Councilman can you spare a vote?
The exchanging of political favors, especially the trading of influence or votes among legislators to achieve passage of projects that are of interest to one another.
The practice of logrolling is not illegal in New Jersey. In Hoboken, the City Council representative who annually demonstrates the best logrolling execution is presented with an an award and a taxpayer paid free dinner for two at Arthur’s Steakhouse.
Which leads us to the point of our story here, an arrangement that placed two candidates into their respective appointments: Mary Camporeale, a senior citizen residing in Fox Hills, a fifth ward housing complex and well known stomping ground for senior votes and Tony Soares, the President of the Hoboken Zoning Board. Camporeale rumored to be closely aligned and godmother of HHA Executive Director Carmelo Garcia earned a unanimous 9-0 vote while Tony Soares squeaked through on a 5-4 vote earning required votes from both Russo to get his second board appointment. How can those two votes so vastly different be connected?
In or out of the picture? Councilmen Mike Russo (l) and Michael Lenz, a most unlikely pairing of logrolling interests.
Initial concern among the reform activist community centered on Russo backed candidate Irene Smith obtaining council approval for fourth alternate on the zoning board after Tony Soares’ nod on the North Hudson Sewerage Authority (NHSA) but that notion is misplaced. The actual arrangement based on multiple sources who wish to remain anonymous is the two sides pushing Soares and Compeareale merged and brokered majority support leading into the Wednesday meeting. That arrangement those sources independently verified was finalized between Councilman Mike Lenz and Councilman Mike Russo.
On the record denials
In an interview Thursday with MSV, Councilman Lenz denied any such arrangement. Initially Lenz refused to speak about appointments whatsoever saying he was open to discussing other issues although in his comment about the appointments in a statement last week he wrote, “…I recognize that this is a genuine issue deserving of an open and honest debate.”
“I deny the deal completely. That’s false,” Lenz replied to the idea there was an arrangement with Councilman Mike Russo. “I didn’t seek a vote from Mike Russo. When I walked into the (Council) meeting, I had strong indications where four people were voting (on the NHSA appointment). Beyond that I was unsure of the vote.”
In an interview the same day with Councilman Mike Russo, the idea of any arrangement was rejected as well. “There’s always discussion what we’d like to see. I expressed those concerns to (City Council President) Carol Marsh, (Councilman) Peter Cunningham and Lenz… I had those conversations. We did discuss other appointments. We don’t do that (quid pro quo). At least I don’t do that.”
But their interviews differed on the substance leading in to the Tony Soares’ vote on the NHSA. “I was lobbied and lobbied hard,” Mike Russo said specifically referencing calls on Tony’s behalf from Carol Marsh and Mike Lenz. He advised they should instead have Tony contact him directly. Later, Tony Soares did call Michael Russo describing that action as “reaching across the aisle.”
As late as the day of the Council meeting itself, Councilman Lenz was still working the phones to find the votes to ensure Tony Soares’ appointment to his second board position. This even as Mayor Zimmer backed Brian Assadourian, a supporter who may have even toured the NHSA earlier that week.
The deal to seal the votes of the Russo faction is described as coming very late possibly leading right into the Council meeting. When the fifth vote was solidified for Maryanne Camporeale, the Russo votes were on board for Tony Soares. But it wasn’t even clear if they would be necessary until Councilman Ravi Bhalla joined Council members Nino Giacchi, Beth Mason and Dave Mello in voting no. Councilman Mello just back from an overseas trip described his “No” vote against Soares saying, “It was the right thing to do” agreeing with the mayor’s position of one person per board position.
Councilman Peter Cunningham described his support for Mary Camporeale as a good one acknowledging some would see it as a pitch for Fox Hills votes in next spring’s council races. “I thought Mary was a great candidate. She’s a senior. Why would I not support a constituent from the fifth ward who knows the issues?” He added his expectations on voter support in Fox Hills is positive whether Mary got the votes for the HHA appointment or not.
Regarding the Sewerage Authority vote, Cunningham distanced himself from any arrangement saying, “I just assumed Mike and Terry were going to support Tony. Is it possible those guys (Russo and Lenz) worked out a deal to support Tony then giving Russo support for Mary? I don’t know.”
According to Lenz, there was four votes leading into the meeting for Soares but it’s unclear where he thought the fourth vote was coming from as he also stated, “I didn’t think the votes were there for Tony” adding he had not spoken to Cunningham. The appointment requires five votes and the mayor’s coalition saw two of its normal five uncommitted and then decline to support Soares. He could therefore only have three for Soares (Lenz, Marsh, Cunningham) or five for the appointment: Lenz, Marsh, Cunningham, Mike Russo and Terry Castellano.
To reach the magic number and get Tony Soares his second board position, the buzz said getting behind Mary Camporeale would secure the two Russo votes. One source suggested the vote for Soares was only locked up very late as Lenz felt pinned down by expectations for another candidate.
Conflict in Reform Expectations
A competing candidate for the HHA board position, Hoboken High School teacher and High School track coach Judy Burrell was advocated by Kid First Board of Education Commissioner Theresa Minutillo. The decision to provide the guarantee for Mary Camporeale as a result came very late. Once Lenz consented, Russo then followed through with the critical fourth vote along with his cousin Terry Castellano getting Tony Soares the fifth vote for his appointment.
