"Hey, how ya doing?" the suit asked the mayoral candidate, instantly recognizing him.
"Workin' hard," replied Glenn Cunningham, as he clasped his hand. "Workin' hard."
It was one of, oh, a half-dozen encounters during a mere three-minute walk from Cunningham's campaign headquarters on 574 Newark Ave. to a photo op with County Sheriff Joseph Cassidy. Greeting all who came in his path, including a ward leader who stopped his car in the middle of the street, the former U.S. Marshal and council president mused on the attention.
"The only problem," he intimated, "is everyone treats me like I'm the mayor already."
He said it jokingly, but there is reason for Cunningham to be confident.
In any poll conducted since the start of the race, Cunningham has emerged as the clear-cut front runner. He has garnered the endorsements of former U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, Congressman Robert Menendez and County Executive Robert Janisziewski. Indeed, he is the "machine candidate," but dismisses attack ads from his closest competitors. Were he to win, he would become the first African-American mayor in the city's history.
Back in a conference room in his paneled headquarters, Cunningham lays out his plans for crime prevention, schools improvement, housing, taxes and abatements, occasionally reading off papers that outline his agenda. But he bristles at questions over his legislative past and ads from current Council President Tom DeGise that declaim the Society Hill resident as "The Worst Council President in Jersey City History."
"I've had a good record," he shoots back, "one that I'm proud of." He takes aim at both DeGise and Mayor Bret Schundler. "These guys have created a disastrous situation in the city, and they're trying to say they're good managers." He takes special affront at a newspaper ad that he said made him "look sinister, cutting off my ear and blurring my U.S. Marshal Star."
Cunningham presided over the council during some tumultuous times in the city's history, a time in the late-1980s when business ground to a halt, taxes rose, the schools suffered a state takeover and a property revaluation took place.
But Cunningham argues that many of these problems reflected national trends. Maladies such as crime increases and economic slowdowns cannot be justifiably laid at the doorstep of a council president, he said. He was in favor of the school takeover, and he points to successes like his efforts to bring back a bank to Martin Luther King Drive in 1988 and a law that forced all-night stores that served as drug havens to close. Still, he prefers to focus on the future.
A former Marine (a red Marine Corps banner hangs in his headquarters), Jersey City police officer and, most recently, U.S. Marshal, Cunningham served as a councilman from 1981 to 1989, the last four years as president. He also served one term as a county freeholder.
Though crime dropped dramatically through the 1990s, Cunningham believes the city still suffers a problem not easily defined by numbers.
"If you have 50 dealers selling drugs in front of your house," he said, "that's not reflected in the crime rate."
Crime is the centerpiece of Cunningham's campaign. It's a problem that can be solved, he said, through early intervention and increased police vigilance.
Contending that most crime is committed by young people, Cunningham wants to revamp the police department by creating what he terms "more accountability" - like having high-ranking officers at the command 24-hours a day. He wants to start a juvenile at-risk program and open an office of drug education and prevention within the human resources department.
He would remove the surveillance cameras along Ocean Avenue, put up during the Schundler administration. "If an area is so bad that needs cameras," he said, "then that area needs better police protection." He would take down the pictures of drug dealers displayed in churches. He is looking to train officers within Jersey City, not send them to Sea Girt. He said he has talked to officials about donating part of the county-owned Lincoln Park to get the space.
With tax abatements, Cunningham takes a middle ground. While saying that the city could have gotten more from Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs ("It's true Goldman Sachs didn't really need an abatement," he said), he is not willing to rule out abatements entirely.
"Let's make a deal not just for Goldman Sachs," he said "but lets make a deal for the people of Jersey City." He suggested making changes to state law that would divert money in state tax incentives back toward the city.
Cunningham, during his time on the council voted for abatements, but he notes, with some justification, that those were needed to kick start development in the city.
"We have to look at every request for an abatement," he said of the current awards, "and see if it's really required for this project to move forward." He's also not shy about taking a shot at Council President Tom DeGise.
"All you gotta do is wave a request for a tax abatement in front of him," he said, "and it's like throwing a piece of bologna to a dog. He swallows it up."
On development in general, Cunningham feels that people like Samuel J. LeFrak, developer of Newport, through "poor planning," provided not enough parks, fire service and parking spaces to the waterfront community. The council last amended the Newport Redevelopment Plan in September 1988, during Cunningham's second term as councilman.
With schools, Cunningham disagrees with having an elected school board, believing the position is used as a stepping stone for other elected office, and would prefer a board appointed by the mayor. That decision, however, would be largely out of the hands of any mayor. The state will be the final arbiter with the schools, and will decide what form the board will take.
Cunningham said he supports the charter schools currently in existence, but supports a moratorium on new construction. "Let's see if they're working, making them better students," he said.
Claiming that the city's private schools are struggling for survival, Cunningham said he would seek ways, perhaps through developers, for monetary assistance. "If our parochial school system collapsed," he said, "we'd be in trouble."
Cunningham believes the diverse makeup of the city is to his advantage.
"No one is better equipped to bring the mosaic of people together," he said, adding: "I like to joke that I'm half African-American, and half Jersey City."
Cunningham's council slate
Mariano Vega Jr. (at-Large)
The current Ward E Councilman, Vega was first elected on Mayor Bret Schundler's slate in 1997. A graduate of Montclair State University, Vega founded the Liberty Soccer Club and the International Recreation and Exchange program. He is a former president of the Jersey City Board of Education and is a social services administrator.
L. Harvey Smith (at-Large)
Smith was first elected to City Council on Schundler's slate in 1993. A former Director of the Jersey City Boys Club and the Jersey City Christian Youth Organization Summer Camp, Smith is a graduate of Long Island University, where he was a star basketball player. He was chairman of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency for five years.
Carl Czaplicki (at-Large)
A graduate of St. Mary's High School and Pace University, Czaplicki served as chairman of the St. Mary's High School Social Services Department and now serves as the coordinator of after-school activities at Hudson County High Tech High School. He is also a member of the New Jersey Education Association.
Frank Checchia (Ward A)
Born and raised in Jersey City, Checchia has lived in Greenville his entire life. He is a businessman, a public school graduate and served for eight years in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Mary Spinello (Ward B)
A lifelong Jersey City resident, Spinello is a graduate of St. Aloysius High School and Rutgers University. For the past eight years she has worked at the non-profit Occupational Health Center of Hudson County. She is involved in several charitable organizations in the city.
Tom Murphy (Ward C)
A Jersey City Firefighter, Murphy is a graduate of Dickinson High School, and has been involved in volunteer education, youth sports and recreation. He is a member of several organizations, including the Emerald Society, Uniformed Fire Officers Association, the Hispanic Fire Fighters, and the EMS Society of Hudson County.
Jim Carroll (Ward D)
Born and raised in the Heights, Carroll is a decorated police officer. He is a graduate of St. Peter's Prep High School, Seton Hall University and New York Law School. He is chairman of Hudson County We Care, an organization that helps the homeless.
Junior Maldonado (Ward E)
Maldonado is the founder of the Fiestas Patronales of New Jersey Committee, a scholarship provider for students, and is involved in the Roberto Clemente Little League, Hogar CREA and the Hispanic Coalition. He is a law enforcement official, a graduate of the city's public schools and attended Rutgers University.
Viola Richardson (Ward F)
A past Jersey City Woman of the Year, Richardson is a graduate of New Jersey City University. She has been a Jersey City police officer for 20 years, and has received numerous commendations. She founded the West District Summer Camp for Youth and co-founded the first Saturday School in the city. She is also a member of Trinity Lutheran Church and is active in many church activities.