There are several major differences among the three candidates running to become mayor of Hoboken in the Nov. 5 election. Assemblyman Ruben Ramos Jr. has lived in Hoboken his entire life, while 4th Ward Councilman Tim Occhipinti moved here 10 years ago and incumbent Mayor Dawn Zimmer moved here in 2002. They differ on how to address the parking crunch, whether to change the city’s rent control laws, and even on which day of the week to hold the city’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
In interviews and debates, each has spoken about the need to unite all Hoboken residents toward a common goal, but they agree on little else.
In mile-square Hoboken, the mayor controls the $104 million budget and earns about $116,000 per year. With millions of dollars in contracts and development deals in the balance, being mayor of one of America’s most popular cities for young people is obviously a powerful position.
What follows are profiles of the three candidates, as well as their differing positions on parking, flooding, development, and other issues.
Who are these people?
Ramos, a teacher in the Paterson School District, was born in Hoboken and was elected the youngest member of the City Council ever on a ticket with former Mayor David Roberts in 2001. He is 39 years old.
In 2007, he ran for a seat in the state Assembly on a ticket with state Senator Brian Stack, and won. He isn’t seeking reelection, because of his focus on his mayoral campaign, but still teaches.
During his time on the council, Ramos fought a successful battle against Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and is married with three children.
As an assemblyman, Ramos worked primarily on green infrastructure legislation, and served as the chairman of the Committee on Regulatory Oversight and Gaming, as well as on the Joint Committee on Public Schools.
Zimmer, 45, who is married with two sons, moved to Hoboken in 2002 and got involved in local politics via a battle to preserve park space in the 4th Ward. She served on the council (filling the seat Ramos vacated) but lost a mayoral race to Mayor Peter Cammarano in 2009. Zimmer had the last laugh when Cammarano was arrested for corruption three weeks into his term, and she easily won a runoff election. In doing so, she became Hudson County’s first female and Hoboken’s first Jewish mayor.
Before that, Zimmer worked at a public relations firm in New York City and spent time traveling through Asia, where she taught English for several years.
Flooding, parking, and the St. Patrick’s Parade: Where does your candidate stand?
Occhipinti, who completes the trifecta of former or current 4th Ward council members in this race, moved to Hoboken in the mid-2000s. Occhipinti, 36, grew up in Stony Point, N.Y., and graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in government. He worked at a commodities firm in Manhattan until he recently quit his job to focus on the campaign.
He has represented the 4th Ward since 2010, when he beat a close Zimmer ally in a tight race for the seat. The founder of the non-profit group Hoboken Volunteers, Occhipinti says his upbringing has inspired him towards serving the people. He has had relatives who fought in nearly every American war, and is a Son of the American Revolution.
On the council, Occhipinti cites accomplishments related to residents’ quality of life, including repaved streets, renovated playgrounds, the installation of several stop signs, and a new traffic light.
Solving the flooding issue
Each candidate has built a platform around the idea of installing three wet weather pumps along the Hudson riverfront to alleviate Hoboken’s ever-present flooding issue. A separate pump was installed after Hurricane Irene, but its effectiveness is limited without others to complement it. The pumps spring into action when rainstorms during high tide back up sewers throughout the city.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, Zimmer applied for a flurry of state and national grants that would lead to funding for the pumps, though the city has yet to hear back about those loans. In May, she took out a $9 million low-interest loan to install a pump designed by the North Hudson Sewerage Authority at 11th Street and the river, in an effort to mitigate flooding uptown.
Zimmer has touted her role leading the city through the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and said in interviews last week that while the pumps are an absolute necessity, they shouldn’t necessarily be the only part of a plan to deal with flooding in this low-lying city.
“We don’t want to have to use the pumps every time it rains, because we don’t want to always have to pump sewage into the Hudson River,” she said. “This is why we should be looking at installing rainwater detention basins under any new parks.”
The detention basins are one aspect of what Zimmer has called a “comprehensive” strategy to stop flooding. She also wants to add barrier systems at the north and south end of town and create more “green” infrastructure to absorb the flooding.
