Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Evolution of Reform: The Next Wave

by Gregory Bond
Public School No. 6 at Willow and 11th Streets c. 1907- 1914 (credit: Hoboken Historical Museum)

As someone who's assisted reform slates in every school board and city election since 2009, I've occasionally thought about a future where we'd get past the stark "good versus evil" state of Hoboken politics to arrive at a more nuanced, normal state of political affairs. When I describe Hoboken's bloody knuckle political scene to friends from the Jersey suburbs, they're amazed. They're amazed that millions of dollars were pillaged from the public schools, that the current mayor's private emails were wiretapped, that a sitting councilman agreed to accept a bribe from an FBI informant, that two of our recent mayors (Russo and Cammarano) were jailed for corruption, and that's just a small sample off the top of my head.

The Long Path to Reform

But you see, this corrupt state of affairs has a very long history in Hudson County, as recounted in the excellent books Five-Finger Discount and Killing the Poormaster. Until recently it was understood that whoever won a majority would loot the taxpayers to reward friends, family and business partners. And this is how Hoboken operated until 2009 when a majority of reformers were elected to the Public School Board, and a reform mayor was elected to City Hall.  At the city level, the path to reform has been rocky. Since 2009, Mayor Zimmer has only had majority support in City Council for two years: between November 2009 and November 2010 when Michael Lenz served as interim Fourth Ward Councilman, and since November 2013 when James Doyle was elected Councilman-at-Large. In contrast, the Kids First reform slate have maintained a majority on the Hoboken School Board since 2009 and not surprisingly, they have accomplished a lot. So much so, that I think we may be on the cusp of a long-awaited change in Hoboken's political climate.

How Corruption Survives

As I've written about elsewhere, Hoboken started to actively encourage gentrification in the mid-80s aiming to refill nearly empty coffers. On the one hand, there was resentment directed towards the "newcomers" that came to occupy the new developments. On the other hand, the money started flowing again. Moreover, the newcomers were, generally-speaking, politically ignorant.

Today's Hoboken is famous as a temporary home to 25-35 year old young professionals, renting shares, getting their careers on-track, partying, meeting life partners, and then moving to the suburbs a few years later to settle down and have families. I can tell you that, as someone who's accompanied candidates door-to-door canvassing over the years, I've been through big rental buildings where virtually no one is registered to vote nor interested in registering to vote. Local politics just isn't on their radar. Hoboken is only a temporary stop on the road of life. And this suited the corrupt powers-that-be perfectly.

Over the years local voting blocs were created and exploited by Hoboken's old established political factions. Some of these blocs still exist, primarily in the city's assisted housing developments and in the Third and Fourth Wards, parts of the city that haven't yet been overrun with new developments. Although these blocs get smaller each year as long-time residents sell and move out, retire to somewhere more affordable, or simply die, they've been a force to reckon with given the relative apathy of the vast majority of Hoboken's population. 

When they're not squabbling amongst themselves and join forces, these blocs can win elections that disrupt and even set back reform. Some examples: in 2010 Tim Occhipinti was elected Fourth Ward Councilman with an unprecedented number of vote-by-mail submissions from paid "campaign workers." In 2011, Michael Russo, fresh from being exposed for agreeing to accept a bribe from an FBI informant, was re-elected Third Ward Councilman. That same year, in a record-low voter turnout, three school board seats were lost to Peter Biancamano, Francis Rhodes-Kearns, and Carmelo Garcia - individuals I shall return to shortly who, needless to say, are no friends of reform.

Plundering The Schools

On the topic of voter apathy, I hope you know that there's an election November 4th. And, along with the inauguration of Cory Booker, which isn't generating much voter interest, there are also three positions up for election on the nine seat Hoboken Public School Board, which should be generating voter interest. Why? Because historically, the school board has served as a big fat loot bag to be plundered and, despite a reform majority since 2009, there are still a lot of people with their eyes on the prize. What might they do if they get their hands on it? We only have to look back to the 2004-06 budget years for a graphic example. When the Kids First reform slate gained a majority in 2009 one of the first things they discovered was a 297 page KPMG audit of the 2004-06 budgets that had been buried by the non-reform majority at the time.

