On Nov. 7, voters will decide Hoboken’s future by electing new representatives for mayor, City Council, and school board.
Below are profiles of three of the six candidates running for mayor. Watch for the other three next week.
Candidates include current council people Ravi Bhalla, Michael DeFusco, and Jen Giattino, as well as current County Freeholder and former Police Captain Anthony Romano, activist Ronald Bautista, and business owner Karen Nason.
To read more background information about the candidates, as well as some of their positives and negatives, also see our previous story at http://tinyurl.com/hobokenmayoral
Bautista is originally from Ecuador and moved to Hoboken with his family when he was a child. He has been a resident for 18 years.
“I have family members who were born and raised in Hoboken, so that’s why we came straight over here from Ecuador,” said Bautista. “We loved it so much we stayed. I like the sense of community that we have here. It’s a little bit of everything in one square mile.”
Bautista married his girlfriend of 10 years last month and is currently a marketing professional for an insurance company in New York City. He has also worked for the Department of New York State and as a mobility and engagement advisor for the Staten Island Economic Development Corporation. There he worked on providing traffic solutions to State Island’s West Shore including express lanes for buses and shuttles.
In Hoboken he was on the board of Bike Hoboken where he advocated for safe bike lanes.
Bautista spent his first 11 years in Hoboken as an undocumented immigrant, received his Green Card at the age of 24, and became a full citizen last year.
After graduating from Hoboken High School, he got his associate’s degree from Hudson County Community College and his bachelor’s degree from New Jersey City University. He paid for his education himself by working with his mother cleaning local houses.
He is currently halfway through his master’s program in political communication and governance at George Washington University.
He said he got the idea to run for mayor three years ago.
“I’ve always known that there has been a disconnect between government and the people, and I want to help connect the two,” said Bautista. “There is an opportunity and a need for more activists to run for office. To transform frustrations into real solutions.”
Bautista said his main issue is to make Hoboken a more people-friendly town.
“We are a walkable city, and that’s part of our core as a community,” he said. “We have to set standards high, and one thing I would do is make Hoboken more pedestrian friendly and safe.”
“We talk a lot about traffic issues and congestion it’s part of everyone’s platform, but what’s not highlighted enough is pedestrian safety and the people who were hit, injured or killed [by cars],” he added.
Bautista said one way to increase safety is to have narrower streets, which helps slow down cars and increase pedestrian safety. He also said that expanding the corners by creating bumpouts, which is happening on Washington Street now, limits drivers’ ability to speed up during intersections.
“Hoboken is a unique place,” said Bautista. “It’s not like New York City or Jersey City. We are only one square mile and we are very dense, some people even say over populated, but here’s the deal. We don’t have the luxury of taking baby steps like these other cities do to solve traffic congestion and pedestrian safety. We need to make bold moves now.”
He suggested creating a rapid bus system and increasing mass transit options in town.
See sidebar for more about his life as an undocumented immigrant, and also for notes on the council candidates.
At-Large Councilman Ravinder Bhalla grew up in what was then known as West Paterson, and is now called Woodland Park. His family emigrated from India to the U.S. in the 1960s. He has lived in Hoboken since April of 2000.
He moved to Hoboken after completing his master’s at the London School of Economics and law degree at Tulane University.
“I always felt New Jersey was my home and where I wanted to set my roots, so when I was offered a job at a law firm in Newark, I felt Hoboken was good option to live,” said Bhalla. “It was close to New York City but also close to my family.”
Bhalla is a father of two children who currently attend Elysian Charter School.
He is a practicing litigator at Florio, Perrucci, Steinhart & Fader, and works on a range of cases.
“I help resolve disputes amongst different parties in a number of areas,” said Bhalla. “Among them is employment law where I represent employees subject to unfair labor practices and civil rights law where I represent people subject to discrimination based upon their gender, sexual preference, race, or religion. I also have experience in the area of land use and redevelopment law.”
He said as such he only supports a town using eminent domain as a negotiating tool to acquire land for public purposes at fair market value.
Bhalla said that he decided to enter politics in 2008 when Hoboken “was subject to a fiscal crisis where the City Council refused to pass a budget and the budget was overspent by about $12 million, which resulted in a municipal tax increase of about 80 percent in one year.”
“We decided to get off the sideline and make a difference,” said Bhalla. “My wife encouraged me to run for office. We thought we could either keep complaining, or roll up our sleeves and get to work.”
Since being elected, Bhalla has served on the council for the past eight years.
He said his biggest accomplishments on the council includes helping the city become fiscally responsible by holding the line on taxes, improving the city’s bond status to AA+, working to save the local hospital from going under, and writing an amendment (Z88) to the city’s rent control laws that “made the law more fair to landlords and tenants.”
He said he hopes to make further improvements to help make Hoboken affordable to residents, including terminating a loophole used by landlords to circumvent rent control, which he says allows landlords to apply for property tax surcharges and raise rents in the middle of a lease term. He also wants to work with future developers to partner with New Jersey Housing and Finance Agency to get low-interest loans to create affordable housing buildings.
Bhalla said he decided to run for mayor after being approached by Mayor Dawn Zimmer over the summer. She “indicated she did not intend to seek a third term as mayor and asked me to consider running for mayor instead of City Council,” he said.
“I’ve seen how far we’ve come but at the same time I see how many challenges we have ahead of us, and I felt I had an obligation to make sure we continue that progress,” said Bhalla. “Our best days are well ahead of us.”