Ramos also has spoken about the three pumps. Additionally, he has focused on the creation of green infrastructure to absorb and divert excess rain, and pointed toward bills that incentivize green construction projects he’s sponsored and supported in Trenton. Indeed, the city’s first flood pump, which was installed after Hurricane Irene, was in part a result of funding Ramos secured in the state legislature.
Ramos talked about solving the flooding problems by strengthening the city’s infrastructure.
“Everyone knows we’ve got a bit of a gravity problem here,” he said, referring to the smattering of sinkholes that gripped the city earlier this year. “We think we can work to identify where our pipes and underground infrastructure are weakest, go down, and replace them with pipes that can handle more pressure.”
He also claimed that there were some missed opportunities after Sandy that the city still hasn’t acted on.
“Protecting our electrical substations would have been a place to start. It’s going to take time to get the pumps, fine, but we should build walls around our substations now,” he said. “That’s low-hanging fruit; it could have been done already. This way we’ll have power back in a few hours, rather than a few weeks.”
Occhipinti, for his part, doesn’t think any Hoboken resident should have to wait for the pumps. His plan advocates immediate bonding measures to secure funding for the pumps’ creation. His plan has been endorsed by his running mate, Frank Raia, who currently serves as the Chairman of the North Hudson Sewerage Authority.
Occhipinti also said he’ll support a 3-1-1-esque program so residents can send in photos of flooding or other damage in their neighborhoods to alert the city in an expedient manner.
Parking has always been a hot button issue in Hoboken, more so since the city announced in 2011 that it would increase its enforcement of permitting rules and other regulations. Later that year, FOX News reported that the city had pulled in $1.32 million more than it had projected from parking tickets that year.
Some have complained that the city takes in too much money by ticketing shoppers as well as out-of-town visitors.
One of the owners of Hoboken’s legendary Maxwell’s bar and rock club said earlier this year said its widely-publicized closing was partly because of visitors having difficulty finding parking, and getting booted when they did.
Ramos and Occhipinti have said Zimmer should reform or address the parking situation to help small businesses, rather than ticketing so many customers.
Some parkers have been especially confused by the signage in town that says visitors can only park for four hours without a permit. The signs don’t clarify that the limit applies to a person’s total stay in town, even if someone moves his or her car to a different spot.
FOX parked its own news van in a spot in Hoboken for a short time, left for a few hours, came back, and was ticketed quickly by a parking utility worker who thought they were there for more than four hours.
After FOX ran its investigative report in late 2011, citing confusing signage and related matters, City Council President Peter Cunningham, a Zimmer ally, wrote in a letter to his constituents that the signs would be revised. Yet, in the two years since then, no changes have been made.
When asked about this last week, Zimmer said new signs could be worked into next year’s budget.
She also argued that parking has always been a problem in Hoboken.
“My opponents always saying how dead Hoboken is and how no one comes here anymore, and it sort of reminds me of Yogi Berra saying ‘Oh no one comes here anymore because it’s so crowded,’” she joked. “If things were so terrible, we’d have parking everywhere.”
She acknowledged the need for new codes and less-confusing signage. She also expressed interest during the summer in building new garages, possibly on a 1-acre piece of land in northwestern Hoboken that the city acquired in a successful lawsuit last month. The property, on Eleventh Street between Monroe Street and Madison Street, could replace the Park on Park garage that was torn down earlier this year.
She also said she had proposed changes to the parking section of the city’s master plan this year, but they were voted down by the council.
Zimmer has said before that the Parking Utility is working with computer engineering students at Stevens Institute of Technology on an app that might help residents find open spaces, though the study is in its earliest stages.
Ramos believes that the answer to parking lies in the creation of parking garages through public/private partnerships with local property owners. These garages, which would be at the north and south ends of town, would then include shuttle buses that could bring people from their cars to Washington Street and back. Zimmer’s plan includes similar buses.
