New faces on council, school board

Zimmer-backed candidates win four of six council seats, one of three for schools

The crowd at the 10th Street and Willow Avenue bar spilled out the door on Tuesday night, Nov. 3, as Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s allies celebrated the victory of four candidates in six open seats in the City Council ward races, and one of three school board candidates.
The City Council is made up of nine council members, six who represent individual parts of town. (The other three are at-large and will run with the mayoral candidates in 2017.) The Board of Education has nine members, three of whom are up for election at any one time.
Zimmer’s winning candidates included Michael DeFusco in the 1st Ward, political newcomer Tiffanie Fisher in the 2nd Ward, incumbent Peter Cunningham in the 5th Ward and incumbent Jen Giattino in the 6th Ward. DeFusco defeated longtime 1st Ward Councilwoman Theresa Castellano. The incumbent 2nd Ward Councilwoman, Beth Mason, decided not to run again.
Zimmer’s ally Dana Wefer, who remains the volunteer chair of the Hoboken Housing Authority board, lost her bid to represent the 4th Ward, defeated by former Councilman Ruben Ramos. (Incumbent Timothy Occhipinti, who is a sometime Zimmer opponent, came in third.)
Incumbent Michael Russo was re-elected in the 3rd Ward after Zimmer declined to run a candidate against him.

Political implications

It appears that Mayor Zimmer’s 5-4 majority on the council will grow to a 7-2 majority. This will make it easier for her to pass her initiatives, as certain types of votes – like votes for bonding for large-scale projects – require a six-vote “super majority”.
“I’m very excited to move forward with northwest parks for the city of Hoboken and very excited to get Washington Street done,” said Zimmer on election night after hearing the results. “This victory means we’ll be able to get things accomplished in the city.”

As of now Mayor Dawn Zimmer’s slim 5-4 majority on the council looks to grow to a 7-2 board majority.
The mayor would later join Fisher at the Hudson Tea Building where she lives, and where she has been an outspoken critic of the Monarch development proposal in that neighborhood. DeFusco had his own event in a different part of town.

