Six people filed their petitions on Sept. 5 to run for mayor in Hoboken’s Nov. 7 municipal election. In alphabetical order, they are: activist Ronald Bautista, Councilman at-Large Ravi Bhalla, Councilman Michael DeFusco, Council President Jen Giattino, businesswoman Karen Nason, and Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Romano.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer endorsed Bhalla in a surprise press conference in June, which upset some of her closest supporters who were not in the loop, including two council people who decided to support Councilwoman Giattino to run against him. This would appear to split the pro-Zimmer vote between the two candidates, while DeFusco and Romano may split the base of those who criticize Zimmer. DeFusco, who is a former Zimmer ally, may also draw from other bases.
Below are some details of the candidates’ accomplishments as well as a few of their controversial points.
Issues in the election include how much and what type of development should come to the city, traffic and parking challenges, and the city’s aging water mains.
“I make sure we bring in extra salt.” – Anthony Romano
Who are they?
Bhalla has served as a councilman for eight years. During his term he has been council president and council vice president. He is a private attorney, practicing in areas from employment law to criminal defense.
He said his biggest accomplishments include helping to ensure that residents received tax relief when he was first elected to council, as well as saving the local hospital from closing due to financial difficulties.
He said he believes he is the best candidate for the position because of his experience on the council and his positive campaign. He also said he has good ideas on education and how to support the public schools.
Bhalla will have to face questions about several instances in which he appeared to quash dissent. During a council meeting in October of 2015, he forced two residents to leave when they began addressing the council about an article published earlier in the day by PolitickerNJ regarding Zimmer’s husband, Stan Grossbard. Grossbard had been among several people participating in email conversations about Hoboken Housing Authority personnel, a situation that had come to light in the press that week. Both residents sued the city because of their ejection from the meeting. The city has already settled one of those suits from a resident, costing the taxpayers more than $50,000. The other suit is still in litigation.
Of the meeting, Bhalla said, “The City Council rules are pretty clear that when any member of the public engages in disorderly conduct, the presiding officer, which at the council is the council president, has not only the right but the obligation, meaning he or she is required to preserve an orderly meeting so business can be conducted.”
Bhalla also threatened, in an October, 2013 email to his supporters, to sue then-councilwoman Beth Mason for defamation because she had asked questions during a council meeting about a law firm doing business with the city, a firm that later hired Bhalla. During Bhalla’s re-electin campaign, he responded by saying he’d sue Mason after his election was over. But in the end, he never sued.
So how can a voter be assured that – in a town in which people have feared speaking out against reigning administrations – he won’t make a legal threat or remove them from a meeting if they criticize him or ask questions?
“Nothing is more important to me than my reputation,” Bhalla said. “When candidates manufacture controversies, when they outright lie, I have rights too.” He added, “I welcome good faith disagreements and opinions and debates, but I won’t tolerate a political circus. I think dissent is essential to a strong democracy and strong community. I think what makes me a better public servant is listening to opinions different then my own.”
Bhalla was also accused of a state ethics law violation after he voted, in 2010, to award a city contract to the lawyer with whom he shared an office lease. A judge initially ruled against Bhalla, but after another ruling and counter-ruling, the appellate division ruled in Bhalla’s favor in 2016.
Bhalla’s campaign literature has attempted to give a well-rounded picture of the candidate outside of politics, showing him playing soccer as a youth, and working alongside Zimmer.
He has been criticized by some who believe he’ll maintain the status quo.
“Mayor Zimmer and I are not the same people,” said Bhalla. “Mayor Zimmer has done a great job in many ways, but I think Hoboken’s best days are yet to come.”
He added that she has “set the foundation for Hoboken to flourish” and “what you’ll see in a Bhalla administration is not more of the same. You’ll see a substantial focus on some of the basics such as in terms of our streets and roads and infrastructure needs as well as basic city services. Those are areas I am sharply focused on.”
Bhalla may split a voting base with Giattino, who, like Bhalla, has worked closely with Zimmer. In recent weeks, Giattino – who supported Zimmer for six years — has criticized Zimmer’s actions in a deal with the water company serving the city.
Giattino has lived in Hoboken for 18 years and she is currently in her second term as a 6th Ward councilperson and her third term as council president. Before joining the council in 2011, she was a trader at Goldman Sachs and is currently a local real estate agent as well as cofounder of the Church Square Park farmer’s market.
