This is one of two articles on Hoboken’s upcoming Nov. 3 City Council races.
The Nov. 3 municipal elections are a little over two weeks away. Thirteen candidates are running for six City Council seats representing various areas of town. The jobs are part-time. The council also has three at-large seats that will be up for election in 2017.
Although it’s unclear how the race will turn out come November, Mayor Dawn Zimmer currently holds a 5-4 majority on the council.
Council newcomer attempts to unseat 21-year veteran
In a way, the 1st Ward race revolves around one question: How is experience measured?
While Councilwoman and incumbent Theresa Castellano has represented the 1st Ward since 1995, Zoning Board Commissioner Michael DeFusco is running for the seat for the first time. The ward is in the southeast part of town near the train station.
“It’s easy to say, I want this, I want that. It’s the implementation and financing that matters,” said Castellano. “I know exactly what I’m doing. He doesn’t understand the parameters. Everything he’s saying is administration-driven.”
The administration Castellano is referring to is Team Zimmer – a five-candidate slate Mayor Zimmer is supporting that includes DeFusco, as well as 2nd Ward candidate Tiffanie Fisher, 4th Ward candidate Dana Wefer, 5th Ward incumbent and Councilman Peter Cunningham and 6th Ward incumbent and Councilwoman Jen Giattino.
DeFusco, who works as a media content producer, has been a Zoning Board commissioner for the past four and a half years. Castellano owns City Discount House, a family business in Hoboken since 1969 at 207 Washington St. She is married with two boys and also owns Morton Properties, Inc., which operates multi-unit rental buildings in Hoboken.
DeFusco, who doesn’t have any children and is not married, says his experience speaks for itself and that over the years he has worked to shape the community. Although he’s running on the Team Zimmer slate, he says his vote is an independent one.
“My record on zoning has shown everybody that I always vote my conscience and in the best interest of the city even when it may not be in line with the administration,” said DeFusco. “I think it speaks volumes that the mayor and council president have chosen to endorse me, even though I have not always aligned with them.”
DeFusco claims that Castellano has hampered the progress of the city by voting “no” to such initiatives as repaving Washington Street, Newark Avenue and Sinatra Drive (which was part of a bond authorization up for a vote in 2012). He says she voted “no” all while making recent statements that Washington Street makes for a rough drive.
Castellano responded, “It was a $19 million bond that had a lot of fluff to it and I asked the administration to parcel out the pavement [portion] because $19 million leads to 30 years of payments for the city’s taxpayers. I believe it was put on the agenda so I would vote it down and later it could be used politically.”
Although the city publicized ideas for the redesign of Washington Street earlier this year, a plan hasn’t been approved by the council yet.
DeFusco also took aim at Castellano because of her position on a vote to keep Hoboken University Medical Center open in 2011.
“[She] nearly forced taxpayers to cover a $52 million bond guarantee. We should all remember her vote to close the hospital when casting our vote in November,” he said.
Castellano rebutted the claim saying she voted “no” to ultimately negotiate a better deal.
The city saved the hospital from potential closure in 2008 by guaranteeing a $52 million bond, while searching for a private buyer to relieve Hoboken of the bond guarantee. Mayor Zimmer advocated for the facility to remain a hospital.
Castellano was also part of the minority council that voted against the refinancing of a bond for the hospital because she objected to a parking agreement for the new owners at the hospital, HUMC Holdco (also known as CarePoint Health). The company also owns Bayonne Medical Center and Christ Hospital.
“The hospital deal was a travesty. What I did was hold back on the vote to negotiate a better deal for the city,” Castellano said.
Castellano is a cousin of 3rd Ward councilman Michael Russo, who is running unopposed. Both are sometime critics of Mayor Zimmer.
Castellano revealed that in the past, DeFusco has supported her, going as far as working on her election four and a half years ago and sending thank you letters to her office.
DeFusco said that the past four years have changed his outlook.
“It should serve as a warning to our neighborhood that someone who once supported Councilwoman Castellano is now stepping up to run against her,” DeFusco said. “Much like many of my neighbors, I haven’t seen the quality of life improvements we need and were promised in the last council election.”
