Voters made Hoboken history last week when they elected the state’s first ever Sikh Indian mayor, incumbent councilman and private attorney Ravi Bhalla. But this wasn’t the only first for the mile-square city, which also elected its first African-American to the City Council, who ran on a different slate: Vanessa Falco.
After the inauguration ceremonies in January, Falco will sit alongside two winning council candidates who ran on Bhalla’s slate: Emily Jabbour and incumbent councilman Jim Doyle.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer decided not to run for re-election in June, and endorsed Councilman Bhalla. Rumors have said she may be up for a post with newly elected Gov. Phil Murphy, whom she endorsed early in his campaign.
In terms of final votes, the mayoral candidates finished in this order: Bhalla, Councilman Michael DeFusco, Freeholder Anthony Romano, Councilwoman Jennifer Giattino, businesswoman Karen Nason, and activist Ronald Bautista.
Falco ran on DeFusco’s ticket.
On Tuesday, Hoboken also elected three Board of Education members. The winners all came from the Hoboken Proud slate, which was endorsed by both Bhalla and by mayoral candidate Giattino: incumbent Sharyn Angley, along with Melanie Tekirian and Chetali Khanna.
Although Hoboken has 37,281 registered voters, only 15,816 people cast their ballots during Tuesday’s rainy election, representing 42.4 percent of the electorate. 1,138 of the votes were mail-in ballots, according to the Hudson County Clerk’s website.
Out of the 15,124 ballots cast for mayor (including write-in and provisional ballots), Bhalla received 32.9 percent of the votes or 4,976 votes, followed by Councilman Michael DeFusco, who received 29.36 percent of the votes or 4,441 in total.
Next came Freeholder Anthony Romano with 18.25 percent of the votes, or 2,760 votes, followed by Council President Jen Giattino, with 16.58 percent of the votes or 2,508 votes. Local businesswoman Karen Nason came in with 1.54 percent of the vote, 233 votes, and activist Ronald Bautista came in at 1.33 percent, with 201 votes.
Ultimately, the new mayor was elected by 13.3 percent of registered voters in Hoboken.
Long record of service
Bhalla, a resident of Hoboken for 17 years, has served on the City Council for eight years.
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, before he was born. He has lived in Hoboken since April of 2000.
He moved to Hoboken after completing his undergraduate work at UC Berkeley, his master’s at the London School of Economics, and his law degree at Tulane University.
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.
When asked what he plans to do in his first six months, he said, “We are going to decide in the next few months the areas we are going to want to focus on. We will work with Governor Murphy on transit issues. That’s very important to me. And obviously we need to keep holding the line on taxes. We’ve made great progress on open space in western Hoboken and I want to see the projects that Mayor Zimmer has started come to fruition under my administration.”
He was endorsed by Zimmer in June at a surprise press conference at which she announced she would not run again. The surprise endorsement splintered her supporters, some of whom – including council members Tiffanie Fisher and Peter Cunningham — endorsed Giattino for mayor instead. This meant that Zimmer’s base was split, providing a tough challenge for the candidates.
Bhalla ran a campaign saying he would fight hate and would stand up against Donald Trump. In a heavily Democratic county, he sent out several mailers including scary images of Trump. This may have hurt Giattino, a registered Republican who remained relatively quiet on national issues and declined to endorse a gubernatorial candidate (Bhalla publicly endorsed Murphy).
“I just feel very privileged to have the opportunity to lead Hoboken for the next four years.” – Ravi Bhalla
Bhalla’s win made national news for a number of reasons. Trump opponents saw it as one of several victories for racially diverse candidates that evening. Also, Bhalla had been subject to an anonymous attack flyer five days before the election, featuring a photo of him and a headline, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over this town.” The flyers appeared to be an attempt to fan the flames of prejudice by linking Bhalla, who wears a turban, to Muslim extremists. The Sikh and Muslim religions are two different religions, but families who observe both religions have lived peacefully in the U.S. for many decades.
The Sikh religion was founded in Northern India in the 15th century by Guru Nanak Dev Ji and is distinct from both Islam and Hinduism. Sikhs believe in one god and stress the equality of men and women. Sikhism rejects caste and class systems and emphasizes service to humanity. Turbans are worn to cover observers’ hair as a way to show respect to God.
Tuesday night, Bhalla said, “I just want to thank everyone in this room for having faith in me, having faith in our community, having faith in our state, and having faith in our country. This is what America is all about…We’ve been through a very bruising campaign, there’s been a lot of, you know, difficulties, like any Hoboken race, but now is the time we look forward, come together, and see who we can work with to bring this city forward.”
“I appreciate all of you,” he added. “This was a community effort. This was a grass roots effort. It shows what you can do with hard work in this country. You can achieve anything you want.”
