Hoboken City Council votes to allow unions to contribute more to political campaigns

The Hoboken City Council voted to allow unions to contribute more to political campaigns in the city. Photo by Mark Koosau.

The Hoboken City Council has voted to adopt an ordinance allowing unions to contribute more to political campaigns in the city, weakening the city’s strict campaign finance laws that were implemented a decade ago.

The city’s current finance laws, which were put in by former Mayor Dawn Zimmer during her tenure, only allow political committees to contribute up to $500 to candidates rather than the state maximum of $7,200. The ordinance creates an amendment granting unions an exemption from such rules.

During the Dec. 15 City Council meeting, the ordinance had initially failed, with no majority being reached to adopt it. But outgoing Councilwoman Vanessa Falco decided to change her vote from an abstain to a yes, giving it the votes needed to be adopted.

The final vote ended with Council members Phil Cohen, Jim Doyle, Vanessa Falco, Emily Jabbour, and Michael Russo voting yes to adopt the ordinance. Council President Ruben Ramos, Council Vice President Jen Giattino and Tiffanie Fisher voted no, while Michael DeFusco had recused himself from the meeting.

Falco, who is vacating her seat to take a job at the newly created Division of Housing in the city, did not respond for comments after the meeting about why she changed her vote.

While the ordinance was adopted that night, it will not go into affect depending on how a lawsuit between DeFusco and City Clerk James Farina regarding political contributions is settled in court, according to Cohen.

According to the updated ordinance provided by Cohen, the ordinance will only go into affect if the court rules in that case that the current campaign finance laws are unconstitutional or are unenforceable.

“Leveling the playing field”

Before the vote for the second reading, supporters of the ordinance in the City Council had argued that the exemption for unions was to level the playing field.

In an email to the Hudson Reporter before the vote, Cohen and Jabbour, who introduced and sponsored the ordinance, said that the campaign finance rules “are not working and are not enforceable.”

“Hoboken’s so-called effort at ‘finance reform’ has limited the ability of unions to participate in Hoboken as they do in every other municipality in the state of New Jersey — while rewarding candidates who have ignored these limits,” they said in an email.

They then targeted DeFusco for having received more than the limit from unions during his 2019 reelection campaign, while stating that they themselves never exceeded the rules.

“If our council colleagues are fighting to preserve a regime with limits that they themselves call ‘unenforceable, one needs to question whether they are serious about campaign finance reform,” said Cohen and Jabbour in the email.

DeFusco’s campaign contributions were a source of debacle in 2019, which led to Hoboken City Clerk James Farina filing the aforementioned complaint against him that he violated the city’s finance laws. There was also another complaint filed against him by Fisher during his 2017 mayoral campaign.

Later during the day of the vote, a letter that was sent to the Hudson Reporter by Cohen from 32BJ SEIU deflected claims that unions like them were engaging “in ‘unethical’ or ‘corrupt’ behavior as it relates to campaign contributions, and suggesting that we are engaging in ‘pay-to-play’ horse-trading with certain elected officials.”

“Our union members, many of whom are out of work or have had their hours slashed during the COVID-19 pandemic, have small contributions voluntarily deducted from their weekly paychecks, which are then used to support the election of pro-working families candidates,” wrote Kevin Brown, the New Jersey State Director and Executive Vice President of SEIU 32BJ.

“This is not ‘special interest’ money, as some may insinuate, but rather dollars coming from the pockets of those who are valued members of the Hoboken and surrounding community,” continued Brown.

“Let’s fix the problem”

A few of the council members had opposed the ordinance, saying that it would erode a number of good government initiatives in the Mile Square City.

“Just because one person breached the law, we’re just going to throw the baby out with the bathwater and we’re just going to give in, is just mind boggling,” said Fisher as she opposed the ordinance during the meeting.

Fisher also said that they are going to vote on labor union contracts, and voiced concerns that those contracts would be tied to how much they donate to the mayor.

‘Just think about that, right? Those two groups are sitting around the table right now, negotiating and part of the negotiation is the union’s ability to make political campaign donations,” she said. “That’s a huge conflict of interest.”

Giattinao, who also opposed it, said that instead of jettisoning the finance laws, they should fix the problem of the law’s enforcement.

“It’s just crazy to me,” she said. “If it’s the future, you guys want to see, so be it, but it’s not what I signed up for. It’s so disappointing.”

Much of the public who called into the meeting also expressed their opposition to the ordinance.

“It’s not about leveling the playing field,” said Cheryl Fallick, a former candidate for the City Council who unsuccessfully ran this year. “I think the citizenry wants the playing field level, and seeing massive amounts of money coming in from a PAC is not leveling the playing field.”

She also warned the council of an ordinance like this potentially allowing pro-development money flowing into future elections.

“The council members who vote yes are saying once again, in some cases, how pro-development they really are,” said Fallick. “And for those candidates that pretend they’re not necessarily pro-development, they are showing their hypocrisy.”

Michael Evers, another resident that called in, said that the ordinance would reintroduce conditions of corruption in the city.

“Why create occasions for sin or corruption if they are not necessary, and frankly, nobody needs contributions that large to run in a municipal election in a city with 55,000 people,” he said.

For updates on this and other stories, check www.hudsonreporter.com and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Mark Koosau can be reached at mkoosau@hudsonreporter.com or his Twitter @snivyTsutarja.