“It was a true adventure,” said Dawn Zimmer about her time as Hoboken’s mayor, as she sat at a small booth in the back of the local Panera restaurant recently, sipping a chai latte, “an incredible adventure with unexpected twists and turns, and I’m extremely proud of what we’ve gotten done…it was an opportunity to really do great things for the community, and that’s what I’m really proud of.”
Zimmer was first elected to the Hoboken City Council as a 4th Ward councilwoman in 2007, and became acting mayor in 2009 after then-Mayor Peter Cammarano was arrested on corruption charges three weeks into his term. Zimmer, as council president, was elevated to the position, then won a special election later that year.
Zimmer had moved to Hoboken with family in 2002 and decided to join the political landscape after getting involved with a local parks coalition that advocated for more park space in southwest Hoboken.
Having served as the 38th mayor of Hoboken for eight years, Zimmer is proudest of making Hoboken more resilient in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, through the federal Rebuild By Design program and through resiliency parks (parks that help absorb storm runoff). The town acquired eight acres of open space during her term.
She said she also helped the town become more fiscally responsible.
“I think what I’m really proud of is just the overall trajectory that I’ve taken Hoboken in,” said Zimmer. “I came into office at a really challenging time financially. I do feel my effort has made a difference in the city. I think if you ask people if I’ve made Hoboken stronger financially and more resilient, it’s a resounding yes, and I’m proud of that.”
Life in office
Zimmer said her toughest choices were made to put the city’s “fiscal house in order,” including a complicated situation involving the sale of the city’s hospital.
Hoboken University Medical Center, formerly known as St. Mary’s Hospital, has been open for over 150 years, but nearly closed twice due to financial issues. The first time was in 2006, but the City Council voted to back $52 million in bonds to keep it open through a Municipal Hospital Authority. The hospital’s previous owners, the Sisters of Bon Secours, could no longer sufficiently fund it.
Again it faced closure in 2010 when the city’s money ran out and an outside investor was needed. Eventually, the current owners, CarePoint Health, purchased the facility.
“I would say that the process of selling the hospital was the toughest thing that I experienced as mayor,” she said. She said this was because the city had to take the hospital through the process of declaring bankruptcy.
“There was so much misunderstanding about the financial status of the hospital and people felt, understandably, that they wanted the hospital to survive and they didn’t want it to change,” Zimmer said. “My challenge was to have them understand that to sell it is to save it.”
She said what surprised her most in her role was that making positive change was hard.
“I think what did surprise me is …change is more difficult then people realize,” said Zimmer. “Change was a lot more difficult than I originally thought it would be. “
She said a prime example of this was the city’s federally-funded Rebuild By Design project, which should make the city more resilient when flooded. The city’s flooding after Hurricane Sandy in 2012 made national news.
“I worked really hard with a team to be able to win that $230 million design competition,” she said. “I just remember the day we won, thinking, ‘Wow, we won. We are going to get this project done,’ and that was really just the beginning.”
During her time in office, Zimmer said she not only witnessed instances of corruption, but worked to eradicate it from the city.
“When I first came into office, one thing that I did is, I opened up the books to the feds, and that’s how John Corea went to jail,” she said.
Corea, the ex-director of the Hoboken Parking Utility, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2012 for his involvement in the theft of $600,000 by a Toms River contractor hired to collect coins from city parking meters.
She also cited an incident in 2011 when a city employee with access to her email account secretly forwarded her emails to other officials.
She added, “Obviously, my first experience was seeing what happened with Peter Cammarano.”
Cammarano was arrested by the FBI for having accepted an illegal campaign contribution. The state Attorney General’s office led the 2009 sting, which snared dozens of Democratic politicians. Cammarano was sentenced to 24 months in prison.
Zimmer additionally cited an incident with former Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno. Zimmer said that Guadagno implied to her that the city’s Hurricane Sandy relief was contingent on Zimmer making it easier for the Rockefeller Group, a real estate developer with ties to convicted Port Authority chairman David Samson, to develop a project in northern Hoboken.
Zimmer’s allegations made national news, but Guadagno denied that she implied any quid pro quo. Ultimately, the U.S. attorney for New Jersey, Paul Fishman, issued clearance letters that said that based on the evidence “no further action is warranted.” Guadagno then ran unsuccessfully for governor.
