When Jersey City Councilman Steve Lipski suffered a very public lapse in behavior earlier this month after two years as a recovering alcoholic, he had to consider the impact his simple assault arrest in Washington, D.C. would have on his upcoming May 2009 council election and his position as the head of a local school.
In doing so, he joined a widening group of local civil servants who were arrested due to alcohol-related incidents in the last three years, and had to either admit guilt or maintain their innocence while wondering if they should continue to serve the public.
Campos and Healy
Former Hoboken Councilman Chris Campos, a young attorney who worked his way out of Hoboken’s projects, was pulled over on the West Side Highway in Manhattan Jan. 20, 2007 for allegedly running a red light. After he tested slightly over the legal limit for alcohol, a New York City police officer – in a now infamous incident – called the Hoboken police to ask whether the City Council treated the police well. The desk sergeant was careful with his words, but mentioned to the officer that the police union had been without a contract for two years and that he should “do his job.” Campos was arrested.
That spring, Campos postponed the case several times as he battled newcomer Dawn Zimmer for a council seat in a June, 2007 runoff, ultimately losing after a close race. The alcohol incident continued to plague him throughout the campaign, with some critics referring to him as “Drinky-Drink” on two local internet message boards.
Finally, Campos pleaded guilty this past month in New York City to Driving While Impaired, which means Campos must pay a $300 fine, complete a drinking and driving program, and have his license suspended in New York City for 90 days.
He no longer serves as a public official, and he currently works as an attorney at a Hoboken law firm.
Last week, Campos was somewhat reluctant to talk about the incident.
“I regret what happened, and I apologize again to the people of Hoboken for my actions that evening,” Campos said. “But I want to move on since it was a painful chapter in my life. I’m a new dad and I am now a private citizen.”
He continued, “Sometimes you don’t realize that one moment, one lapse of judgment, can result in all the hard work you put in as a councilman for seven years coming crashing down.”
In an another infamous case, Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy was arrested in the New Jersey shore town of Bradley Beach in June of 2006. Healy’s arrest was for allegedly obstructing an investigation into a domestic dispute, but he maintained that he was just trying to intervene when a couple was fighting outside his sister’s bar, where he had just spent several hours celebrating his niece’s graduation from a nearby police academy. Testimony from the police said Healy was intoxicated that evening.
Healy fought the matter in court for nearly two years before a state appellate court this past July upheld his conviction for obstruction of justice. His potential challenger in the upcoming May, 2009 mayoral race, Louis Manzo, filed a suit to remove Healy from office because of actions related to the incident, but the suit was thrown out of court.
Even before that incident, there was another embarrassing alcohol-related moment for Healy in 2004. When Healy was running for mayor that year, a photo was circulated of him appearing drunk and partially naked on the front porch of his Jersey City’s Heights home. Healy maintained at the time that he had been drinking inside his private home, but someone tricked him into coming outside by making noise in his yard. He won the election anyway.
Healy’s embarrassing conduct in both situations has made him vulnerable when he runs for re-election next year. One prominent Jersey City elected official who wanted to remain unnamed went as far as to say last week that Healy’s conduct in recent years had “set the tone” for Lipski’s behavior.
Cunningham and Cappiello
Lipski and Healy are not the only Jersey City elected officials with alcohol-related incidents in their background. In November of 2005, State Sen. Sandra Cunningham, who was not an elected official at the time, received a ticket from the New Jersey State Police for allegedly driving while intoxicated in Liberty State Park in Jersey City.
In an interview with the Jersey Journal a few days after the incident, Cunningham, the widow of the late Jersey City Mayor Glenn D. Cunningham, said she failed a Breathalyzer test after being stopped by police. She claimed that it was the result of having “a couple of glasses of wine” while having brunch with friends at a nearby restaurant. She regretted what happened, saying, “This is out of character for me, and a mistake.”
The incident was brought up during her 2007 run for State Senate in the 31st District against Democratic opponent Louis Manzo, but she still won handily.
More recently, 85-year-old former Hoboken Mayor Steve Cappiello, who continually says he’s going to run for office in Hoboken again, was arrested last December after he was driving through the streets of mile-square Hoboken and crashed his car into a vehicle being driven by an undercover detective from the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office. The newspapers reported that he was arrested for DWI (Driving While Intoxicated), but Cappiello denied this last week.
In a somewhat rambling interview, Cappiello said he was not arrested but just given a summons by Hoboken police after his car hit the Prosecutor’s Office vehicle. He said that it was not a DWI incident, but admitted that he had had some wine that evening.
