Guest of the Stable: Greg Bond on Hoboken’s historical corruption and the BoE election
Greg Bond, a supporter of the Reform Movement in Hoboken pens his thoughts on the endemic battle of corruption in the Mile Square and the importance of the upcoming Hoboken Board of Education election.
The Evolution of Reform: The Next Wave
|Public School No. 6 at Willow and 11th Streets c. 1907- 1914 (credit: Hoboken Historical Museum)|
As someone who’s assisted reform slates in every school board and city election since 2009, I’ve occasionally thought about a future where we’d get past the stark “good versus evil” state of Hoboken politics to arrive at a more nuanced, normal state of political affairs. When I describe Hoboken’s bloody knuckle political scene to friends from the Jersey suburbs, they’re amazed. They’re amazed that millions of dollars were pillaged from the public schools, that the current mayor’s private emails were wiretapped, that a sitting councilman agreed to accept a bribe from an FBI informant, that two of our recent mayors (Russo and Cammarano) were jailed for corruption, and that’s just a small sample off the top of my head.
The Long Path to Reform
But you see, this corrupt state of affairs has a very long history in Hudson County, as recounted in the excellent books Five-Finger Discount and Killing the Poormaster. Until recently it was understood that whoever won a majority would loot the taxpayers to reward friends, family and business partners. And this is how Hoboken operated until 2009 when a majority of reformers were elected to the Public School Board, and a reform mayor was elected to City Hall. At the city level, the path to reform has been rocky. Since 2009, Mayor Zimmer has only had majority support in City Council for two years: between November 2009 and November 2010 when Michael Lenz served as interim Fourth Ward Councilman, and since November 2013 when James Doyle was elected Councilman-at-Large. In contrast, the Kids First reform slate have maintained a majority on the Hoboken School Board since 2009 and not surprisingly, they have accomplished a lot. So much so, that I think we may be on the cusp of a long-awaited change in Hoboken’s political climate.
How Corruption Survives
As I’ve written about elsewhere, Hoboken started to actively encourage gentrification in the mid-80s aiming to refill nearly empty coffers. On the one hand, there was resentment directed towards the “newcomers” that came to occupy the new developments. On the other hand, the money started flowing again. Moreover, the newcomers were, generally-speaking, politically ignorant.
Today’s Hoboken is famous as a temporary home to 25-35 year old young professionals, renting shares, getting their careers on-track, partying, meeting life partners, and then moving to the suburbs a few years later to settle down and have families. I can tell you that, as someone who’s accompanied candidates door-to-door canvassing over the years, I’ve been through big rental buildings where virtually no one is registered to vote nor interested in registering to vote. Local politics just isn’t on their radar. Hoboken is only a temporary stop on the road of life. And this suited the corrupt powers-that-be perfectly.
When they’re not squabbling amongst themselves and join forces, these blocs can win elections that disrupt and even set back reform. Some examples: in 2010 Tim Occhipinti was elected Fourth Ward Councilman with an unprecedented number of vote-by-mail submissions from paid “campaign workers.” In 2011, Michael Russo, fresh from being exposed for agreeing to accept a bribe from an FBI informant, was re-elected Third Ward Councilman. That same year, in a record-low voter turnout, three school board seats were lost to Peter Biancamano, Francis Rhodes-Kearns, and Carmelo Garcia – individuals I shall return to shortly who, needless to say, are no friends of reform.
Plundering The Schools
On the topic of voter apathy, I hope you know that there’s an election November 4th. And, along with the inauguration of Cory Booker, which isn’t generating much voter interest, there are also three positions up for election on the nine seat Hoboken Public School Board, which should be generating voter interest. Why? Because historically, the school board has served as a big fat loot bag to be plundered and, despite a reform majority since 2009, there are still a lot of people with their eyes on the prize. What might they do if they get their hands on it? We only have to look back to the 2004-06 budget years for a graphic example. When the Kids First reform slate gained a majority in 2009 one of the first things they discovered was a 297 page KPMG audit of the 2004-06 budgets that had been buried by the non-reform majority at the time.
Raia, Garcia and Their School Board
Frank “Pupie” Raia is a wealthy local real estate developer, born and raised in Hoboken. You may know him from the lavish public birthday parties he throws for himself every summer in Hoboken’s parks. Not only has Raia served on the School Board, but he’s also run for Mayor and City Council on numerous occasions. And when he’s not running for office he’s helping others run, including School Board slates, most notably in 2011 when Carmelo Garcia, Francis Rhodes-Kearns and Peter Biancamano swept the School Board elections. Raia knows how to leverage his wealth to mobilize voting blocs and this year he’s supporting Rhodes-Kearns and Biancamano again.
