Four years ago, Dawn Zimmer came home to the west side of Hoboken to find a flyer on her door asking neighbors to speak out about the future of development near the city’s dilapidated southern border.
“I said to my husband, we should get involved in this,” recalled now-Mayor Zimmer last week. The group was the Southwest Parks Coalition, and they wanted more open space in the city’s redevelopment proposal for the area.
“We started to get frustrated because our councilman, Chris Campos, wouldn’t meet with us,” Zimmer explained in an interview in City Hall last week. “We needed to run someone against him so that people would listen to us. Not that our candidate would ever win. Nobody wanted to do it. I said, ‘Somebody’s got to do it.’ ”
“If you’re not married by 26, they say you’re ‘Christmas cake,’ like leftover cake.” -- Dawn Zimmer
It may have helped that Campos had been arrested that January for allegedly driving under the influence of alcohol, and that there were many newcomers to Zimmer’s 4th Ward who were tired of the continued flooding. The nastiness of the Campos campaign, run by his council colleague, Councilman Peter Cammarano, didn’t help.
What followed were rancorous court filings back and forth, ultimately ending in a do-over election in November that Zimmer won.
Zimmer had insisted during the campaign that she was not going to run for mayor because she needed to focus on the many problems in her ward.
That changed the next year. No one else with a significant “reformer” reputation came forward to challenge Councilman Peter Cammarano for mayor. Well, there was Councilman Beth Mason, also seen as a reformer, but when Mason made a number of moves and alliances that were questioned by other reformers, the Mason and Zimmer minions began a war.
Zimmer found herself battling with Cammarano in a regular May election, then in a June runoff. Cammarano won by a mere 161 votes, then was arrested a month later as part of a wide federal bribery sting, forcing his resignation.
Suddenly, Zimmer, who was now council president, got thrust into the spotlight. She became acting mayor, ran against Mason and several others this past November, and won the seat outright.
After spending only seven years in Hoboken, she was the first non-native elected in Hoboken in decades, as well as the first female mayor elected in all of Hudson County, and the city’s first Jewish mayor.
While she was so busy campaigning, many people didn’t get the chance to know much about her life before she got to Hoboken. Last week, she sat down with the Reporter to talk about herself and her path toward the mayor’s seat.
Camping trip sealed fate
Zimmer was born in Maryland. But when she was a toddler, her family went camping in New Hampshire, and they loved the terrain. When Zimmer was five, her family – including her twin brother and her older brother – moved up to the Granite State.
She grew up in the lakeside town of Laconia, attended public schools, and graduated cum laude from the University of New Hampshire with a degree in history.
After graduation, she taught English in Japan for two years and traveled around Asia with a friend for eight months.
“I feel like living overseas makes you more culturally aware,” she said last week. “All the Asian countries are different. You have to work to understand their culture, and I had to look back at our own culture as well. It made me think about how the U.S. is a dominant culture, and reflect on the place of women.”
In Japan, her students teased her about being 26 and unmarried.
“If you’re not married by 26, they say you’re ‘Christmas cake,’ like leftover cake,” Zimmer said.
When working at Edelman Public Relations in New York City, one of her co-workers fixed her up with his recreational basketball teammate, Stan Grossbard, since the co-worker knew that both of them were single.
It didn’t bother Zimmer that Grossbard was 11 years older. “He’s young at heart,” she laughed. “We share a lot of the same interests.”
Those interests included the outdoors. For their honeymoon, they climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, although they didn’t reach the summit. With their two school-age sons, they still bike and hike together.
Zimmer also enjoys photography, which she has done on a freelance basis for many years.
Grossbard works in the jewelry industry, as his late father, Henry Grossbard, was known for inventing the radiant cut diamond in 1977. (Henry was killed by a hit-and-run driver on Passover in 2005 in Hoboken. To this day, there are no suspects. Zimmer said she hasn’t pushed the police further about this since she became mayor.)
Even though Grossbard and Zimmer started out together in New York City, it was seven years ago that they moved to Hoboken, looking for the excitement of the city combined with the close community feel that Zimmer had grown up with.
Much was made during the recent mayoral election of the fact that for the first time in Hoboken history, there were numerous Jewish candidates, including Mason and Zimmer. Interestingly, both converted to the religion.
Zimmer’s heritage is Irish and German, and she grew up as a member of the Unitarian church. When she and Grossbard were dating, they agreed to raise their children Jewish, but she was uncomfortable converting just for marriage.
However, once it came time to raise the children, she realized it made sense to learn more about the religion. She and Grossbard took an “Introduction to Judaism” course over several weeks at the Hoboken Synagogue.
Zimmer said that now, her family sets aside Friday nights as a time for family togetherness and no work.
Hudson County politics has a longtime reputation for being dirty and corrupt – something Zimmer failed to dismiss as just a reputation.