In November 2010, DeFusco wrote a letter to The Hudson Reporter praising 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti (who is currently running for re-election) for running a “positive issue-based campaign.” Occhipinti later ran unsuccessfully against Mayor Zimmer in 2013.
If elected, DeFusco says he plans to advance the New Jersey Transit Rail Yards “in a way that embraces the community and small businesses,” as well as push for regular maintenance of existing parks, advocate for substantial repairs to Washington Street, create pedestrian safety, and ensure clean streets.
Castellano, who was the former Chairperson of the Hoboken Historic Preservation Commission, said if re-elected she hopes to continue to address quality of life issues, working with NJ transit to improve the city and maintaining clean streets.
What’s the biggest difference between the candidates?
Castellano says it’s as simple as the fact DeFusco is on Zimmer’s slate, which ties him to her. DeFusco believes he will provide a much-need and new energy to the council.
“I will work with everyone, whether I agree with them or not, to ensure the best quality of life for my neighbors,” he said.
Perhaps the most placid of the municipal races is in the 2nd Ward on the northeast waterfront. The race is among Hoboken Board of Education Trustee Peter Biancamano, Zoning Board Commissioner Tiffanie Fisher, and Nintendo marketing manager Bonnie Murray.
Biancamano, who has served on the school board for the past four and a half years, ran unsuccessfully for an at-large seat in 2013. His family owns M & P Biancamano, a deli on upper Washington Street.
Biancamano’s campaign kickoff party in September included council members Theresa Castellano and Michael Russo. But he maintains that he is running independently.
Biancamano was re-elected to the school board last year on the Parents for Progress ticket and is in the minority, opposed by candidates who in the past were supported by Mayor Zimmer.
Being part of a slate with a voting minority has strengthened his ability to work with others, Biancamano says.
“I’ve learned that … you have to put forward whatever is in the best interest of Hoboken,” said Biancamano, who works in production for a media company. “I’m not scared to talk to people from opposing sides or views.”
He noted that with a family who owns a small business in the city, he “has skin in the game.”
As a councilperson, Biancamano said one of his biggest commitments would be toward addressing communication between residents and City Hall, as well as reducing the taxes of residents.
“I’m going to be active on social media, newsletters, and face-to-face meetings,” he said.
Running as part of Zimmer’s slate is Zoning Board Commissioner Tiffanie Fisher. Fisher, a 21 year resident of Hoboken, is also the president of the Hudson Tea Buildings’ condominium association.
Although a vocal resident concerning community issues, this would be her first time on the City Council.
“I’ve always been committed to people, and I’ve walked the walk for a long time,” said Fisher. “It felt like the logical next step and I plan to bring a lot more to the role.”
Fisher refutes claims that being on the Zimmer-ticket means she would always vote in favor of the mayor’s initiatives.
“Those who know me know I won’t just accept something. Having a good relationship with the administration means we can have a constructive dialogue and give feedback,” added Fisher. “Although I feel the current administration has done great job, I don’t always feel the public is fully engaged with issues like anti-flooding, big development, and parking.”
Fisher also plans to prioritize traffic and road safety, repaving Washington Street, assuring future development is done responsibly, fighting against the Monarch project, and repairing or replacing aging infrastructure.
Neither Fisher nor Biancamano is married or has children.
Bonnie Murray has over 20 years of experience in sales for ad agencies and companies like Young and Rubicam and Revlon.
Murray, who calls herself a “true independent,” says she doesn’t have political aspirations outside of representing the 2nd Ward.
She said, “We need to eliminate fractured politics, come up with solutions, and foster collaborations.”
Evidence of her devotion to teamwork, she says, is working with NJ Assemblyman and 6th Ward council candidate Carmelo Garcia to secure traffic cops at 11th Street near Sinatra Drive and Hudson Street which she claims is prone to accidents.
As a mother of two children at Hoboken schools (one public, one private), Murray says she offers a unique perspective and passion for resident’s concerns. Her husband, Brian Murray, is a former unsuccessful Board of Education opponent of Biancamano. Biancamano said no ill will stems from that election.