Raia, a successful businessman, certainly didn’t need anyone to pay for his steak dinners. But perhaps it’s nothing more than good business sense: why spend your own money when you can spend someone else’s? As a real-estate developer, Raia’s business partners range from law firms to building contractors, all of whom would appreciate business coming their way. He also has plenty of friends who would appreciate well-paying jobs with benefits. Some notable examples: Hoboken Superintendent of Schools from 2007-2009 Jack Raslowsky, Hoboken Assistant to the Superintendent of Schools from 2007-2009 Anthony Petrosino, School Board Secretary from 2005-2010 David Anthony. All are good friends of Raia’s (Raslowsky and Petrosino are boyhood friends, and Anthony was a business partner), all were hired when Raia sat on the school board, and all were provided with excessively generous compensation and benefits. So much so that the Kids First reform majority discovered that both Petrosino’s and Anthony’s contracts were found to flout State contract laws and guidelines.
The icing on the cake is that both Petrosino and Anthony maintained full-time jobs during their employment with the School Board. Incredibly, court transcripts reveal that Petrosino, during his tenure with the School Board, was also employed by the University of Texas in Austin, rented an apartment in Austin, and had a Texas drivers license. (Interesting side note: Raia and Petrosino are now Board members for a local charter school whose annual budgets and audits are mostly missing from their website.)
Garcia’s Volatile Slate: Murray, Waiters, Danzker
Garcia’s slate, consisting of Brian Murray, Patricia Waiters and Lynn Danzker, would explode were it not for Garcia working hard to keep it together. After all, how can Lynne Danzker, who was recently awarded a “Jewish American Heritage Award” by none other than Assemblyman Garcia, be running-mates with Garcia’s former paid aide, Patricia Waiters, who made what were considered anti-semetic remarks at an HHA meeting earlier this year, and then recently retracted a public apology for those remarks?
Raia’s Old School Slate: Biancamano, Rhodes-Kearns
Raia’s slate, consisting of School Board incumbents Peter Biancamano and Frances Rhodes-Kearns, is old school compared to Garcia’s. Rhodes-Kearns is a nine year veteran of the School Soard, elected long before the Kids First reform majority took control and cleaned things up. In fact, Rhodes-Kearns was the sole Board signator for the aforementioned, absurdly generous, legally questionable, contracts of Anthony Petrosino and David Anthony. Rhodes-Kearns also has a relationship to disgraced, indicted ex-mayor Peter Cammarano: she was a member of his election slate in 2009.
As for Biancamano, he’s been groomed for politics by Raia since Biancamano first ran for School Board in 2011. That year, Raia chaperoned Biancamano everywhere on the campaign trail. And last year Raia and Biancamano were running-mates for City Council. Raia funded that campaign to the tune of $122,000 out of his own pocket. Biancamano is often heard complaining about how much the School Board spends on legal representation, despite the fact that without representation the Board would lose legal battles launched by the likes of Anthony Petrosino. But, as I expect Raia has explained to him, Biancamano surely understands that this is precisely the point.
Underscoring the old school roots of Raia’s slate are recent Facebook notes of support from none other than Michael Russo and Michele Russo. Michele Russo, matriarch of the Russo clan, possesses her very own list of unscrupulous dealings, just like her indicted ex-Mayor husband Anthony, and her bribe-agreeable Councilman son Michael. Now that’s support that only money can buy.
Parents for Progress
Standing in stark contrast to Raia’s and Garcia’s slates is the Parents for Progress slate consisting of Monica Stromwall, Sharyn Angley, and Antonio Gray. All three are parents with kids in Hoboken’s public schools. Stromwall was unanimously appointed to the School Board at the beginning of the year when Garcia was forced to leave the Board after winning his Assembly seat.
The Parents for Progress slate claim their interest in running for election is simply to ensure that the schools continue to improve. They’ve got skin in the game and they care. Having spoken briefly with the candidates I was struck by their honesty and integrity. However, I also discovered that they had no knowledge of the School Board’s history of corruption. They had no idea of how hard reformers originally fought to get elected to the board, and the significance of Kids First taking a majority in 2009. They had no idea how much the schools have been cleaned up since then, how much money taxpayers have saved despite massive state cutbacks, and how much money has been directed back to school classrooms and students.
The Next Wave
By their own admission, Stromwall, Angley and Gray are not affiliated with reform, and they most certainly aren’t affiliated with any of Hoboken’s corruptocrats. Instead, these three represent what I think is the next wave in Hoboken politics, the one I’ve sometimes daydreamed might finally come to pass.
Like Hoboken’s reformers, Parents for Progress want to make a difference in this city. They like Hoboken and they want to raise families here, not flee “To the ‘Burbs” as Brian Murray urges them to do. Unlike the corruptocrats, they don’t expect favors or payback but, unlike reformers, they’re unaware of Hoboken’s recent “good versus evil” political history. Why? Because in just a few years reformers have managed to fix things up enough that more people are choosing to stay in Hoboken longer, and corruption is beginning to fade into the past.
Choosing to stay longer has positive results for Hoboken. Families and property owners pay attention to schools, parks, and taxes and inevitably, they become politically engaged, initially as voters but sometimes even volunteering to serve their community, just as Stromwall, Angley and Gray have. This is why Hoboken’s formerly disengaged electorate is beginning to take notice and start participating. And this is what it’s going to take to eliminate, once and for all, the long-standing tradition of looting Hoboken’s school and city coffers.