Zimmer said that today, she stands by her feeling about what happened.
“My account of my interaction with the lieutenant governor was 100 percent accurate and corroborated by a substantial body of evidence,” said Zimmer. “In fact, the Mastro Report, commissioned by governor Christie to whitewash his actions, includes the account by [an aide] saying … ‘The mayor won’t play ball…’ I think any objective observer would understand that she was not referring to baseball.”
She said some of the ways she worked to eliminate corruption included annual ethics training for city employees as well as hiring directors based on their expertise and experience “who really worked hard to make sure that we properly managed the budget.”
When asked if, besides Guadagno, anyone allegedly tried to involve her in corruption, she said, “No. My commitment to restoring the integrity of Hoboken government was well-known throughout the New Jersey political establishment.”
Zimmer added that she feels people no longer view Hoboken government as corrupt. “Over the last eight and a half years I have worked extremely hard to change Hoboken and its reputation,” she said.
Zimmer said she had no regrets about her time in office, but wishes she was able to complete the city’s new water contract with Suez.
“With Suez, I negotiated a deal but it’s unfortunate the council didn’t vote for it,” said Zimmer. “We are spending millions. It’s not right.”
After Zimmer announced last June that she wouldn’t run again, some of her allies-turned-critics publicly blasted the deal. It has yet to be passed by the council, many of whom opposed Zimmer’s endorsed successor, Mayor Ravi Bhalla, in the November election.
“Well I think what I’m really proud of is just the overall trajectory that I’ve taken Hoboken.” – Mayor Dawn Zimmer
Decision to leave
In June 2017 Zimmer announced that she would not seek reelection and instead endorsed then-councilman Bhalla for mayor. She faced criticism from council members who said they weren’t notified until the last minute about her decision to drop out and to publicly endorse Bhalla. Some said she wanted to make sure no one could oppose the endorsement.
As a result, her supporters ended up splitting their endorsement in the mayor’s race, some behind Councilwoman Jen Giattino.
“As I am sure you can understand, decisions like this involve a gradual process, and it was not final for me until the moment I made it public,” said Zimmer. “I recognize that there has been a lot of speculation by people angry because they were not part of the decision making process, but the decision not to run was made by me in consultation with my family and announced to the public as soon as that decision became final.”
She also said she had met with Giattino and other close allies the day before the announcement. However, she said, one of them apparently leaked the information to a political website, and that stopped her from speaking to more people.
She said one reason for her leaving was that she wanted to focus on climate change. “As much as I loved it, I also loved the idea of being able to focus in on the [national] climate change issue.”
Zimmer said at the time that with the Trump administration rolling back climate change policies, she wanted to be more involved in the issue.
Regarding her endorsement of Bhalla, an attorney and council member, Zimmer said, “I felt like I had a right to choose and provide my support for who I think is best for Hoboken. I absolutely felt that it was Mayor Bhalla.”
She said she knew he would work to complete Rebuild by Design.
She said she felt better about leaving office with the city in Bhalla’s hands.
“I do feel really good that I worked hard to help Mayor Bhalla get elected,” she said. “Sometimes I thought, or just imagined, how it feels for President Obama, so I’m glad I didn’t have my sort of Trump experience. I’ll just leave it at that.”
Zimmer and her administration have faced criticism during her two terms, though, including some who stated that her circle had an “us vs them” mentality, squashing dissent or turning a cold shoulder to anyone who offered criticism.
Zimmer said she felt that generally, people understood, “We were trying to do the right thing for Hoboken. Quite frankly, I think that was more of a political strategy that people tried to implement against me, saying that I was ‘us vs. them’ when I was all about doing the right thing for Hoboken. At the end of the day, I made decisions. I led and people didn’t always like that. If they didn’t like the decision, then they came up with different ways to attack the decision.”
But some of those who made the complaint had been early Zimmer supporters such as Giattino, Giattino’s close allies, and people like former resident Scott Katz, who in a 2015 Hoboken Reporter article said he had asked the administration for help in understanding zoning issues, but they refused to help him because he wasn’t behind everything the administration did.
Residents have also said that Zimmer’s efforts to protect the city from overdevelopment sometimes went too far, making applicants for a zoning variance, and people who wanted to open new businesses in town, face tens of thousands of dollars, red tape, and continued wrangling.