Team Zimmer dominates at the polls

The following tallies are as of Thursday, Nov. 4 – but in close races, candidates may mount a legal challenge, and the Hudson County Clerk’s Office said the online numbers are still unofficial. They include vote-by-mail votes, but provisional votes were still being counted as of press time Friday.
In the 1st Ward, DeFusco earned 850 votes over Castellano’s 656.
Castellano, who also has served on the Zoning Board and Historic Preservation Commission, gathered with supporters at 505 Madison St.’s West Five Supper Club to await the results on Tuesday night.
“I had five terms on the council and I’m very proud and humbled to have been re-elected five times. It’s hard to be elected a sixth,” said Castellano on Wednesday following the election. “I think I broke the record for a woman on the council, and so I walk away with my head held high.”
Castellano said her tenure as a public advocate never stops. When asked if she plans to run for a council seat in the future, she said, “I have no idea.”
“There are other offices I could run for,” added Castellano, who owns City Discount, a small clothing store on Washington Street. Castellano is a cousin of victorious candidate Michael Russo.
DeFusco called Castellano’s time in the 1st Ward “legendary” and said he hopes to work with her in the future to advance the ward in every way possible.
Although this will be his first time on the City Council, DeFusco says his five years on the Zoning Board is “no small offering of public service.”
“I think that working on the Zoning Board gave me inspiration to run for council. The first ward is geographically not a huge plot of land but in terms of diversity, it has an energy that allows people to want to work with everyone,” added DeFusco.
The 2nd Ward race, which makes up the area on the northeast waterfront, was a tighter contest with independent candidate and Nintendo marketing manager Bonnie Murray splitting the anti-Zimmer votes with two-term school board trustee Peter Biancamano. Biancamano, whose spokesperson was veteran political operative Pablo Fonseca, garnered 619 votes to Murray’s 154 votes. Fisher’s vote total was close to their total tally, 766 votes.
“I’m excited about representing people and making the connection between the residents and the government it represents,” said Fisher, who serves on the Zoning Board, at the Hudson Tea Building Tuesday night. “I’m passionate about pushing information out to make sure residents have a seat at the table and understand complex [projects].”
Biancamano will continue on the Board of Education until his term ends in 2017.
“I think it was a hard fought election,” he said on Wednesday. “I want to congratulate Tiffanie Fisher. I’m proud our campaign stuck to the issues that affected the residents of the 2nd Ward and I hope to see those issues addressed.”
Biancamano, who was the youngest to be voted into the school board at the age of 25, said he will continue to be accessible to residents and help them in any way he can.
Although she earned the fewest votes, Murray remains optimistic.
“I am happy that my message of ‘solutions not sides’ resonated with some voters,” she said on Thursday. “I will continue to advocate for our community because it’s a community I care deeply about. I congratulate my opponents on running a great race and I hope we see our 2nd Ward move forward in a positive direction.”
Michael Russo earned 730 votes. Although developer Frank Raia initially filed to run against him, he dropped out and Russo ran unopposed. Forty-eight people wrote in votes in that ward.
“This was an opportunity for me to go out and speak to my neighbors and thank them for the years of support,” said Russo after his victory. “The mayor and her team decided that the [3rd] Ward was being represented well, at least that’s my interpretation of it, and now I move forward representing on the council for four more years like I am now on a daily basis.”
Zimmer, however, has had very harsh words about Russo in the past. When asked if she regretted not running a candidate against him, she sidestepped the question, only saying, “I look forward to working with all council members including Councilman Russo and Ruben [Ramos Jr.] I feel we have a historic opportunity to move forward to protect the city from flooding…and a lot of great opportunities for the future.”
In the northwest ward, Cunningham’s 844 votes beat out former Housing Authority Board Commissioner and Elysian Charter School Board President Eduardo Gonzalez’s 527 votes.
“It means a tremendous amount to me,” said Cunningham who is entering his third term. “The support was very broad-based across the 5th Ward…I feel like I do my very best to balance [council] and constituent service issues day in and day out. I’m happy for Hoboken. I really do think this is a defining moment for us.”
Although he didn’t win, Gonzalez said he doesn’t rule out a future run.
“Obviously it’s not the outcome I wanted but I will always continue to stay active in the community and I’m proud I ran an issue-based campaign,” said Gonzalez, noting he plans to continue to stay involved in the community in various ways including as board president for the Elysian Charter School.
The 4th Ward council race is always heated, with a large population living in close quarters in public housing. In the end it came down to a clear winner. Former 33rd District Assemblyman Ruben Ramos Jr. dominated in his ward with 925 votes compared to the Zimmer-supported Housing Authority chairwoman Dana Wefer’s 378 votes and current Councilman Tim Occhipinti’s 321 votes.
“I’m looking forward to working with everyone and pushing a positive agenda forward with a healthy dialogue for good results,” said Ramos Jr., who was first elected to the City Council in 1999.
Occhipinti, who runs a non-profit called Hoboken Volunteers, was elected to the council in 2010.
“I’m incredibly proud of the achievements over the last five years,” said Occhipinti on Wednesday after the results were in. “We worked hard to improve the quality of life of the residents of the 4th Ward. I’m honored to have served my neighborhood and wish the best to Ruben Ramos [Jr.]”
Sources have said that Wefer was concerned with the legality of some of the vote-by-mail ballots, particularly in Marion Towers since 235 were submitted on 10 different days between Sept. 28 and Oct. 23. Four hundred vote-by-mail ballots were collected in the 4th Ward but the Hudson County Board of Elections Clerk dispelled the claim that a majority of the ballots were not valid. Wefer opted not to comment on the matter.
Vote-by-mail ballots can be controversial, because political organizations tend to try to go around public housing buildings getting people to fill them out ahead of time, opening them up to potential fraud. (For the Reporter’s investigative piece on the history of vote-by-mail schemes in town, search
Wefer said, “I’m going to continue working on the authority now that we’re going to have a new executive director and he has a long road ahead of him. It’s in my DNA to continue to be civically active.”
After learning that Wefer did not win, Mayor Zimmer said “Dana ran an excellent campaign. She worked extremely hard and I know she’s committed to the housing authority.”
In the 6th Ward, current Councilwoman Jen Giattino was re-elected, surpassing outgoing 33rd district Assemblyman Carmelo Garcia’s 500 votes, with 707 votes.
“I’m happy that what everyone in the ward means to me, I mean to them,” said Giattino. “I really did the work myself and I think it’s important to spend one-on-one time with people.”
Garcia said he feels blessed to have received support from the 6th Ward.
“The true story of a campaign isn’t numerical,” he said. “It can’t be told with mere vote totals; it’s told through the journey of interaction with residents and the impact made on the local conversation on the issues. As always, I pledge to remain available and accessible to my neighbors to get things done on their behalf when others won’t, regardless of whether or not I am in elected office.”