Much speculation has centered on benefits for the position on the NHSA but it’s still not clear how any medical insurance would actually fit into this positon as there may be a grandfathering provision that would prevent Tony Soares’ eligibility to participate, at least initially. A monthly stipend has been described in the neighborhood of $1,000 a month. Mike Lenz in his statement admitted he believed there were benefits when he nominated Tony Soares for the position.
Michelle “Mama” Russo and Tony Soares speaking outside City Council Chambers. After Soares’ NHSA appointment, they spent at least half an hour straight speaking together. Soares said it was consolation due to a family loss but admitted, “You may have heard something.”
Long after the meeting, Mike Russo was overheard speaking with pride about the outcome of the appointments. He much preferred Tony Soares, someone he’s “worked with in the past” as he put it, over the mayor’s candidate Brian Assadourian. Michelle “Mama” Russo who led Column C against the Mayor’s Column B ticket for Hoboken Democratic Committee specifically targeted and defeated Brian Assadourian in that recent election. Mike Russo laughed good-naturedly about both outcomes before referring to the the Sewerage Authority vote for Assadourian, “I guess they thought they had it.”
Reaction to the Soares’ second appointment has not been positive. The next day the mayor voiced opposition to anyone receiving a second board position outside of “extenuating circumstances” in interviews with Hoboken Patch and MSV. The story has received strong reaction from the public on both MSV and the Hoboken Journal, the only Hoboken websites writing on the issue and popular online sources for the reform community. A Hoboken Journal online poll registered opposition over 80% against Soares’ appointment and the argument of “synergies” advanced by Mike Lenz and Carol Marsh. Although unscientific, the poll clearly reflects popular sentiment, something Tony Soares prides himself on recognizing. He’s often been very vocal in telling other members of the Mayor’s coalition and reform how they should advocate on certain positions on a broad host of issues. Last Monday Tony called MSV and declined an interview after days of discussions saying he would do so. He did however in the end agree to answer one question featured in that story.
Mike Lenz ended his interview with MSV after asking for our sources recounting the arrangment between him and Russo. Told they would not be disclosed, he replied, “If you got this from the Russos,” paused and quickly followed with “take good care” and abruptly hung up.
Ironically, it was the mayor’s one time appearance as a swing vote in the City Council last November that gave Mike Lenz a temporary appointment for the seat replacing her as Fourth Ward Councilperson. Earlier this year, Lenz asked on a public access cable show about bucking the mayor replied, “I wouldn’t.” But his statement last week suggests he did so on behalf of his friend Tony Soares and despite strong public opposition to people receiving second board appointments, his statement didn’t preclude he would do so again.
Conversations leaked between the major players of the arrangement also centered on voter advantage in the fourth ward City Council election this November. The problem for Kids First supporter, High School Track Coach Judy Burrell, an HHA applicant felt by some as a heads and tails choice above others never made it into nomination. A rift between Lenz and Kids First could very well widen as a result. Kids First’s victories last April and earlier this spring have foreshadowed a string of continuous victories for reform. Their core supporters have played important roles in both mobilizing and getting out the vote.
Between a rock and a hard place
One source said Lenz felt pinned down by Kids First supporters but there was “no votes in the fourth ward,” with picking Judy Burrell. On the other hand HHA Executive Director Carmelo Garcia has a big role in any fourth ward election with his close relationship with Mary Camporeale swaying support or having him sitting on his hands. A statement urging Lenz to “stand-up” to Kids First may have also been cast before his final determination.
Although Judy Burrell was thought to be a big improvement by many observers to obtain more African American representation on the Hoboken Housing Authority, by midday Wednesday afternoon her backers on Kids First may not have known Councilman Lenz was not on board. Councilman Lenz was said to be between a rock and a hard place.
Mike Russo made clear she was not a serious candidate leading into the decision of his vote. “I was never asked to support Judy Burrell. She would probably make a good commissioner. I was asked by Mary Camporeale. I carried that support over. My record is clear on Mary Camporeale and Irene Smith.”
Another Councilman felt the appointments could have easily been advanced at the August City Council meeting. Peter Cunningham admitted the appointments were mishandled as it was only verbally mentioned and the City Council was overwhelmed working through the bond ordinance and Municipal Garage priorities.
In the end, reform adherents are puzzled and stunned by talk all of this horse trading. Looking at these appointments is a grim reminder of what they had fought against over many years and some have been disheartened by it. One active strong reform advocate noted, “I’m disappointed on so many levels.”
For the nuts and bolts of voter politics, it may be as simple as seeking votes for both November and next spring’s City Council races. Killing two birds with one stone also enters into the equation. As one Hoboken saying about Tony Soares goes, “it’s better to have him pissing out than pissing in.” If that was the case here, one has to wonder about the future cost for rewarding bad behavior. Tony’s Zoning Board position expires in December. So the question already begins – what will he be looking for then if not sooner?
Councilman Mike Lenz on the other hand is considered a critical fifth vote in the mayor’s working City Council coalition. It’s certain he will keep reminding reform voters of that leading into November’s fourth ward council election.
So in the end, it was merely the sound of logs rolling at the last City Council meeting. The question now is how will the reform community take it? If Mike Lenz’s statement is any guide; they should get used to it.
Talking Ed Note:
Timothy Occhipinti, the 4th ward candidate was contacted for this story and declined to comment although he expressed interest in the legal review on the issue underway. MSV has spoken with the office of Corporation Counsel and will have an update on those developments soon.
Theresa Minutillo, a long time member of Kids First and current Board of Education Vice President was also contacted and declined an interview for this story.