Ramos says he wants to boost the local economy by working with property owners, rather than having to acquire land for the city which could be more costly and take longer to get one.
“When you reach out to a business owner and say, ‘Let’s form a public/private partnership,’ then that’s what it feels like to them, rather than some sort of dictation, and they’re more likely to be interested in joining you,” he said.
Occhipinti says that there’s no need for such partnerships, that the land exists, and it’s on every single parking lot the city already owns.
“The city’s master plan says that there should be no base level parking lots anywhere in Hoboken,” he said. “So we’re going to build garages on top of all of them.”
A 25-space lot on the corner of Second Street and Willow Avenue is one possible example, he said.
“We can build four stories on that lot, have 80 spaces or more, and give residents decent monthly rates, and that will create more space around town for visitors,” he said.
How to build, where to build
In crowded Hoboken, all the candidates agree that developers of any new projects should agree to significant givebacks to the community. But they differ on specifics.
Zimmer has spoken out against overdevelopment throughout her first term, especially when it comes to major projects like the Hoboken Rail Yard. NJ Transit was hoping at one time to build a 70-story commercial tower on the city’s southern border, though the project has changed significantly since then.
“It’s going to be a balancing act because we want to make sure that any development that we do doesn’t burden the infrastructure,” she said. “We don’t want to overcrowd our city either. Future redevelopment needs to build on the character of our city, not destroy it.”
As such, she’s asked the designers working with NJ Transit to scale down the Rail Yard project from 3 million square feet to 2 million, and to shorten the height of several of the buildings.
Ramos looks at development holistically, and said he believes it’s in an issue tied to both the city’s flooding problem and its infrastructure issues. While advocating the same type of smart development as his opponents, Ramos has also argued for incentivizing developers to focus on eco-friendly projects.
During his time in the Assembly, he’s sponsored three such bills: one which mandated that new affordable housing units be built according to green codes, another which offered low-interest loans to developers who promise to build LEED-certified buildings, and a third which offers tax breaks to builders who do the same.
Occhipinti talked about the possibilities of having developers in town fund open space projects in return for being allowed to build residential neighborhoods.
“We need to hold developers accountable for any projects that they envision with public givebacks, which the city has a history of issues with,” he said. “Development is a tool that when used properly will advance cities, and when used poorly has detrimental effects.”
To control or decontrol?
In a Hudson Reporter debate among the three candidates that was taped earlier this month, they answered questions about the upcoming rent control referendum, political corruption, and how to help the city’s small businesses. It can be viewed online at www.hudsonreporter.com.
In the debate, the candidates revealed that they are divided on how residents should vote on a public question regarding changes in the city’s rent control laws. A yes vote would remove rent control from buildings with four units of housing or fewer when a current tenant moves out, and add a one-time decontrol for buildings with five or more units, while a no vote would maintain rent control laws as they are currently written.
Zimmer said that she supported voting down the measure, as she did last year when it first appeared on the ballot. She said that she believed a better solution than the current referendum can be found, mainly because she believes it was written by developers, as opposed to an unbiased third party.
Occhipinti said that he supports the decontrol measure, but noted that his administration would hold a zero-tolerance policy towards landlords accused of intimidating or harassing tenants in an effort to force them out.
Ramos said the measure should not be on the ballot. He placed the blame on the Zimmer administration, saying better governing could have found a compromise between tenants and landlords long before a referendum was necessary.
The St. Paddy’s Day conundrum
The Hoboken’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a nearly century-old Hoboken tradition, has been thrust into the political sphere this election cycle, mainly because Occhipinti has made an effort to attract young voters by promising to bring it back.
The parade has been cancelled the last two years after the independent Parade Committee and Zimmer couldn’t come to an agreement on which day of the week it should be held. Traditionally held on a Saturday, the parade became a party destination for young people around the tri-state area, who Zimmer said last week “came to Hoboken on a mission to destroy our city.”
Zimmer wanted to move it to a Wednesday evening, but the committee balked. Neither side was able to compromise with the other.