Here are a few of the many KPMG audit "lowlights." Over 1,000 improperly documented employees on payroll, including employees on payroll after termination and even after death. Outsourcing janitorial services while simultaneously retaining 60 janitors on payroll.  Almost $2 million in unapproved vendor overpayments. Expense-paid junkets to Atlantic City for board members and their friends. Tens of thousands of dollars spent on lavish steak dinners, floral arrangements, and "beverages." Even dipping into student-raised funds for non-student expenses. No wonder the audit was hidden. And who were members of the Board majority overseeing all of this? Frank Raia, Francis Rhodes-Kearns (currently running for re-election to the board), and Carmelo Garcia. For those who aren't familiar with Hoboken's political landscape, it's helpful to get to know Frank Raia and Carmelo Garcia a little better because they loom large in this year's School Board election.

Raia, Garcia and Their School Board

Frank "Pupie" Raia is a wealthy local real estate developer, born and raised in Hoboken. You may know him from the lavish public birthday parties he throws for himself every summer in Hoboken's parks. Not only has Raia served on the School Board, but he's also run for Mayor and City Council on numerous occasions.  And when he's not running for office he's helping others run, including School Board slates, most notably in 2011 when Carmelo Garcia, Francis Rhodes-Kearns and Peter Biancamano swept the School Board elections. Raia knows how to leverage his wealth to mobilize voting blocs and this year he's supporting Rhodes-Kearns and Biancamano again. 

Frank Raia (credit: nj.com)


Carmelo Garcia, also Hoboken born and raised, is a career politician, holding positions at the School Board, City, County, and now at the State level as a newly elected Assemblyman. Until recently Garcia was also Executive Director of the Hoboken Housing Authority (HHA), a position he was selected for in 2009. The HHA manages over 1,300 low income housing units across six locations in Hoboken and, historically, Garcia has garnered significant numbers of votes from these blocs, not just for himself but also for candidates he chooses to back. Like Frank Raia, Garcia is also supporting a School Board slate this year consisting of three of his loyal supporters: Brian Murray, Lynn Danzker, and Patricia Waiters.

Carmelo Garcia (credit: nj.com)


I've already mentioned Garcia and Raia's time on the School Board, the same time millions of tax dollars were diverted away from students and classrooms. Why was this happening? 

Raia, a successful businessman, certainly didn't need anyone to pay for his steak dinners. But perhaps it's nothing more than good business sense: why spend your own money when you can spend someone else's? As a real-estate developer, Raia's business partners range from law firms to building contractors, all of whom would appreciate business coming their way. He also has plenty of friends who would appreciate well-paying jobs with benefits. Some notable examples: Hoboken Superintendent of Schools from 2007-2009 Jack Raslowsky, Hoboken Assistant to the Superintendent of Schools from 2007-2009 Anthony Petrosino, School Board Secretary from 2005-2010 David Anthony. All are good friends of Raia's (Raslowsky and Petrosino are boyhood friends, and Anthony was a business partner), all were hired when Raia sat on the school board, and all were provided with excessively generous compensation and benefits. So much so that the Kids First reform majority discovered that both Petrosino's and Anthony's contracts were found to flout State contract laws and guidelines.

The icing on the cake is that both Petrosino and Anthony maintained full-time jobs during their employment with the School Board. Incredibly, court transcripts reveal that Petrosino, during his tenure with the School Board, was also employed by the University of Texas in Austin, rented an apartment in Austin, and had a Texas drivers license. (Interesting side note: Raia and Petrosino are now Board members for a local charter school whose annual budgets and audits are mostly missing from their website.) 

As for Garcia, favors are the currency of politicians, and the School Board provides plenty of opportunities for doling them out. In 2006 Garcia was found guilty of violating the New Jersey School Ethics Act for voting to award a job to his brother, and another job to his boss at the time, former Hudson County Freeholder Maurice Fitzgibbons. More recently, Garcia was fired from his position as Executive Director of the Hoboken Housing Authority for, you guessed it, lax oversight of the HHA's multi-million dollar budget. A preliminary audit ordered by the recently appointed HHA board reform majority has found, among other things, $3 million of “unjustified non-competitive procurement.” A full audit has yet to be completed.

