Editor’s Note – We received this letter over the summer from former Councilman Joe Della Fave in response to a cover story we ran about former Mayor Tom Vezzetti. It was too long to run as a letter, but since it’s about past issues and might provide a little perspective on Hoboken history, we decided to run it in a longer form. Note that this is just Della Fave’s view of the past. If you have comments, feel free to leave them on our website, hudsonreporter.com, or write a letter to firstname.lastname@example.org.
As one of Tom Vezzetti’s closest associates, I want to thank you for your recent article commemorating his election 30 years ago. While the article correctly noted that Tom “rose to power amidst ongoing gentrification,” it also claimed to inform “younger residents who don’t know the strange stories of a Hoboken folk hero.” Indeed, there are many “entertaining” stories about our beloved Tom, but the real history is about a great and courageous mayor who disrupted business as usual and, if not for his untimely death, may have changed the course of Hoboken.
Your article mentioned our affordable housing plan, especially the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance championed at the City Council by Helen Cunning, Tom Newman, and myself. This required affordable units in new developments but was challenged in court and Tom never had the opportunity to implement it on behalf of Hoboken residents (nor did I after losing the special mayoral election in 1988, despite winning four of the six wards). If succeeding mayors had enforced it, Hoboken would have had hundreds of affordable units created over the years, allowing more old-timers to remain in their home town and contributing to a community with greater opportunity, diversity, and justice.
Succeeding mayors certainly had the opportunity to enforce the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance. For example, the 2004 draft Master Plan noted that “Reform of the city’s inclusionary housing rules … will ensure that a certain percentage of the city’s housing stock stays affordable to moderate income people.” But they allowed it to become no more than a squandered opportunity.
Incidentally, on July 28, in a case instigated at the Zoning Board a few years ago, an Appellate Court judge ruled favorably on the legality of the Inclusionary Zoning Ordinance once again. While we celebrate this, it is, alas, so little so late.
Children and families, mostly Puerto Rican, were dying from arson-for-profit fires during those years of “gentrification,” a threshold issue leading to Tom’s election, but certainly not the only one. Tom’s incredibly diverse coalition – across wards, ethnicities, property owners and renters, old timers and newcomers – built upon and included past reform and insurgent efforts, including Citizens for a Better Education, Por La Gente, and the Campaign for Housing Justice, as well as the general discontent with a corrupt City Hall and its cronyism and the threat of massive waterfront development. Tom’s courage to rail against these “evils,” usually through the bull horn he frequently carried, not only was inspirational and got him and others elected, it led to real reforms and better government.
• The Anti-Warehousing Ordinance and Rent Control reforms significantly halted the unscrupulous and inhumane tenant harassment and displacement.
• Mayoral Advisory Groups brought old-timers and newcomers together into the political process. The Waterfront Advisory Group, led by residents like Annette Illing, influenced waterfront planning issues and negotiations with the Port Authority; the city’s – not PA’s –
first waterfront master plan and guidelines were drafted. After Tom’s death, the massive PA plan was re-packaged but defeated in a citizen-led referendum. I can still see the front page Jersey Journal photo of Ron Hine, Tom Olivieri (another true Hobokenite hero) and myself celebrating the victory.
• The Planning and Zoning Boards, perceived by many to be conduits for speedy development and the corresponding displacement, were reformed with newly-appointed old-timers and newcomers.
• The Police Department Table of Organization was revamped to improve upon its nearly one-to-one (!) superior to police officer ratio.
• A new garbage contract, unheard of in urban circles, was passed, cutting the cost to the taxpayer in half. The vote on that resolution, if my memory is correct, tells a more interesting story than Tom losing his car in NYC: 3 Yes (Cunning, Newman, Della Fave), 2 No, and 4 Abstentions! Imagine the majority of the City Council not voting to cut the taxpayer bill in half for the same service, and worse, most of them not even taking a stand! This is the environment that Tom Vezzetti tried to govern in.
This sample list does not adequately portray the spirit of integrity, democratization, and justice that infused the Tom Vezzetti-led reform movement. Tom did capture it regularly by always shouting out the final words of the Pledge of Allegiance: “With Justice and Equality For All!” In fact, “And Justice For All!” was Tom’s campaign slogan.
While the City Council thwarted much of what Tom aimed to accomplish for his beloved Hoboken, one of his great disappointments was his inability to reform the school district. When Tom was elected, the school board was an appointed one. Tom ran on a platform of education reform and was ready to appoint new board members when, again, the political opposition thwarted him. Through a referendum, they successfully changed the board back to an elected one, not to advance democracy but to maintain political control. Despite a fleeting moment when the reform movement gained a majority, the political machine was able to maintain control, much to Tom’s heartache.
On the other hand, one of Tom’s great victories was in the courts, where the council and political opposition could not deny him. Tom vetoed a City Council-passed contract for a $100 million sewerage treatment plan. Tom contended that the contract was based on improper resolutions passed prior to his election. He was immediately sued by the awarded, Mayo Lynch, a long-time city favorite who demanded summary judgment.
Judge Burrell Ives Humphreys agreed that summary judgment was in order – for Mayor Vezzetti! Another dubious contract was denied and Tom Vezzetti – in another of his “antics” – danced around town informing all of their victory. No one was more accessible than Tom Vezzetti.
Tom’s influence continues to be felt in the city. Old-timers who opposed Tom tell me often that they wish they could re-do their vote. Newcomers who joined the reform movement at that time continue to support those they believe are honest reformers. But, clearly, divisions remain. And while Tom never hesitated to stand up to the bullies in City Hall, he ultimately wanted nothing more than a kinder, gentler, more compassionate, and all-inclusive community and government. The unconventional Tom often expressed that in very conventional way: a government of the people, by the people, and for the people.
This vision is what Tom’s “antics” were really about and why many of us still celebrate Tom Vezzetti as a legendary Hobokenite and great mayor and leader.