This is the third in a series of articles on Hoboken’s upcoming May 10 City Council races.
Some call Hoboken’s 3rd Ward the “heart of Hoboken.” The midtown ward contains Hoboken High School, Hoboken University Medical Center, a few classic west side businesses and delis, and inhabitants who make it what Councilman Michael Russo says is a “straight talking ward.”
“We do what we say, we say what we mean, and that’s how we like it,” Russo said last week.
He has represented the ward since 2003. Before that, his father, former Mayor Anthony Russo, had represented the ward.
“We do what we say, we say what we mean, and that’s how we like it.” – Michael Russo on the 3rd Ward
This year Russo is facing a challenge from a relative newcomer in Hoboken, Greg Lincoln, who has lived here for six years.
Sins of the father become an issue
Over the last few weeks, Lincoln, who works as an assistant director of institutional research at Berkeley College, has asked questions about Russo’s honesty. Recently, it was discovered that Michael’s father was still on the city’s health care plan, even though he was supposed to have been taken off after he went to jail for accepting bribes in 2006.
In 2009, Michael, as a councilperson, went through a list of people who should not have been receiving city health benefits, and handed over the names to the city’s state-appointed fiscal monitor.
Lincoln has asked why Russo didn’t know his father was receiving benefits improperly.
“I was the one who asked for the investigation into the list of benefits recipients,” Russo said last week. “Former Mayor Russo was on the list [of people receiving benefits], as anyone, including Mayor [Dawn] Zimmer, who was on the City Council then, could see. This was not a secret in any way. The state-appointed monitor, Judy Tripodi, investigated the list, and determined that several people on it were ineligible to receive benefits. Former Mayor Russo was not one of them. That determination was made by Ms. Tripodi. Why didn’t Mayor Zimmer, or any other council member, or Mr. Lincoln for that matter, ask anything about it at the time?”
Then he added, “We are a couple of months away from an election. My name is Russo. What do you think?”
Also, last week it was alleged in a new book, “The Jersey Sting,” that Russo met with Solomon Dwek, the same undercover informant who had brought down former Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano in a statewide FBI sting operation. The book portrays a meeting in which Russo allegedly agreed to a $5,000 campaign contribution from the informant, but apparently broke contact with Dwek after that.
The book does not say that Dwek arranged to make the payment in cash, or in exchange for any political favors. However, the donation would exceed legal campaign donation limits for individuals.
Russo said that once it became apparent that Dwek was not going to play by the rules when he donated, Russo became uninterested, and that’s why he stopped speaking to Dwek. His campaign has noted that other people in town were approached by Dwek as well, and they also decided not to do business with him.
Russo said, “What’s not excerpted in the book is that I made it very clear to Mr. Dwek that I would not accept cash contributions, and there was no quid pro quo. No bribe was discussed.”
Russo also said it was no secret that he met with Dwek, and said he shared this information with a local reporter. A search of local news outlets and websites revealed that no story was written.
“The quickest thing to do is to ask [a former daily newspaper reporter], who reported on this in 2009,” Russo said in an e-mail when asked when the news was published. “It wasn't a secret by any means.”
However, the reporter in question said she did not report on a meeting between Russo and Dwek.
Lincoln said the Dwek issue calls into question Russo’s ability to honestly lead the city. But Russo said Lincoln’s team is trying to find personal issues to attack him on rather than saying what they’d do for the 3rd Ward.
“What they’re going to do is try to muddy the waters because they don’t have any substantive points they can articulate on how they’re going to make life better in the ward,” Russo said. “It’s been done before. I’ve weathered that storm. People know that I’m Michael, and I’m the councilman. The residents have seen through all the lies and innuendo and I’m confident they’ll see it again.”
Russo has said he is hoping to run “on the issues of the 3rd Ward.”
On the issues
Lincoln has the support of Mayor Dawn Zimmer, while Russo is allied with Council President Beth Mason.
Last week, Lincoln said, “I stand for accountability and fiscal responsibility. Our ward has been underrepresented, and only a small minority of people have been represented. As a council person, I want to hear everyone’s take on things.”