Without getting specific, she noted that recent events don’t help. Besides Cammarano’s arrest, the former head of the Parking Authority (whom Zimmer demoted upon taking office) was recently charged in a scheme to skim quarters from parking meters.
Will the city ever shed its reputation?
“I think it takes bringing change,” Zimmer said. “They need to see the progress, need to see getting the services they deserve. They need to be involved. Now that I almost have my team in place, we should be able to make change.”
(To find out more about changes she intends to make, watch for a followup article in the Hoboken Reporter by Tim Carroll.)
The crony complaint
Zimmer has gotten some criticism, however, for choosing campaign allies for certain positions after she had promised to consider a variety of resumes for volunteer boards and top positions in town.
She was replaced on the council by her close political ally Michael Lenz. Several board slots have gone to campaign volunteers or donors.
“My campaign was different from the past because it was a huge grass-roots effort,” Zimmer explained. “It was funded by people who care about the community, not by developers, like those in the past. The people who worked on my campaign share my philosophy: They care about the community. Because they put themselves out there, should we not consider them for boards? I’m looking at their resumes as well as others.”
Of course, any administration could use that explanation for hiring supporters. But Zimmer noted that for the paid directorships in City Hall, of which there are only a few, she chose several people whom she didn’t know before she advertised for resumes.
Brandy Forbes was chosen as the director of the Department of Community Development. Before that, she was a community planner for Edison Township. More recently, new Public Works Director Jennifer Wernam Meier came from a similar job in Plainfield.
“She has planning experience,” Zimmer said. “She’s an architect. We need to build a new municipal garage.”
Leo Pelligrini, a Hoboken native who is now the director of health and human services, was not a campaign ally, she said.
Ian Sacs, the young director of transportation and parking, was someone Zimmer knew vaguely, but he had not worked on her campaign, she said. He had been to a meeting of the Parks Coalition and had talked to her about biking – a topic about which she is passionate in Hoboken. He is a transportation engineer who lives in town with his wife and newborn baby.
However, Zimmer’s mayoral aide, Dan Bryan, did work on her campaign and was hired for that position for $35,000 per year.
Zimmer is a low-key person with a subtle sense of humor. Her political experience before Hoboken was limited to the class presidency during her senior year of high school, and the vice presidency the year before that.
So in the rough and tumble world of Hoboken politics, have old-school politicians told her how to dress, what to say, how to act?
“Not really,” she said. “Sometimes people will give advice. I’m a good listener. I listen to people; then I make my own decision.”
She also laughed and said “no” when asked whether anyone has attempted to offer her a bribe.
Zimmer was baptized by fire just days after she took office. Besides the news reporters flocking to cover Cammarano’s resignation, there was a fatal helicopter crash over the Hudson River. For the second time in a month, news cameras converged on Hoboken. Zimmer found herself talking to the national media.
“I think my son counted 50 microphones,” Zimmer said. “It was like an out-of-body experience. I wasn’t nervous. I got question after question. I think going through all the campaigns, that prepared me. Plus, I’m coming from the heart. I’m not just about acting like I’m on the campaign trail.”
Zimmer rides her bike to work or occasionally drives and parks in the local garage. She plans to tell city workers they can’t park next to City Hall, except in emergencies, as they can use the nearby city garages for free during work hours.
She and Sacs don’t expect to create new parking garages or lots in the near future, she said, but to open up more parking in existing areas, and to push more Zip Car-type initiatives and more bike lanes to make Hoboken residents less car-dependent.
Level of problems surprising
Zimmer said that what has surprised her most about being mayor is: “I knew there were a lot of problems, but it feels like every day, there’s a new problem we’re uncovering.”
As soon as she came in, she found out that shipworms from the Hudson River were eating away at Sinatra Park, which had to be closed. Newspapers reported that a memo had informed a previous administration of the problem, but it was not addressed.
She said that more recently, she found out that termites are chewing up the basement of City Hall. She said that a past official told her that years ago, city workers would stuff Silly Putty into the holes.
Zimmer said she has not talked to the former mayors about these issues.
Sometimes it is the things that don’t happen that may show leadership.
Zimmer said that one of the biggest problems she had to face was a two-day tour of New Jersey run by Kansas-based hate group who came to local towns including Hoboken to protest Jews and homosexuals.
In order to keep the hate group from getting media attention, Zimmer and other local leaders worked with the media and area activists to encourage them not to start counter-protests or cause a ruckus.
“I agreed with the [counter protestors’] perspective, but we didn’t want a media event,” she said. “We didn’t want that group on the cover of the papers.”
With careful coordination and help from the Hoboken Police Department, the protest at City Hall turned out small, and remained quiet and peaceful.
Zimmer has said it before, but when asked about running for higher office someday, she said it again: There’s too much work to be done locally.
“People have mentioned it to me,” she said. “I can’t envision it, quite frankly. There are so many challenges here. I’m excited about the changes I’m going to make. For me it’s about the community, and Hoboken is my community.”
Caren Matzner can be reached at email@example.com.