Part 1 of a continuing series
Thousands of visitors and residents of Hoboken visit the 1st Ward each day, as it’s home to the New Jersey Transit terminal, many bars and restaurants, City Hall, Pier A Park, and the famous Carlo’s Bakery.
Councilwoman Theresa Castellano has represented the ward since 1995, winning points for promoting historic guidelines and fielding to constituents’ concerns. But this year, challenger Eric Kurta – a longtime proponent of local election reform – is hoping to give the ward a fresh face on the City Council.
The 1st Ward encompasses the southeast portion of the city.
The rather vicious political realm in Hoboken is generally made up of two groups: those who support the policies of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, and those who oppose them. Kurta is allied with Zimmer in his run, while Castellano is allied with Zimmer’s critics, including her cousin, Councilman Michael Russo.
Over the next six weeks, the Hoboken Reporter will preview each ward race leading up to Election Day.
Who are they?
The incumbent Castellano owns and works at her own retail store, City Discount, on the 200 block of Washington Street, as she has done for the past 42 years.
Castellano has lived in the 1st Ward for all 62 years of her life. She spoke last week about her experience on the council and in civic life.
Castellano is proud of the fact that she has served Hoboken in different capacities under seven different mayors. She first became a member of the Historic Preservation Commission in 1980, and became the chair in 1990. She is back to serving as a representative on the commission, although she is no longer the chair.
She served on the Zoning Board and also chaired the board, but she surrendered the position after being elected to the council in 1995.
She is the cousin of former Mayor Anthony Russo and is thus related to Russo’s son, Michael Russo, the 3rd Ward councilman. They usually vote the same way.
Castellano said she’s been in the council minority for “the last 12 years.”
“It’s been difficult to get everything accomplished,” she said. “It’s very different for me to be in the majority; it’s a whole different world.”
However, Castellano said she still has a lot of legislation which she is proud of sponsoring. “Basically the ones that protect people who can’t protect themselves [are favorites],” she said, citing a “safe haven” bill she sponsored that allows for woman in the community to leave newborn babies with authorities.
“At the time, we did a dry run of the program, [and] I went into the school system to talk to the kids,” she said. “They should know there’s some place to go.”
Kurta, 45, is pursuing a master’s degree in Public Finance and Community Studies at NYU. He got his bachelor’s degree from New York University in health services policy, planning, and management.
He is a former employee of Hackensack University Medical Center, and is originally from Mahwah.
Kurta moved to Hoboken 20 years ago, and has been involved as a political activist since his arrival, but has never run for office. He served as the president of People for Open Government, a group that pushes for local election reform. He is a commissioner on the board of the Hoboken University Medical Center and acted as a board member of the citizen activist group Hoboken Revolt. He is generally a supporter of the mayor’s initiatives, and has been endorsed by Zimmer and her allies.
When both entered politics
Kurta said he decided to jump into the race because of “frustration” with city politics.
“We finally got a glimpse when Dawn Zimmer first got on the council and became mayor of how the city could be with good people in charge,” he said.
Castellano, who has been involved in Hoboken politics since 1980, said her upbringing in Hoboken made her “want to give back” to the community.
“It’s the ward I grew up in,” Castellano said. “It’s the ward I run my business out of; it’s the ward my family started their businesses in. It’s home to me. I wouldn’t live any other place.”
Kurta said when he moved to Hoboken at age 25, it was his neighbors who got him involved in politics.
“A councilman, judge, zoning board member, and someone who ran against [Castellano] in 1995 all lived on my block,” Kurta said. “It was a reform-minded block, and [the neighborhood] was very politically active.”
Allies of Zimmer refer to themselves as “reformers,” but some opponents of the mayor have said the label doesn’t apply because they are the governing body and are no longer reforming politics.
Kurta’s first taste of local politics came in 1992, when the city put a referendum on the ballot regarding Pier A Park.
“They wanted a 33-story tower where Pier A Park is,” he said. “It was park versus ratable [taxpaying building]; and parks won out. I think we’re much better off for that.”
Kurta says he reads all the news about Hoboken, attends meetings, and has been watching over local government for the last 20 years.
Like Kurta, the waterfront is something Castellano holds dearly.
“I have great pride in supporting anything to improve the waterfront,” she said. “Growing up here there used to be a cyclone fence; we couldn’t go near the river.”
Castellano grew up on the 400 block of Hudson Street.
Castellano also takes great pride in the development of open space along the waterfront.
Issues of the ward
The major issues in the ward, according to Castellano, are infrastructure improvement, quality of life issues including noise from bars and restaurants, the downtown business district, and a proposed New Jersey Transit redevelopment plan.
The area near the New Jersey Transit terminal has become a hotbed of political and community controversy, as the transit agency had called for a large skyscraper. However, the city is currently working on establishing an “inter-local agreement” with New Jersey Transit to give the city a louder voice in the proposal process, and the agency has proposed a smaller plan.
Kurta echoes many of the same issues for the 1st Ward, but says he’s focused on making sure candidates get more bang for their buck in tax dollars.
“Quality of life, cleanliness of streets, noise issues, whether it be bars or café or motorcycles,” Kurta said of the 1st Ward issues. “And most certainly what’s going to happen with New Jersey Transit.”
Neither of the candidates has advocated for large development near the transit site, and both say they would work with a planner to design something new for the area.
As for city finances, Castellano believes the city should maintain a small surplus, but should provide as much tax relief as possible.
“[Residents] stuck with us when we had our problems we needed to fix,” Castellano said. “Now that we have the surplus, some needs to go to the taxpayers. We need a surplus and anybody can understand that. But there has got be some mechanism that we reward them for them rewarding us.”
Not pulling punches
Kurta said he believes the city needs new leadership in the 1st Ward.
“Now that Hoboken is essentially a $100 million corporation, and it wants to become a 21st century city, it needs someone with a bigger vision for the job than just early 19th century constituent politics,” Kurta said. “I’ll have a better capacity to engage in bigger picture problems and ideas while Terry is almost solely focused on the mundane details of the office.”
Castellano believes her experience gives her an advantage.
“My experience with business and with the politics,” Castellano said, when asked why she is more qualified than her opponent. “When you sit down with people from New Jersey Transit you need to have experience. My opponent is not a working man. He’s not experienced in business.”
Kurta stopped working four years ago after 25 years in the hospital industry. He said he is proud of the fact that he was able to make enough money for himself as he worked “80-hour weeks” in the Hackensack hospital laboratory.
“I paid for my own college, worked like a dog for 25 years, and managed to put a little bit of money away,” Kurta said. “I bought a four-family building back in the 1990s when things were relatively affordable, and rents are able to sustain me and my modest lifestyle.”
Castellano also said she thinks Kurta is a “little childish,” referring to his activity on political Internet blogs where he is referred to as “Wile E. Coyote.”
“People should be able to see the difference,” Castellano said.
Kurta said only one blogger refers to him as Wile E. Coyote, and he doesn’t know where the nickname came from.
“I used to comment under ‘estevens,’ which is Eric Stevens, for my middle name, because up until recently I had no interest in running for office,” he said. “The only reason I commented under a pseudonym was because I wanted what I wrote to be more about the information and not about who was writing it.”
Kurta has his own thoughts on Castellano.
“I think a key difference between us is that I got into this thinking Hoboken is a great place to live but with the right guidance, Hoboken can become a world class city,” he said. “My opponent wants things to go back to the way they were 20 or 30 years ago. I’m looking forward. She’s looking backward.”
The 1st Ward encompasses the southeast portion of the city, spreading from the waterfront to Grand Street and from the train terminal to 4th Street.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com