“As much as I love the tradition of the parade, it's not fair to Hoboken residents to put everyone through that, to allow this ‘Let’s destroy Hoboken,’ attitude,” she said, adding that the last year it took place, someone hurled a flower pot from a tenth floor window that almost killed a firefighter. “But bringing it back on a weekday could be great.”
Occhipinti would like to see the parade return. He has suggested moving the event to the riverfront, where a cordoned off area could be reserved for drinking and the entire community could still enjoy the event.
“There’s no reason that this can’t be an event enjoyed by all in a safe environment,” he said, noting that the parade’s replacement, Leprecon, involves no civic engagement.
Ramos said he thought holding it on a Sunday might be the best option.
Don’t forget to vote!
In addition to the mayoral election, Hoboken voters will have the option of selecting three at-Large city council members, three members of the Board of Education, deciding on the future of rent control in Hoboken, and voting on a statewide referendum to raise the minimum wage.
Polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Nov. 5.
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Candidates face the toughest questions
No one gets off the hook in Hoboken politics. While each candidate may accuse the other of dirty tricks, they all have major criticisms to answer for – and The Reporter asked the tough questions last week.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer, since she is the incumbent and identifies with the “reform” movement, must answer the most questions about her record and about whether she has lived up to the ethical standards she has touted when running for office.
For example, she’s faced questions about cronyism, and whether she has fallen into the same patterns as some of her more troubled predecessors.
Five former employees have filed wrongful termination lawsuits against the city – and they haven’t only been people from former administrations. One of the workers the city terminated is Jennifer Maier, the former Director of Environmental Services, whom Zimmer had hired from out of town based on her resume. Two of the other officials worked in communications for the city and seemed to have been replaced by two people involved with political campaigns, who currently handle Zimmer’s public information.
Those two spokespeople, city spokesman Juan Melli and mayoral aide Dan Bryan, also received significant salary hikes from Zimmer in the summer of 2010, during the same week the city laid off nine police officers. At the time, Zimmer said that Melli had agreed to start at a lower salary which was later brought up to $75,000, while Bryan’s salary jumped from $35,000 to $46,100. Zimmer said both were promised a salary bump when they were hired.
Pressed last week to discuss how she justified firing the officers – who have a starting salary of $33,000 – while giving raises to her aides, Zimmer said that she couldn’t discuss personnel matters.
She did praise Melli and Bryan.
“If you look at the work that Juan’s done, he’s expanded communications, and people across the board think he’s done a great job, so to say that he’s just my crony and that he hasn’t had an extraordinary role is ridiculous,” she said. “Dan as well has done tremendous work.”
Zimmer also addressed her position on the leaking of city information. During the summer, the mayor stood before a judge in Newark and advocated a stiff prison sentence for Patrick Ricciardi, the former Information Technology official in City Hall who was convicted of leaking Zimmer’s private emails.
However, near the beginning of Zimmer’s term, a terminated city worker claimed in his lawsuit against the city that on the very day of his termination, someone who must have had inside information about the termination date mockingly posted his Social Security number on the internet in a taunting post.
Last year, when Melli was asked if the matter was being investigated, he simply said he didn’t know and noted that the case had been settled.
Zimmer was asked last week if the city would investigate to determine who might have had inside knowledge of Zimmer’s personnel decisions and might post an employee’s personal information on the web the day he was terminated.
“I’m absolutely concerned about leaked Social Security number, and we want to do everything we can to make sure information is protected,” Zimmer said. She would not say if the matter was being investigated.
“I can’t get into talking about legal cases, but my approach is to hold people accountable for their actions,” she said.
Zimmer also spoke about her opinions on the role of political blogs in Hoboken, namely two blogs that heavily support her and heavily criticize her enemies, often with personal attacks. Zimmer’s opponents have accused her of supporting bloggers Nancy Pincus and Roman Brice. Pincus is a Zimmer-allied member of Hoboken’s Zoning Board.