He said he received calls from Freeholder Anthony Romano – who was re-elected freeholder and had come in third in the mayoral race – as well as from Giattino and DeFusco. He said they were “very gracious” and “all ran excellent campaigns.”
Karen Nason was at Bhalla’s celebration.
Of being elected, Bhalla said, “It’s very humbling. This city is a wonderful, beautiful city. Its greatest quality is its people. The people of Hoboken are great and I just feel very privileged to have the opportunity to lead Hoboken for the next four years.”
However, Bhalla may face a divided council and a divided electorate who criticized some of the Zimmer administration’s recent moves, including a proposed contract with the local water company, and what’s been seen as an overly restrictive stance on trying to set up or run a business in town.
On Bhalla’s slate, incumbent Jim Doyle, who has served on the council since 2013, led the council race with 11.26 percent of the votes, or 4,096. Doyle was followed by resident of 20 years Emily Jabbour, who got 3,958 votes. They were followed by lifelong resident Vanessa Falco from Michael DeFusco’s slate, who earned 10.63 percent of the votes, or 3,868.
Jabbour is a mother of two, as well as senior social science research analyst for the Administration for Children and Families, part of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. She founded the Hudson County Chapter for a national grassroots organization called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Jabour said she is excited and nervous to officially join the council in January. She said she believes she will spend her first six months doing a lot of listening and learning.
Falco currently works at Stevens Institute of Technology in the Stevens Technical Enrichment Program. She founded local nonprofit Discovering Other Options to raise money to allow Hoboken students to attend summer programs at college campuses.
“To me it’s a major accomplishment,” said Falco of being the first African-American elected to the council. “When I had doubts about the campaign and the process, what kept me going was to know that if I won, I would be setting a tremendous example for people in my community and representing them.”
She added that her mother, Elizabeth Falco, was an inspiration to her, the first African-American school principal in the town.
Like Jabbour, she said she will spend the first six months learning and “absorbing.”
There were 11 other candidates for council in the race. Michael Flett received 3,569 votes. John Allen received 3,564 votes. Andrew Impastato received 3,221votes. Charles “Buddy” Matthews received 2,434 votes. Former councilman Angelo Valente, who did not run on a slate, received 2,090 votes.
James Aibel received 1,971 votes, incumbent Councilman David Mello received 1,886, Jason Ellis received 1,770, Sal Starace received 1,617, Laini A. Hammond received 1,451, and independent candidate Joshua Einstein received 863.
Voters could also choose any three Board of Education trustee candidates.
Out of 22,626 votes cast, Melanie Tekirian, a mother and resident for the past 20 years, led with 17 percent of the votes, or 3,856 votes.
Sharyn Angley, who has served on the board for the past three years, got 3,826 votes and Chetali Khanna, resident of 11 years and mother of two, received 3,693 votes.
Outgoing board incumbent Peter Biancamano received 3,559 votes. Anne Marie Schreiber received 3,201 votes. Lauren Eagle received 2,437 votes. Independent candidate Patricia Waiters received 2,027.
The Hoboken Proud slate said they want to ensure that the elementary and middle schools be “urban schools of excellence” and that Hoboken High School be the number one choice for families. They said they intend to work with the administration on a plan to help address the schools’ enrollment growth and future facility needs.
Able to heal?
While Bhalla touted his experience during the campaign, he also had gotten criticism on a number of issues, including his PAC-heavy contributions and two lawsuits that were filed against the city based on actions he took while council president. In 2015, he ejected two separate public speakers from a council meeting when they started to talk about an issue involving Zimmer’s husband that had made the news. The city has already settled one of those suits at a cost of more than $50,000.
Bhalla said that he will work with all the members of the community.
“I think that it’s critical for the community as a whole to come together,” said Bhalla. “We compete in contested elections. That’s the democratic way in our country, but at the end of the day we are all neighbors …I intend to reach across the entire community to work with everyone.”
Bhalla’s opponents in the campaign were very critical of some of his moves and of the Zimmer administration in general.
Last week, they said they will still be able to work with the new mayor.
DeFusco said he hopes to work with him on issues involving the 1st Ward. These include southwest traffic, Court Street preservation, and bringing a European market to the train terminal.
“I’ve always believed in challenging ideas and collaborating together, and I remain available to anyone that wants to work for the betterment of Hoboken,” said DeFusco, who said he has already spoken with Bhalla.
But he noted that he still has concerns.
“We have a very politically connected new mayor,” he said, “who is still a partner in a law firm helmed by a former governor. Just as the City Council needs to support the new administration, [it needs to] question any contracts that come through, because we do not need outside influences impacting our governance in the same way that impacted this election.”
Bhalla said that he intends to be a full-time mayor, and “I am flattered by the compliment the councilman has given about being well-connected, and to the extent that that’s accurate, I intend to use my relationship to the benefit of Hoboken.”