The same complaints surfaced several years ago when Zimmer’s administration continued a policy of towing cars from visitors who had parked on the wrong place, sometimes stranding them overnight. It was only after regional press coverage, including on TV, that the city rethought the tactic.
Some residents questioned a recent Twitter conversation between former Councilman David Mello and former Zimmer Chief of Staff Vijay Chaudhuri, the latter of whom left the employ of the city in September to become the campaign manager for current Mayor Ravi Bhalla. When Mello, who lost his council re-election bid, recently questioned two of Bhalla’s personnel decisions with the hashtag “#Patronage,” Chaudhuri told him in two Tweets to “grow up,” saying, “Dave, grow up for once. What a pathetic and classless post.”
Zimmer was asked if this was the administration’s view of constituent questions while in office.
“That sounds like an unfair attack on Vijay,” she said. “He was always very committed to Hoboken and he always tried to work to resolve issues.” She said it was Chaudhuri’s idea to have office hours where residents could come in and chat, and to move the meetings around the city.
Of the exchange and whether it was representative of what the administrationwas really thinking of constituent questions, Vijay said, “As part of the successful Zimmer administration, I saw firsthand that every single resident of Hoboken was always represented extraordinarily well and universally treated fairly. However, as a private citizen after leaving the administration, it is my right to speak out when I see anyone with a petty, partisan, and political grudge making classless and pathetic attacks on public officials.”
Zimmer also faced criticism when the city had to settle several lawsuits with former employees – at least one for six figures — and when speakers were ejected at a council meeting two years ago for starting to speak about the mayor’s husband’s role in a Housing Authority issue.
As for her legacy, Zimmer said she hopes people will “Remember me as someone who really cared about Hoboken and someone who was committed to doing the right thing, and as someone who made a difference and made our city more resilient.”
Rumors have suggested that she may work for the state under new Gov. Phil Murphy, whom she endorsed early.
“For right now,” Zimmer said, “I am taking some time to spend with my family, and from there I’ll be figuring out my next adventure. I can tell you this: I don’t have any immediate plans and I do think there are a lot of different ways to contribute, and it doesn’t have to be in public office… It will be related to climate change. So I’ll let you know.”
She said as of now, she has no plans to leave Hoboken.
A sound-off on runoffs
Former mayor Dawn Zimmer also weighed on the City Council majority’s decision to possibly hold a future referendum for runoff elections. Zimmer and her allies, in 2012, held a referendum to eliminate costly and grueling runoff elections in the city. In the past, if a candidate failed to get more than 50 percent of the vote, an election would occur between the top two vote-getters. But last year, six candidates split the vote to the point that Bhalla, the winner, garnered less than a third of the vote.
“As elected officials,” Zimmer said, “we should be trying to promote as many people to vote as possible; I mean, that’s democracy,” adding that runoff elections often have low turnout.
“The decisions by the voters to move the election to November and eliminate the runoff in 2012 have dramatically increased voter participation,” said Zimmer. ”As elected officials, we should be encouraging voter participation, not trying to schedule elections when we know fewer voters will participate in order to get the result we want.”
Zimmer said that in 2012 council people Giattino, Cunningham, and Mello supported the elimination of runoffs and that she understands that while people can change their minds, they ought to better explain why.
“The decision to return the issue to the voters only five years later was not driven by any concerns raised by the public,” said Zimmer. “Rather it was driven by the dissatisfaction with the election results by the losing candidates and their City Council supporters.”
She added that she feels that if the referendum is on the ballot in November it will be decided by fewer voters than the 2012 referendum that eliminated runoffs.
“If the decision is made to go back to the runoff system, I think you’re unfortunately potentially heading back to a corrupt, less transparent system, because what happens between the election has a runoff is, there is all kinds of wheeling and dealing.”
She does support the “instant runoff” idea that is being considered by the state legislature. That would mean that preference votes awarded to the highest vote getters in the November election would determine a winner.
She said she hopes people will come out and voice their opinions on Hoboken’s election system and she believes that if authorized by the state, instant runoffs would be “terrific.”
She said, “You’re not coming back in six weeks when you’re already into the holiday season and shopping for Christmas.”
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.