School board results

It came down to the wire for the Board of Education races with Zimmer’s Reach Higher, Hoboken! ticket only generating one winner: incumbent Tom Kluepfel with 2,572 votes.
The other winners were newcomers John Madigan and Britney Montgomery.
Madigan, who ran on the A Smarter Future slate along with Montgomery and Alanna Kauffmann, was elated when hearing the final count at 10:50 p.m. on Tuesday night. The vote-by-mail votes pulled him and Montgomery ahead of their challengers.
Madigan earned the most votes with 2,711. Fourth-place finisher Addys Velez (Reach Higher, Hoboken!) came only 36 votes behind Montgomery with 2,343 and 2,379 votes respectively.
“I think there’s a lot of momentum to make a change in the district. I’m excited to be on the forefront of that and work with new Superintendent [Christine Johnson] and school board members,” said Montgomery, who will serve on the Board of Education for the first time.
Like Madigan, Montgomery emphasizes a need to develop the high school programs and create small learning academies to better gauge the needs of students throughout the city.
Another Reach Higher candidate, Sheillah Dallara, was also not far off with 2,315 votes. However, A Smarter Future’s Kauffmann only gathered 1,788 votes above independent candidate Patricia Waiters’ 1,521 votes.
“It feels good,” said Madigan, who unsuccessfully ran for the school board a decade ago and again in 2011. “We ran a good campaign that focused on the facts [such as] how underachieving the high school is and the wasteful charter school lawsuits.”

Charter school issue

The charter school issue was one that sometimes split Zimmer’s voter base last year. In 2014, the “Kids First” school board majority sued the state to stop the expansion of the Hoboken Dual Language Charter School, saying charter schools take too many resources away from the other public schools. Zimmer, whose children attended charter schools, did not support the lawsuit.
Kids First, a group that was backed by Zimmer in the past, currently includes Ruth Tyroler, Jean Marie Mitchell, Jennifer Evans, Irene Sobolov, and Monica Stromwall – holding the board majority. While the group didn’t officially put forth a slate in the school board race, Tyroler and Zimmer supported Reach Higher, Hoboken! including Kluepfel.
Kluepfel was first elected on the school board in 2012 on the Kids First slate and co-founded the Elysian Charter School in the late 1990s. Despite helping to launch the charter school years ago, he was among the school board members who supported the lawsuit.
Kluepfel did not respond to calls about his victory by press time.
“I think the votes show that parents know something is not working right now,” added Madigan. “But I would like to say, that I look forward to working with everyone on the board regardless of political sides.”

Assembly votes

The Assembly race for the 33rd district was handedly won by the Democrats with Raj Mukherji and Annette Chaparro gaining 11,920 and 12,275 votes respectively. Their opponents, Garret P. Simulcik Jr. and Javier Sosa, together earned a total of 6,750 votes.
The new City Council, Assembly and Board of Education members will be sworn in January 2016.

Steven Rodas can be reached at

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