DeFusco also said, “As a second-place finisher who lost with a few hundred votes, there is not a mandate by this administration. My supporters citywide are concerned that the energy, the ideas, and the collaboration that we discussed are not going to be represented. I tell everybody that I am steadfast in pushing forward with everything that we campaigned on.”
Bhalla said, “I think it is critical for a mayor to work with all council members and I look forward to a productive working relationship with Councilman DeFusco and his other colleagues on the council.”
Giattino did not return two calls last week.
Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher, who co-chaired her campaign, said she believes the council and the mayor will be able to work together.
“My experience on the council for the last two years has been of collaboration, with the exception of some of the political things leading up to the election,” said Fisher. “We work together well and we have gotten 9-0 votes most of the time. I think everyone supports the mayor’s efforts to do good within our community.”
But what about major issues the Giattino campaign raised, such as concerns with a proposed contract with the city’s water supplier, and accusations that Zimmer wasn’t concerned enough with quality of life issues?
Fisher said, “I am not supportive of accepting the Suez contract as proposed. I would want to get the information that we have asked for during the process, and I am hopeful that the new mayor will appreciate that need and provide that information.”
When asked if there is bad blood between Bhalla and Giattino, Fisher said that she did not think the two are far apart on their core beliefs, but that the Bhalla mailers implying that Giattino would not stand up to Trump were “dishonest.”
“I personally think that what Bhalla and Mayor Zimmer did to Jen was dishonest and mean,” she said. “I think she is singly the best public servant that we have on the City Council. I know that she will put Hoboken first and put this behind her in the best interest of Hoboken.”
Both Bhalla and DeFusco, an openly gay candidate, were targeted by anonymous attacks of bigotry toward the end of the election, both in comments left on The Reporter website and in anonymous flyers spread around town. By state law, candidates must include language on flyers saying which campaign is paying for them.
The flyers sent out last-minute against Bhalla are being investigated by the Hoboken Police Department. The flyers were based on old DeFusco mailing he’d made criticizing Bhalla, but somebody doctored them to include a heading, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over this town” above a photo of Bhalla. DeFusco instantly denounced the flyers and asked for an investigation into who made them.
Last week, the Police Department released video footage of two men they said may have been passing out the flyers.
Bhalla said, “It was a very disturbing flyer. It was very hurtful to myself and my family. I wanted to stay focused on the issues that we ran on, because I know that flyer doesn’t represent Hoboken. Hoboken is a very diverse, welcoming community.”
In the end, the two candidates who were subjected to the most anonymous attacks were the two who got the most votes.
However, a different type of attack flyer went to homes in Hoboken that was only somewhat anonymous; it was signed by a group calling itself Stronger Foundations, Inc. It attempted to tie DeFusco to former Mayor Peter Cammarano, who was arrested in 2009. However, many people who supported Cammarano had no idea of his questionable dealings, and saw him as a reformer. Cammarano had been allied with various reform politicians in town.
Stronger Foundations is tied to a union that endorsed Bhalla.
According to Bhalla, Stronger Foundations was created by a public works labor union that endorsed him. He said that he does not support the flyer and that it was not done on behalf of his campaign.
Social media erupts with celebration at Bhalla victory
In a year in which racism has ramped up, Twitter users around the country celebrated the election of Ravi Bhalla as Hoboken’s next mayor on Tuesday night, saying the results were a victory for diversity, as well as proof that hate doesn’t win.
One Twitter user wrote, in response to a Reporter tweet about his victory, “JERSEY IS REALLY DOING THE DAMN THING.”
Another wrote, “LOOK AT ALL THE BLACK AND BROWN POLITICIANS OUT HERE WINNING I AM SO PROUD.”
Several users also praised a local man who tweeted, in response to Bhalla’s victory, “I did not vote for him, but I hope he does a good job.” In response to this, someone wrote, “This. Please, Dems, Republicans — read this [expletive] Tweet. This is the attitude America needs to regain its sanity.”
The Hoboken race had made national news over the weekend because of the anonymous flyers trying to link Bhalla to terrorism.
On Twitter on Tuesday night, one user wrote, “this is really wonderful…especially because it shows #HateWillNeverWin”
“Just two days ago, someone posted racist flyers around town calling Mayor Bhalla a terrorist because of how he looked. Ravi responded with grace and dignity — and it’s so good to see a man of integrity like him be rewarded,” wrote another user, who was apparently taking full advantage of Twitter’s new 280-character allotment for messages.
By Friday, the Reporter’s Tweet about Bhalla’s victory, which contained two images from his celebration, had been seen by nearly 1.2 million people and retweeted more than 6,000 times. (You can follow the Reporter on Twitter at @hudson_reporter.)
Marilyn Baer can be reached at email@example.com.