Lincoln has spoken out publicly in favor of the city’s $25 per sport recreation fee for children, which some in town have criticized. He reiterated that stance last week.
“It doesn’t make sense to close off revenue avenues,” Lincoln said.
The council voted to repeal the recreation fee late last year, but Zimmer vetoed the repeal. The city has said that those who cannot afford the fee are not excluded from participating in recreation programs.
Russo, who has coached youth football in Hoboken, voted to repeal the recreation fee.
Lincoln has said another issue he hopes to address is transportation, and he would like to see more “all-way stops” on Hoboken’s streets, rather than just stop signs on two sides.
On the surplus
Russo said that besides the issues that make headlines, he also enjoys supporting legislation that “doesn’t always make the papers,” like measures in favor of the city’s volunteer ambulance corps.
Russo also believes the city government should return Hoboken’s budget surplus. Zimmer has proposed keeping a 5 percent budget surplus. Russo thinks it’s too much to keep, while Lincoln thinks it’s appropriate.
“The taxpayers deserve relief,” Russo said. “Property tax relief will always be at the top of my list.”
Russo currently serves as the chair of the city’s Budget and Finance Committee.
Russo was born in Hoboken. He was a member of the Boy Scouts as a child, and then became a scoutmaster and coached football.
He is also a physical therapist and often donates his services to assist Hoboken High School with sport rehabilitation.
Russo was a member of the Zoning Board before he successfully ran for City Council in 2003.
He is married with a new baby girl.
In regard to his father’s bribery sentence, he has, in the past, appeared to denounce his father’s actions. At one council meeting, he broke down in tears while voting in favor of campaign finance (“pay to play”) reform, referring to the circumstances that led to what happened with his father.
Where Lincoln’s been
Some have said they’ve never heard of Lincoln until he became a candidate. Lincoln, who moved to the city six years ago after living in Minnesota and Chicago, said that even though he doesn’t have the history of community involvement that Russo does, he sees himself as a good candidate for office.
“I’ve paid attention to the City Council,” Lincoln said. “I have two boys so I’m very involved with their school. I’ve been involved in Cub Scouts and been a volunteer for Hoboken recreational soccer…I’m involved in my church in Jersey City, and I’m involved in political campaigns.”
Lincoln is a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints, otherwise known as the Mormons, and is the first Mormon candidate to run for office in Hoboken.
For or against the mayor
Russo has taken Mayor Zimmer to task on many controversial issues in the city. But he believes his reputation as someone that doesn’t work with the mayor is a bit convoluted.
“I’ve worked with her on a lot of things,” Russo said. “I’ve approved almost all of her directors, her professionals, with some exceptions. Probably about 90 percent of the votes that were taken at the City Council level are supportive of the mayor’s policies and her recommendations.”
Lincoln appreciates the support of the mayor, and cites her work often. However, Lincoln said he would not be a rubber stamp for Zimmer.
“I have high expectations of proposals coming from the administration,” Lincoln said. “But sometimes good ideas need a little reworking. I’ll collaborate to get things done instead of grandstanding and throwing up obstacles.”
An issue high on the agenda for many candidates citywide is parks, and the 3rd Ward is no different. Russo said he voted against Zimmer’s $20 million park ordinance when it was introduced in early March because he wasn’t certain the 3rd Ward would be a priority, but changed his mind and approved it for the final vote after he spoke with Zimmer.
Russo said last week he hopes in his next term that a new park will be brought to the 3rd Ward.
Lincoln said he also hopes to help create a park to the 3rd Ward.
On the hospital…
Russo said what he is most proud of is voting to save Hoboken University Medical Center (HUMC) in 2007. That year, the city voted to guarantee $52 million in bonds to save the hospital and take it over. Now, the city is negotiating with a group of partners to buy it and manage it.
Russo said he believes the negotiation process should be more open and transparent. He has said he wants to see the other bids to make sure the city’s Hospital Authority made the right choice.
Lincoln said last week he understands why the Authority is negotiating privately, and trusts that they will do their job for the betterment of the city.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com