When asked for her biggest accomplishment, she said it has been the relationships she has established with her constituents.
“They know they can count on me if they have any concerns or ideas,” said Giattino.
She said she believes she is the most qualified candidate due to her three terms as council president, two terms as vice president, and her ability to listen and understand residents’ needs. “I think my biggest difference with both Councilman Bhalla and Mayor Zimmer is that I have been a ward councilman for the past six years,” said Giattino. “Being a ward councilman as opposed to an at-large councilman makes you aware of the wants and needs of residents. I think daily quality-of-life issues are really overlooked and the best way to understand them is to experience them.”
Giattino has had to defend herself in the non-partisan race from concerned citizens worried about her Republican affiliation, in a time in which many (including Zimmer) believe Donald Trump’s policies will hurt local residents. Months ago, when asked about this issue, she would not reveal who she voted for in the presidential election, which concerned some. Last week, she said she voted for Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate.
“I am running to be mayor of Hoboken,” she said. “I’m not running as a Republican. When I knock on people’s doors, the things they ask me for and are concerned about are quality of life and affordability issues.”
Her supporters have complained that Bhalla is trying to make party politics an election issue when it shouldn’t be. In Bhalla’s literature, he specifically says he will stand up to Trump.
Giattino said she will have no problem standing up to the Trump administration if needed.
“If anyone is doing something that will negatively impact Hoboken or its residents, regardless of what party they belong to, I would have no problem standing up to that person,” she said.
Some have asked why she failed to publicly criticize any of Zimmer’s moves for six years, and is suddenly critical two months before an election, especially in a town in which people are often labeled if they criticize an administration. Will she stand up for those who speak out?
Giattino said that in the past, her disagreements have happened behind the scenes, not in public.
“I am the kind of person who prefers working with people to come to a consensus rather than being confrontational,” said Giattino. “The mayor, myself, and councilman Bhalla has had disagreement on many things…By the time things appeared on the agenda they have been vetted and a general consensus has often been reached.”
Bhalla and Giattino are only two of the council people who supported Zimmer in the past who are now running for mayor. Michael DeFusco was supported by Zimmer when he was first elected in 2015, but he has been more outspoken about some of the mayor’s stances over the years than her other allies. Among those issues is the Zimmer administration’s perceived heavy-handedness on issues involving businesses and zoning.
DeFusco is a full-time marketing professional in a private company in Manhattan. In 2011, he was appointed as a full voting member to the Zoning Board, where he served for five years before being elected to City Council.
DeFusco said his biggest accomplishment is the work he did on the Zoning Board and City Council. He cited approving the building where Trader Joe’s is located, working to include affordable housing in new buildings, and the fight to improve traffic in the southwest of the city. He also mentioned obtaining a commitment from the train terminal operators for an outdoor French market.
DeFusco said he should be elected mayor for a number of reasons. “To me it’s about ideas. It’s about making sure that ideas are at the forefront of the discussions and that we are not hindering progress because of political gain,” said DeFusco. “In the two years that I have been on the City Council I feel I have done more in terms of getting things done then many of my opponents have done in a significantly longer time. Hoboken remains a town that needs infrastructure improvements, businesses are hurting, and where we need to be investing is in the schools and in our future.”
But while DeFusco has been independent on the council, some wonder if he will be dependent of other political machines. Some say he’s backed by the longtime local Hudson County political machine, the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO). His campaign spokesman, Phil Swibinski, also happens to be a paid spokesman for state Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, a key HCDO player.
DeFusco said, “Well, it is news to me that the HCDO is backing me. I am an independent candidate…Any notion that I am backed by a larger force is incorrect and misguided or for political gain.”
If there is a candidate most supported by Hoboken’s longtime residents, it may be Freeholder Anthony Romano, who grew up in town. On the county freeholder board, Romano represents Hoboken and portions of Jersey City Heights. He’s been freeholder for nine years.
He’s also a retired Hoboken police captain and he served on the police force from 1978 to 2011. He also owns the local bar Louise & Jerry’s.
Of his accomplishments over his career, he said he is most proud of “bringing more county services” such as maintaining and paving county roads.
“In the winter we help plow Washington Street and other city streets,” he said. “I make sure we bring in extra salt. We have a county park in Hoboken that’s had improvements done, Columbus Park, and the county sheriff’s officers transport prisoners.”
