The three candidates to be the next mayor of Hoboken discussed a handful of the issues facing the city, as well as the nature of the city’s political atmosphere, at a debate hosted by The Hudson Reporter ahead of the Nov. 5 citywide elections.
The debate will air this week at hudsonreporter.com.
Since the candidates were at odds with each other, the Reporter also asked them a few questions to catch them off guard, including asking them to name the best thing about each of their opponents. For her part, Mayor Dawn Zimmer said that she had heard that 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti had a really cute dog.
In the debate, Mayor Zimmer, referred to her record of “returning honesty, integrity, and fiscal responsibility to City Hall,” while her challengers – state Assemblyman Ruben Ramos Jr. and Occhipinti – painted her first term as failed and misguided, and described the unified Hoboken they both believe they could achieve.
Right off the bat, the candidates showcased their divisions over a rent control referendum that has been hotly contested by tenants and property owners. The question would remove rent control from buildings with four or fewer units of housing when a current tenant moves out, and add a one-time decontrol for buildings with five or more units.
Candidates answered questions on rent control, boosting small business, and Hoboken’s political culture.
Zimmer said that she supports voting down the measure, as she did last year when it first appeared on the ballot.
“My concern is that this legislation is drafted by the landlords, for the landlords, and hasn’t gone through the legislative process that would assure it’s balanced legislation,” she said. “It has very strong financial incentives for landlords to encourage vacancies, and it doesn’t have the corresponding protections for tenants.”
Occhipinti said that he supports the decontrol measure, but noted that his administration will hold a zero-tolerance policy towards landlords accused of intimidating or harassing tenants in an effort to force them to move so they can decontrol rents.
“Make no mistake about it, if there are any unscrupulous landlords in this city that intend to intimidate or coerce our tenants, we will bring the full weight of city hall to bear upon them,” he said.
Ramos said the measure should not be on the ballot. He placed the blame on the Zimmer administration, saying better governing could find a compromise between tenants and landlords.
“The mayor and the City Council should have stepped in when you’ve got both sides in this steel cage match,” he said. “They’re looking for an absolute winner on each side, either total annihilation of rent control as we know it in the city of Hoboken, or trying to keep it the same way.”
Small business and parking
Later in the debate, the candidates answered another issue-based question critical to many Hobokenites, the issue of boosting small business in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Unsurprisingly, the issue quickly turned to parking, and Ramos and Occhipinti, answering first and second respectively, criticized Zimmer for failing to reform parking codes unfriendly to local businesses.
“Patrons are sick of coming into our shops and coming out to find a boot on their car,” said Ramos. “We need to look at our parking mechanisms over and over again, and our codes over and over again.”
He also complained about what he said was the failure of the city to advertise itself properly.
“Washington Street is back to life, but we’ve failed to get that word out time and time again,” he said.
Occhipinti vowed to create new municipal parking garages in an effort to relieve the stress of finding a space, for both visitors and residents.
“There’s 25,000 residential parking permits and only 16,000 on-street spaces,” he said. “We need to attack that problem aggressively by building more parking garages, which in turn will bring more people to the city.”
He also complained about the behavior of Parking Utility workers, who he said lacked “grace” in being overzealous about ticketing.
Zimmer, as she did several times during the debate, referred to her actions following Hurricane Sandy, noting that she promoted the city on the national news as a shopping and tourism destination. She said that while her administration is working on parking laws, the most important way to bring business to town is to protect the town itself.
Presenting a map showing what she has referred to as a comprehensive flood protection plan, Zimmer said that local businesses won’t improve until the city is safe. She touted her plan to build flood pumps along the river and instate green infrastructure codes as a way of bolstering the city’s defenses while still maintaining its character.
Is Hoboken divided?
This election season, like Zimmer’s first mayoral campaign in 2009, is sometimes framed as being divided along “Old Hoboken” and “New Hoboken” lines. The candidates were asked about the divisions in town, and whether the heated political atmosphere intimidated people from getting involved, considering those who speak out are often criticized on the internet and elsewhere, along with their families.
Occhipinti, answering first, referred to his One Hoboken slate’s campaign mission.
“We’re too divided. Right now there are online personalities and commenters and blogs [with] the mission in life to attack people, attack their families, and it’s not the way we want the city to be represented,” he said.
He noted that he thought political leaders who are supported by various blogs should ask those who write them to reduce their hyperbole.
“We need to move forward as a community together,” he continued. “If that doesn’t happen, we’re going to have major problems, because the fabric of Hoboken is being destroyed.”
Zimmer’s allies have put together several blogs that attack her opponents. Zimmer didn’t address the toxicity specifically and said she didn’t think the city is as divided as some may think.
“I think the city is united. I think it's the City Council, and the council meetings, that are where you’ve seen some really nasty rhetoric, but you look at the most recent example is how our community came together after Hurricane Sandy,” she said. “It was really incredible.”
She also noted that she thought that under her leadership, more Hobokenites have a voice than ever before.
Ramos called the fact that he had to answer a question about the internet attacks “depressing,” and again criticized what he said was a lack of leadership on Zimmer’s part to bring the various parts of Hoboken together.
“We need to be beyond that negative political discourse and be about finding solutions to the important issues facing us today,” he said.
Even more online...
Zimmer, Occhipinti and Ramos also discussed questions about Hoboken’s sordid political past, they named their biggest personal regret in life, and had to talk about their opponents. So check out hudsonreporter.com to see the full debate.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org