Despite not holding a School Board majority since 2009, Garcia and Raia still hold out hope that if they persevere, especially in the face of voter apathy, they will eventually regain control of the Board and its budget. This isn't a pipe dream. They swept the Board election in 2011 when only 4,000 people cast votes out of roughly 36,000 eligible voters. They're politically astute and know that this year's election has the hallmarks of a low turnout, winnable election. Now let's take a brief look at their slates and what might be motivating them to run. 

Garcia's Volatile Slate: Murray, Waiters, Danzker

Garcia's slate, consisting of Brian Murray, Patricia Waiters and Lynn Danzker, would explode were it not for Garcia working hard to keep it together. After all, how can Lynne Danzker, who was recently awarded a "Jewish American Heritage Award" by none other than Assemblyman Garcia, be running-mates with Garcia's former paid aide, Patricia Waiters, who made what were considered anti-semetic remarks at an HHA meeting earlier this year, and then recently retracted a public apology for those remarks?

Apart from reprehensible rants at public meetings, Waiters is known as a Hoboken fixture who regularly runs for positions on City Council and the School Board, and speaks frequently at public meetings. And over the past year, the relationship between Garcia and Waiters has been close, as Waiters repeatedly spoke in defense of Garcia at HHA meetings. Waiters' voting base has grown over the years, so one can only assume that Garcia, hoping to garner support from Waiters' base, has instructed Murray and Danzker to ignore Waiters' assertions that there are too many Jews in real-estate and too many Jews appointed to City boards.

Upon receiving her Jewish Heritage Award from Garcia, Danzker stated how proud she was of her religion and her heritage. It boggles the mind how she's managed to rationalize running with Waiters. Danzker and Garcia's kids attend the same charter school that, incidentally, Garcia's wife also works at. And, while Danzker does not have kids in Hoboken's public schools she's known on the Hoboken Moms discussion board for launching multi-font, personal attacks on School Board members, and for consistently misrepresenting the financial relationship between public and charter schools.

Murray is a local real-estate agent whose business relies on convincing people to move "To the 'Burbs." Not surprisingly, Murray's many speeches focus on scaring parents away from Hoboken by way of citing flawed statistics on violence in Hoboken's public schools. Parents whose children attend Hoboken's schools, including me, say that the schools Murray describes bear no resemblance to the schools their children attend. As for Murray's relationship to Garcia, this summer Murray was spotted in an unruly crowd at City Hall cheering in support of Garcia as Garcia faced ejection from his position at the HHA. Why would Murray choose to publicly support Garcia, especially at the risk of sullying his business reputation? Perhaps the two are simply friends? Or perhaps there's a mutually beneficial relationship based on shared real-estate interests? Before his ouster from the HHA, Garcia initiated a controversial multi-million dollar real-estate development plan, dubbed Vision 2020, to "create a mixed-income sustainable community" in place of existing HHA properties.

Raia's Old School Slate: Biancamano, Rhodes-Kearns

Raia's slate, consisting of School Board incumbents Peter Biancamano and Frances Rhodes-Kearns, is old school compared to Garcia's.  Rhodes-Kearns is a nine year veteran of the School Soard, elected long before the Kids First reform majority took control and cleaned things up. In fact, Rhodes-Kearns was the sole Board signator for the aforementioned, absurdly generous, legally questionable, contracts of Anthony Petrosino and David Anthony. Rhodes-Kearns also has a relationship to disgraced, indicted ex-mayor Peter Cammarano: she was a member of his election slate in 2009.

As for Biancamano, he's been groomed for politics by Raia since Biancamano first ran for School Board in 2011. That year, Raia chaperoned Biancamano everywhere on the campaign trail. And last year Raia and Biancamano were running-mates for City Council. Raia funded that campaign to the tune of $122,000 out of his own pocket. Biancamano is often heard complaining about how much the School Board spends on legal representation, despite the fact that without representation the Board would lose legal battles launched by the likes of Anthony Petrosino. But, as I expect Raia has explained to him, Biancamano surely understands that this is precisely the point.