Romano said there are several reasons why residents should vote for him.
“I have proven leadership, a proven ability to work with different levels of government through my different relationships, starting back when I was a night commander for the Hoboken Police Department,” he said.
But is Romano ready to focus just on Hoboken? Two weeks ago, he held one of the only press conferences he has ever held about Hoboken issues – which he billed as an “emergency press conference.” Held at 4:30 p.m. on a Monday, it was about a bedbug infestation in one of the senior citizen buildings. When asked at the time if he had notified any county or local health officials before holding the conference, he said he had not.
Romano said last week that he didn’t reach out to any officials to ask about the issue because “according to the seniors, they were already reached out to.”
If Romano wins both re-election to freeholder in November and election as mayor, he said he’ll choose to be mayor.
“I represent Hoboken and Hoboken issues at the county and have done so for years. I was here with the county helping the city and the mayor during [Hurricane] Sandy and I attend numerous community events. People know I am always available to them and their concerns.”
“I’ve had people, developers, say that I don’t dress cool enough to be the next mayor.” – Karen Nason
The two non-officials in the race
Bautista and Nason have less name recognition than the four elected officials running for the top spot, but they cited involvement in a number of issues.
Bautista is a local activist who has lived in Hoboken for the past 18 years and has fought for pedestrian safety and continued 24-hour PATH service.
He became involved in activism in 2015 when PATH train officials announced they wanted to end service at 1 a.m. instead of having the train run all night. He began a petition to help stop the change, garnering 3,000 signatures. Officials eventually changed their minds.
Also, through Bike Hoboken, of which he is a former board member, he helped advocate for and establish safe area near the Union Dry Dock for cyclists and pedestrians to walk.
He said residents should vote for him because he is not only a longtime resident who is in tune with residents’ concerns, but also he has experience in alleviating traffic and transportation concerns in his former roles as an advisor for the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation and the New York Department of State.
Bautista’s largest hurdle appears to be that he has less of a public presence and has only raised about $1,000 in campaign contributions, according to ELEC filings.
“I want to show that a regular person can run and win an election for office based solely on the issues,” said Bautista. “Social media has definitely helped out and people know me. It’s not like I just started to become involved in Hoboken. I’ve been doing the groundwork for years. Voters need options.”
Nason announced she was running for mayor in March. She is a local businesswoman who owns Hoboken Hot House, a café on Second and Monroe streets.
She said she is most proud of not only being a mother, but also changing the way people perceive women in business. She was awarded the Chamber of Commerce’s Women in Business award in 2014.
Nason said she is also proud of her charitable contributions, including hosting events for local non profits and donating a piano to Hoboken High School.
Nason has fought the city’s zoning in the past and was featured in a June 5, 2016, Reporter cover story discussing about the difficulties of having a business in town. She is among several businesspeople in town that have made such a complaint.
Nason said residents should vote for her because she doesn’t come from a previous administration, but from a local business, an area she says is often overlooked.
“The candidates that people are choosing from are from an administration led by Dawn Zimmer who gave them – Jen Giattino, Michael DeFusco, and Ravi Bhalla – amazing opportunities to further their careers,” said Nason. “I think it’s an outstanding detriment to their careers to go against someone or say negative things about someone who believed in them.”
Like Bautista, this is her first foray into politics. She has held fundraisers, amassing about $4,000 in campaign contributions, according to ELEC filings.
By contrast, Bhalla – who had been raising funds for his council re-election before Zimmer publicly announced she was dropping out – has funds of more than $84,000.
Nason said, “It’s not about the money from contributors in Bergen County or outside of town; it’s about the people in Hoboken. I am working my butt off and people know me and hear me. Actions speak volumes.”
Of potentially siphoning votes from candidates who may be more likely to win, Nason said, “People have tried to get me out of the race since the beginning and my answer is always no. It is about the issues and electing the best person for the job. From the beginning, Michael DeFusco’s team has said, ‘You will never win and you should bow out.’ I’ve had people, developers, say that I don’t dress cool enough to be the next mayor. I don’t think my skirt choice is an issue to the people of Hoboken, and as a woman it is horribly insulting.”
The Reporter will host a mayoral debate next month, and will be running more stories on the election. Watch your doorstep or come to hudsonreporter.com each Sunday.