He said his main issue if elected mayor will be tackling the city’s infrastructure needs.
“I think we are bursting at the seams in terms of population,” he said. “We need to get infrastructure right, meaning our water mains, our streets, mass transit, and our schools.”
He said one thing he would change about Hoboken is the traffic congestion, parking, and need for road maintenance.
If elected mayor he will become Hoboken’s first Sikh mayor which he said “will be meaningful in this national political climate where a lot of communities…are feeling the effects of federal policies.”
Bhalla has come under fire for ejecting two residents from a City Council meeting which resulted in two lawsuits – one settled by the city this year for over $50,000 and one still unresolved – which left some worried that they’d be silenced if they have a different opinion. The residents were ejected for starting to talk about an article about the mayor’s husband’s involvement in politics.
Bhalla said that according to the council bylaws, he, as the presiding officer, had the obligation to maintain decorum and an orderly meeting. He also said he welcomes differing opinions.
But then, if he was in the right, why did the city settle at taxpayers’ expense?
Bhalla said he could not comment. “The settlement agreement indicated that the parties resolved the manner amicably and, as per the term of the settlement agreement, I am restrained from commenting on that issue,” he said.
Recently, Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who is co-chairing Councilwoman Giattino’s mayoral campaign, took to Facebook to call Bhalla a career politician.
She wrote, “He is using Hoboken as a stepping stone at a time when we need a Hoboken-focused mayor.”
She went on to say Bhalla has never actively participated in fixing potholes, running a budget, fixing Washington Street, or getting developers to make investments in Hoboken.
“Actions speak louder than words,” responded Bhalla in an interview last week. “Voters should judge me by my track record as a councilman, not by negative attacks by people supporting other candidates. I played a central role in the Hoboken turnaround, working hard to hold the line on taxes, save our hospital, and secure parks and open space. My home is Hoboken. I was married here, and my wife and I are raising our two children here. I am completely invested in Hoboken and the future of our community.”
Giattino grew up in Westchester and moved to Hoboken after living in New York City and meeting her husband, who at the time already owned in Hoboken.
“It’s like Sesame Street,” said Giattino of Hoboken. “Every time I run, I say it. There is such a sense of community even if you don’t necessarily know your neighbor. Having kids in town…having so many eyes on them and so many people I can depend on is truly amazing.”
Before joining local politics she worked at the New York Stock exchange for over a decade as a broker and then a specialist.
Giattino is a mother of three boys who attend Elysian Charter School and St. Peters Prep. She left the corporate world in Manhattan when she was pregnant with her third child. It was at this time when she started getting involved in her children’s school.
While chair of the parent board, she started a program with the Hoboken homeless shelter called LOTS which provided lunch on Tuesdays to those in need.
“Now, tons of schools in Hoboken do it,” she said.
She joined local politics after volunteering for the Kids First campaign for Board of Education several years ago. In 2011 she helped launch the uptown farmers’ market with Councilman Peter Cunningham. It was then that she received a call from Zimmer asking her if she would consider running.
“At first I said, no, I don’t think so, and then Peter Cunningham called me and said the same thing. Then I spoke to my husband about it and we realized its sort of what I was naturally doing anyway,” said Giattino. “Within my neighborhood I was that go-to person for people who had questions about City Hall.”
Giattino was then elected later that year. She’s the 6th Ward councilwoman and current council president.
She said her biggest accomplishment while on council is “unifying the council.”
“In the past I think when anyone was council president, it seemed to be the only people who were on subcommittees were those who held the majority. When I became council president, I made each subcommittee four people instead of three, and asked council members to submit which committees they would like to be on.”
She said she split the community development subcommittee into two committees — one for northern community development and one for southern community development.
She said if elected mayor, her main issue would be a tie between development and quality-of-life concerns.
“Development wise, we have to look at the entire city holistically,” said Giattino. “In the past we would look at a project as a one-off and not its effects on the entire city. Everything we do affects everyone.”
She said she believes the new development in western Hoboken is “completely out of scale.”
She said in the future she would want a true financial analysis of what the developer stands to gain to ensure the city gets a fair deal.
As for eminent domain, she said it should only be used as a last resort.
She said she believes there needs to be loading zones on every block. She also criticized “predatory” parking enforcement on residents.
“If you are on the corner with your trunk open and the hazards on unloading groceries, rather than jumping to give that person a ticket, they should look around,” said Giattino. “They shouldn’t be predatory…I think that comes from the top down. People on top aren’t treating residents like they need to, and I would set that example.”
Residents have questioned whether Giattino, if elected, will be the same as her predecessor. She has rarely, until recently, publicly criticized Zimmer and Bhalla. Now, she has numerous criticisms with an administration she’s been part of for six years.
Giattino says she hasn’t supported all of Zimmer’s initiatives in the past.
“I actually think the mayor did a great job over the past eight years,” she said. “I am so impressed by her ability to get grant funding for Rebuild by Design [a federal flood project]. That was probably the most impressive thing she accomplished in my opinion but for me… it’s about thinking of Hoboken as a whole, which is currently not being done when it comes to planning. You need to see how it all interfaces with one another.”
She pointed out that she voted against the Washington Street Redesign project, to note that she hasn’t always agreed with the mayor.
Some residents have made an issue of the fact that Giattino is a registered Republican. Bhalla’s literature has said that he will stand up to the current presidential administration if need be. In response, Giattino recently said she’d stand up to Donald Trump if his positions were harmful to local residents.
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.