“My car went into a skid when I tried to stop my car because it was snowing that night,” Cappiello said.
Cappiello also said that in either April or May of this year, a Municipal Court Judge in Harrison dismissed the charge and said that it was worked out with the state Division of Motor Vehicles. Cappiello said he has letters from the DMV in which he explained his issue.
Lipski balancing the results
Last week, Lipski was trying to balance the private time needed to deal with his relapse, with the duties of being a public figure.
Lipski, 44, was arrested Nov. 7 for simple assault at a Greatful Dead tribute concert in Washington, D.C. The Daily News reported that a source said that Lipski, known to be an avid fan of the Dead, had urinated off of a balcony at the club.
Besides being a councilman, Lipski is the founder and full-time president of the CREATE Charter High School on Lembeck Avenue in Jersey City.
Lipski is scheduled to appear in a Washington D.C. court in January to answer to the simple assault charge.
During a Jersey City council caucus meeting the Monday after the incident, Lipski publicly apologized and admitted to being a recovering alcoholic. He said he hadn’t had a drop of alcohol in two years, but had fallen off the wagon.
Lipski told the Reporter that after the incident, he started attending Alcoholic Anonymous meetings almost daily, got rid of some of his Grateful Dead-related memorabilia, and went on a weekend camping trip recently in West Milford, N.J. with 30 of his high school students.
“They saved me,” Lipski said. “It felt great being them in the fresh air and out in nature. And surprisingly, they never brought up the issue with me.”
But rather than keep a low profile and deal with his demons himself, Lipski continued to remain in the public eye. He attended a controversial Jersey City Housing Authority meeting on Nov. 17, causing some audience members to shout him down and make comments about his troubles while he sought to defend the unpopular Housing Authority Director Maria Maio.
He also wrote a letter to the Jersey Journal criticizing their coverage of the incident.
Asked why he penned the missive rather than just leave well enough alone, Lipski said he felt singled out by the newspaper for his problems with alcohol, when alcoholism is a problem that impacts people in all walks of life.
Politics and alcohol – not perfect together
The thought of politicians in a barroom may harken back to a time when political bosses with handlebar mustaches and top hats frequented the local watering hole to talk shop. But the image still lingers if you hang around Hudson County politicians long enough – particularly at the Astor Bar or the Merchant in Jersey City, or the Shannon Lounge in Hoboken.
A glaring reminder of politics and alcohol going hand-and-hand came earlier this month, when the New Jersey League of Municipalities held its annual convention in Atlantic City, an event that has gained attention not just for its daytime policy workshops but for the alcohol-fueled nighttime parties in places like the Borgata Casino.
According to an unnamed source connected to Jersey City politics, the running joke at the Borgata this year was Steve Lipski’s alleged incident. The same source also said his development work over the years has taken him to many events and meetings where it wasn’t unusual to see public officials quaffing alcohol as a matter of course. He said that historically, bars have always been meeting places for politicians.
“When you look back at the old days in Hudson County or in any urban area,” the source said, “there were always the neighborhood, the church, the parish, and the bar.”
Behind the wheel
Even if Lipski is not alone, he also had managed to keep his problem out of the public eye for several years, including managing to conceal news of a prior arrest. A week after the simple assault arrest came to light, the Jersey Journal discovered that Lipski had been arrested in an alcohol-related incident before: for Driving Under the Influence in Abington, Pa. in 2006.
Lipski said two weeks ago that he does not plan to give up his council seat or his job at the charter school, even despite a Facebook group that was formed by downtown Jersey City resident Eric Fleming to call for Lipski’s resignation. Last week, one of the group’s 35 members posted this message: “I wrote an email to Lipski, asking (not so politely) for his resignation. And guess what? I got a reply!!! From his Blackberry. Here it was: ‘Thanks for advice; I’ll take it into consideration. Steve Lipski.’ ”
Lives ruined and ended
Not every politician is able to move on after the potentially dangerous charge of drunk driving.
Vito Fossella, a New York Republican Congressman, decided not to run for re-election this spring after he was stopped in Virginia for drunk driving – a stop that revealed that he had a secret 3-year-old daughter in Virginia. He was found guilty last month of the misdemeanor charge of driving while under the influence of alcohol.
In 2007, an estimated 12,998 people died in drunk-driving related accidents either caused by themselves or others, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in Washington, D.C.
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.