Whoever created the flyer – which targeted mayoral candidate (and ultimate winner) Ravi Bhalla – took previous campaign literature and doctored it so that Bhalla’s picture appeared under the words “Don’t let TERRORISM take over this town.” The perpetrators left it on car windshields a week after a deadly terrorist attack in Manhattan and apparently were trying to draw associations between Bhalla, who wears a turban as a Sikh Indian, and unrelated Muslim terrorists in other countries.
Whoever made the ad included the name of Councilman Michael DeFusco, one of Bhalla's opponents in the election, to make it appear that DeFusco created the ad. However, DeFusco was the one who reported the flyer to police, and was swift to denounce it and say it didn’t come from his campaign.
The matter received widespread attention in a year in which other minority candidates were targeted with bigoted flyers.
Last week, DeFusco’s sister set up a GoFundMe campaign called “Justice for Election Tampering” to raise reward money and hire a private investigator to determine who issued the flyers. DeFusco lost the campaign to Bhalla by 484 votes (see last week’s cover story at hudsonreporter.com).
Over the years, politicians in Hoboken have put out “midnight flyers” in the days before each election, trying to scare residents into believing that if they vote for a certain candidate, they’ll lose their housing. But this was a new tactic attempting to stoke xenophobic fears.
By Friday morning, DeFusco’s GoFundMe had raised $8,920.
On the GoFundMe page, DeFusco’s sister Nicole said, “The morning of the election I had to explain to my 2-year-old why people were screaming ‘racist’ at her mother for wearing a Team DeFusco T-shirt.” She also mentioned how hard her brother worked in the election.
“The news cycle smelled its blood and wanted ‘racism’ as its meal, not the real story of election tampering,” she stated.
Since six candidates ran for mayor, no one knows for sure who put out the flyers. But the police have used cameras to identify as many as five people who might have been involved in distribution.
A heated exchange
During the Hoboken City Council meeting on Wednesday, DeFusco brought up the flyers, stating that he and his family have been called racists and that Mayor-Elect Bhalla was not the only victim of the flyer.
“I’d first like to congratulate Mayor-Elect Bhalla on a hard fought victory,” said DeFusco. “486 votes separated his win from where I sit today. What I haven’t heard in the news and press interviews granted by our new mayor is that there have been two affected parties by this heinous crime. Certainly one in attacking the religion of Mayor-Elect Bhalla, two in attacking me and defaming my name as a ‘racist.’ And I know that is absurd that the first openly elected gay councilman in this city could say those words. I thought, ‘The Hoboken population is smarter than this.’ But sure enough, I have been fielding calls day in and day out from people that actually believe it. I've received texts, messages, yelling at me.”
He added, “The moral authority of the mayor is more than just legal…you also have to speak out that there were two aggrieved parties,” added DeFusco. “Now the time has come to bring the community together and help acknowledge the fact that this crime was against both of us, and when I reached out to you last week and I asked you to contribute to a reward to find who is responsible for this, you said, ‘Well, if I decide to, I’ll let you know.” That’s not fixing the wound. That’s only dividing us further. You have my support as the mayor; you do not have my respect.”
Bhalla said that he regrets that DeFusco and his family were subject to the fallout.
“That investigation is looking into all six campaigns as well as other hate groups,” said Bhalla. “At this time, it’s not appropriate for any of us to make opinions or draw conclusions on who may or may not have been involved in the incident that has impacted both of us. If there comes a time in which whoever did this is apprehended, and you are absolved as a campaign, I would be happy to go ahead and express my remorse, but at this point in time we have an active police investigation.”
DeFusco said “Did you just accuse me of smearing my name… I think you know in your heart I was not responsible for this.”
Councilman Ruben Ramos, who endorsed DeFusco in the election, said, “I 100 percent doubt he’s sore he lost the election. I think he is more sore that I saw his mother get cursed at a corner being called a racist on Election Day.”
Bhalla then said that both Ramos and DeFusco were grandstanding.
Bhalla’s campaign spokesman Rob Horowitz said in a followup interview, “Mayor-Elect Bhalla empathizes with the difficulties Councilman DeFusco and his family have faced.”
He added that Bhalla has faith in the Police Department to find whoever is responsible. He declined to speculate as to who it may be.
“What I haven’t heard in press interviews granted by our new mayor is that there have been two affected parties by this heinous crime.” – Michael DeFusco
Chief of Police Ken Ferrante said the Hoboken Police Department and the Investigations Bureau, led by Captain Charles Campbell, have been actively investigating the incident and had to determine whether it was free speech, or a bias crime.
Either way, it’s against New Jersey election law to distribute campaign materials without “paid for” language saying where they comes from.
One anti-DeFusco flyer appeared with nebulous language late in the race. The flyer tried to link DeFusco with former Mayor Peter Cammarano, who was arrested for corruption three weeks after his election in 2009. However, DeFusco and many others who supported Cammarano – who had won endorsements from some reformers -- were unaware of his illegal dealings. The anti-DeFusco flyers were signed by “Stronger Foundations,” a Political Action Committee allied with a union that endorsed Bhalla. When asked about this a week ago, Bhalla said the flyers were not done on his behalf and that he didn’t support them.
Free speech, or hate speech?
“We had discussion with the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office and made the official notification to state police and AG [Attorney General] and what we were looking at,” Ferrante said last week. “When we look at First Amendment protections of free speech, there are nine exceptions, and one of those exceptions is inciteful language. That’s any type of language that could incite people to possibly do harm … that is where we felt we are dealing with a bias incident of harassment.”
He said so far no campaign has been cleared in the investigation.
Ferrante said that there are many ways the investigation could be solved, and one is identifying the people on the video. He said he believes they could be from out of town.
He said that since so many Hoboken residents have seen the suspects’ images by now, “I’m highly confident that they are not from Hoboken. I would not say 100 percent. It would be hard for five people to be out there doing this and not one police officer has seen them in Hoboken.”
He said that interviews have been conducted and all leads are being followed. He said many residents have called to speculate about who they think did it.
He noted, “We’ve had many people thinking they are the only victim…There are multiple victims here… the bottom line is the city of Hoboken, the community as a whole, got victimized in this.”
Anyone with information or evidence is asked to contact the department. The Hoboken Police Department can be reached at 201-420-2131, or contact Captain Charles Campbell at 201-420-5103. Emails can be sent to Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org or Det. Robert Roman at email@example.com.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.