaxed him into conservative business suits (at least during the mayoral campaign), he sometimes cut a bizarre satirical figure in riotous Hawaiian shirts, wildly clashing jackets and slacks, and even mismatched shoes – an oddity made ever more jarring by the fact that Vezzetti wears size-13 quadruple E!

All told, Vezzetti seemed an unlikely candidate to unseat a savvy politician like Steve Cappiello, a former police sergeant and 10-year veteran of the City Council who had already served three feebly contested terms as mayor. Cappiello had even once glibly stated, “There’s nothing wrong with the patronage system. It’s natural to reward your own political supporters.”

Indeed, after the election, some of those same supporters would lament that their fatal mistake had been not seeing their eccentric opponent as a serious threat.

Housing issues helped Vezzetti

The entrenched politicians had simply dismissed Vezzetti as a nut, even as he shambled up and down Washington Street day after day, rallying an unprecedented coalition of poor Hispanics, members of the sizable artist community who felt similarly threatened by the city’s rapid development, and even some B-and-R’s (those Born and Raised in the mile-square city) fearful of being gentrified out of town behind his most constant slogan, “Keep Up in Hoboken.”

“Even though they really wanted a change, a lot of people were reluctant to admit that they had voted for Vezzetti until after he had won the election,” said Hoboken historian Jim Hans. “Some of them, especially the B-and-R’s, seemed to fear being stigmatized by Vezzetti’s eccentrics.”

But in the privacy of the voting booth, they responded to his promises to impose a six-month moratorium on condo construction and take other measures to prevent the displacement of long-term residents.

Swept to victory

On election night, an estimated 2,500 of them carried Tommy Vezzetti on their shoulders down Washington Street to City Hall, in a procession that one reporter likened to “the day World War II ended; the day the Mets won the World Series.”

The mayor-elect had hoped to speak from a second-floor balcony. But when his victory party arrived, they found Steve Cappiello seated alone at a secretary’s desk, perhaps seeking solitude to ponder what could have gone wrong.

A shouting match ensued, official papers were scattered about, and Cappiello called the cops.

In the wake of the slapstick confrontation, several police officers cleared the building, and Vezzetti was obliged to speak outside his storefront campaign headquarters on Washington Street, where he raised his bullhorn to his lips and declared, “A new era has begun…the bullcrap is over!”

The next day, Vezzetti appeared on the municipal steps brandishing a new prop – a broom – in place of his bullhorn, promising “a clean sweep.”

Soon after taking office, however, he would learn the hard political fact that he would have to live with some of his political enemies – for the time being, at least – in order to run the city. Still, he would continue to keep his promise in its most literal sense, by periodically sweeping the sidewalk outside City Hall.

Ed McCormack co-publishes an art magazine, Gallery & Studio, with his wife Jeannie.

All of the past columns from this year-long series are available online by visiting, scrolling down the left-hand side of the page and clicking on “150th Anniversary.”


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