Pincus and Brice are among the defendants in a defamation lawsuit brought by a Hoboken couple who was a heavy supporter of Zimmer’s opponents. The suit cites several blog posts and web comments that made unproven allegations against the couple, and notes that someone using Pincus’ web handle authored posts urging people to call child services about the couple’s young child.
While Zimmer maintained that she does not pay the bloggers or tell them what to write, she said she thinks their rhetoric can go overboard.
“I do think it should be dialed down,” she said, adding, “I feel like there’s this assumption that I pay them or tell them what to write, and that’s just not true.”
But she said they are not the only attack sites in town, noting that another website, Hoboken411, once compared her to a chimpanzee.
“[Pincus and Brice] are not ‘Zimmer bloggers,’” she said. “They support me and things I’ve been doing, and they blog, but the nastiness is coming from all sides.”
Asked if she thought Pincus, who sits on the city’s Zoning Board, could make an impartial judgment if a political opponent applied for a variance or work permit, the mayor said she did.
The mayor was also asked to respond to one of the crazier accusations often made by her opponents, that her husband, Stan Grossbard, is a “shadow mayor” and that Zimmer is his puppet. Zimmer said she thought those who made the claims are sexist, a position Grossbard has also taken.
“I have a husband who’s extremely supportive and I feel lucky to have an amazing marriage, and that’s it,” she said. “I feel like it’s kind of sexist, but there’s always going to be nasty accusations, and that’s one of them.”
To that and other more outlandish allegations, Zimmer, who is an avid athlete, compared her response to swimming.
“My philosophy is to let it flow over me,” she said. “It’s like I’m swimming; the water flows over my shoulders and I keep moving to the finish line.”
Criticism against Ramos and Occhipinti
Zimmer has accused her opponent, Assemblyman Ruben Ramos, who made many friends during his time working in Trenton, of being beholden to outside political machines and running his campaign on donations from corporations outside of Hoboken.
Many of Ramos’ donations have indeed come from non-Hoboken residents, as well as companies from as far away as California. But he said that it's nothing to be ashamed of, and in fact that the relationships he’s made during his time in the legislature would benefit Hoboken in the long run.
“I’m proud of those relationships,” he said recently.
In an interview this week, he said his opponents were “grasping at straws.”
“It is what it is,” he said. “Opponents are always going to throw daggers. We roll with the punches and we’re proud of every dollar we’ve got. Everything’s been reported correctly and we’re not hiding anything.”
Ramos has gone on the offensive as well, accusing Zimmer of running a “government by press release” and calling Occhipinti “the Councilman of No.” Zimmer didn’t respond to the claim, but Occhipinti suggested that the improvements he’s made in the 4th Ward, such as repaved streets and new playground equipment, say otherwise.
Still, Occhipinti has other issues to answer for. He is the only candidate who has faced an investigation into voter fraud practices – although the investigation is three years old and there have been no public updates.
The issue stemmed from his 2010 council race against Zimmer ally Michael Lenz, who accused Occhipinti paying for votes by hijacking the vote-by-mail system. Occhipinti submitted 399 mail-in ballots and paid 575 campaign workers on Election Day, even though only a little over 2,000 people voted in the election.
At the time, the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office referred the case to the New Jersey Attorney General.
Last week, the Attorney General’s office did not respond by press time to an inquiry about the status of the case.
Occhipinti said he did nothing illegal when he ran for council in 2010, arguing that vote-by-mail is becoming a more legitimate way to vote.
“These are the same accusations and hearsay that are being leveled against people across the country,” he said, noting that the entire state of Oregon now votes by mail. “The fact is that voting by mail is legal, encouraged, it increases participation, and gives disabled and elderly a chance.”
Additionally, he noted that Zimmer faced questions over lottery tickets she gave to campaign workers when she ran for council in 2007. In a Reporter article, Zimmer said that the Attorney General’s office had sent her a letter disputing that handing out the tickets was illegal. Still, she said she wouldn’t be handing them out again. – Dean DeChiaro