Murray plans to tackle a number of issues including the repaving of Washington Street, “the huge parking issue,” keeping parks clean and well-run, and garbage maintenance.
“I’m a wife, a mom, and a career woman who simply wants to see improvements in our 2nd ward,” added Murray. “I have no political agenda, nor do I plan to seek a larger career in Hoboken politics. My interest is just in serving our 2nd Ward.”
All three 2nd Ward council candidates said that they oppose the highly-controversial Monarch residential development project.
In June, the Hudson County Superior Court granted an automatic approval to the controversial plan to build two residential towers at the site of the Monarch pier. The decision overturned rejections by the Hudson County Planning Board and the County Board of Chosen Freeholders.
The city of Hoboken is also against the project in its current form, saying developers should build tennis courts which were originally promised in 1997.
The developer, Shipyard Associates LP, had promised to build tennis courts and parking on the pier in its 1997 planned unit development (PUD) agreement. However in 2011, they decided instead to seek two additional buildings totaling 78 residential units. The project is currently in litigation.
The biggest point of contention the candidates all said was the fact the Hoboken Planning Board did not hold a hearing which lead to the automatic approval of the Shipyard’s application in 2011 by a Superior Court judge.
Fisher has been the most active in opposing the project, and discusses it on her campaign website.
Biancamano, who grew up in the 2nd Ward, said the Monarch Project could threaten open space for future generations.
“The waterfront should be left to open space with tennis courts, maybe a swimming pool, and a lot don’t remember, but a municipal garage was also part of the original plan,” he said.
Murray concurs, saying, “If the developer promises a park, they should keep that promise.”
Russo unopposed in 3rd Ward
Third Ward Councilman and incumbent Michael Russo is running unopposed in the upcoming election. His ward is near the center of town bordered by Third Street to the south and Ninth Street to the north.
“Instead of campaigning, I get to thank voters,” Russo said over the phone last week. “I don’t have opposition and [therefore] I can thank them for supporting me over the years.”
A representative in the ward since 2003, Russo’s father was Mayor Anthony Russo, who also represented the ward before becoming mayor. Michael Russo is also a physical therapist with multiple private practice locations.
“I think in the last 12 years as the City Council member representing the 3rd Ward, I’ve tackled a lot of issues and have always been a constituent-based councilman,” added Russo, who noted that he’s always available to speak with residents by phone, email, or in person.
Frank Raia, who has been both a friend and foe of Russo politically in the past, initially filed to challenge Russo, but then mysteriously dropped out. Rumors have suggested various deals between Raia and either Russo or the mayor.
“As he stated, his doctors are concerned about his health and he made a decision,” Russo said. “That’s where it is. I think the Zimmer administration and her minions are out there to make more of it than what it really is.”
Zimmer failed to run a candidate against Russo, and predicted that Raia (who isn’t usually allied with her supporters either) would enter the race last-minute, which he did.
Russo has some issues in his past. His father, former Mayor Anthony Russo, was found guilty of soliciting thousands of dollars in bribes from the city’s former accounting firm and sentenced to 30 months in prison in 2006. Three years later, when Michael Russo was running for the council seat, he had a lunch meeting with Solomon Dwek, an FBI informant posing as a real estate developer. Dwek brought down dozens of politicians running for re-election by offering them bribes. Russo was not among those arrested or charged. However, in 2011, two journalists leaked a tape of Russo and Dwek discussing a possible $5,000 donation to Russo’s political campaigns, which would have been forwarded through a third party. Russo nodded his head during the lunch, but ultimately he did not accept the payment, and no charges were filed. It was unclear whether nodding his actions during the lunch broke the law. Mayor Zimmer, at the time, paid city money for a transcript of the Russo tapes, and was vocal about his transgressions. The issue came up in the last election, but Russo still won handily.
“This has been talked about and answered four years ago. I’m still here,” said Russo. “If there’s any wrongdoing on anyone’s part they would not be here. They would be in prison.”
If re-elected, he hopes to continue to address a number of issues in his ward and throughout the city including traffic flow problems, flood protection, and parking issues.
Steven Rodas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.