Underscoring the old school roots of Raia's slate are recent Facebook notes of support from none other than Michael Russo and Michele Russo. Michele Russo, matriarch of the Russo clan, possesses her very own list of unscrupulous dealings, just like her indicted ex-Mayor husband Anthony, and her bribe-agreeable Councilman son Michael. Now that's support that only money can buy.

Parents for Progress

Standing in stark contrast to Raia's and Garcia's slates is the Parents for Progress slate consisting of Monica Stromwall, Sharyn Angley, and Antonio Gray. All three are parents with kids in Hoboken's public schools. Stromwall was unanimously appointed to the School Board at the beginning of the year when Garcia was forced to leave the Board after winning his Assembly seat.

The Parents for Progress slate claim their interest in running for election is simply to ensure that the schools continue to improve. They've got skin in the game and they care. Having spoken briefly with the candidates I was struck by their honesty and integrity. However, I also discovered that they had no knowledge of the School Board's history of corruption. They had no idea of how hard reformers originally fought to get elected to the board, and the significance of Kids First taking a majority in 2009. They had no idea how much the schools have been cleaned up since then, how much money taxpayers have saved despite massive state cutbacks, and how much money has been directed back to school classrooms and students. 

The Next Wave

By their own admission, Stromwall, Angley and Gray are not affiliated with reform, and they most certainly aren't affiliated with any of Hoboken's corruptocrats. Instead, these three represent what I think is the next wave in Hoboken politics, the one I've sometimes daydreamed might finally come to pass. 

Like Hoboken's reformers, Parents for Progress want to make a difference in this city. They like Hoboken and they want to raise families here, not flee "To the 'Burbs" as Brian Murray urges them to do. Unlike the corruptocrats, they don't expect favors or payback but, unlike reformers, they're unaware of Hoboken's recent "good versus evil" political history. Why? Because in just a few years reformers have managed to fix things up enough that more people are choosing to stay in Hoboken longer, and corruption is beginning to fade into the past.


Choosing to stay longer has positive results for Hoboken. Families and property owners pay attention to schools, parks, and taxes and inevitably, they become politically engaged, initially as voters but sometimes even volunteering to serve their community, just as Stromwall, Angley and Gray have. This is why Hoboken's formerly disengaged electorate is beginning to take notice and start participating. And this is what it's going to take to eliminate, once and for all, the long-standing tradition of looting Hoboken's school and city coffers.

While the appearance of the Parents for Progress slate is a positive sign for Hoboken politics, I am concerned that this election will be a particularly harsh one for these political neophytes. Not only is this election guaranteed to have a low turnout, Parents for Progress is being out-campaigned by Garcia's ticket and, naturally, Raia's ticket need not rely on campaigning as they are assured of votes via other, tried and true, methods. (Word on the street is that votes are being bought for $35 this election - a little lower than usual.) So perhaps Parents for Progress will win or perhaps they will lose, but I am willing to bet that we will see more slates like Parents for Progress in School Board and City elections in the years to come. 

Hoboken's demographics keep changing. The ranks of the public schools continue to swell and, while parents still leave Hoboken for the suburbs, it's clear more are choosing to stay every year. It's well known that schools are an important factor in choosing a place to raise a family, so continuing to improve the public schools is fundamental to Hoboken's future success. For this reason be sure to vote Angley, Stromwall and Gray: 2, 3, 5 for Hoboken Board of Education on November 4th. 


Word from GA:Thank you, Greg!   Greg's blogs are What's up with Hoboken and Yo Gregory!  Watch the Issues . He is the creative force behind numerous original videos- check them out on Yo Gregory!   

2 comments:

  1. Excellent overview, Greg. Spot on, thank you. Hopefully people will read and pay attention, the good work done by Kid's First can be reversed in short measure.

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  2. 2-3-5
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