In perhaps any other town, or any other ward, the results of the May 2011 3rd Ward election may have been different.
Bad news rained on incumbent Councilman Michael Russo all through his re-election campaign this spring. But 36-year-old Russo – whose father had preceded him as councilman and also had served two terms as mayor – remains a favorite son on the west side of town where he grew up.
Last month, in the May 10 election, Michael Russo beat his “reform” opponent by a two-to-one margin and received the second highest vote total in the entire city.
“Everybody makes mistakes.” – A 3rd Ward resident
The informant – posing as a potential real estate developer –had offered bribes to many officials who were running for office or who planned to run in the future. At a lunch meeting taped by the FBI, the informant and Russo discussed a $5,000 payment to Russo’s campaign fund. Even if it wasn’t clear that the money might be in return for development favors, individuals can only donate up to $2,600 to a candidate.
Russo never had a second meeting and never accepted any money. But at the meeting he told the informant, Solomon Dwek, whom to make the check out to, and appeared to nod his head at one point when discussing receiving $5,000 before and after the election.
Allies of Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer, who are at odds with Russo, alleged that Russo had agreed to accept a bribe and should resign from his council committees, and possibly the council altogether. Russo’s fans said that he hadn’t clearly accepted any money in exchange for favors, and that even if he had listened to Dwek at first, he never met with him again.
The non-fiction book said that investigators speculated that Russo had been warned away from the money by Russo’s father, former Mayor Anthony Russo, who had served prison time for bribery in office.
Michael Russo himself said that once it became clear that Dwek wouldn’t follow the rules, he stayed away from him.
After the tapes were posted in their entirety on the Star-Ledger website in April, a group of residents held a protest at a council meeting and asked for Russo to resign. Even some of Russo’s supporters said that some of the things he had said on the tape were indefensible, as he had bragged about how political favors are exchanged in Hoboken.
Russo resigned from the council vice presidency, but he refused to resign all together, calling his comments the actions of an “arrogant, boorish, stupid young man” in an apology speech at the meeting.
On election night, he earned 947 votes, beating Greg Lincoln – a political newcomer, “reformer,” and the city’s first Mormon candidate. Lincoln received 459 votes.
Russo will start his new term, along with the other winners, next month.
So if the loudest voices in Hoboken believed that Russo’s career was over, who were the majority of quiet 3rd Ward voters who ruled the day?
The release of the FBI tapes was not the only bad news the young Russo got during his campaign.
Earlier in March, Mayor Dawn Zimmer announced that Russo’s father Anthony, who had been convicted of accepting a bribe in 2005, was still somehow receiving city health benefits even after his conviction meant he should have been removed years ago. And Michael had even railed at a council meeting in 2008 against some people still remaining on the benefits list when they should not have been there.
When asked in March if he knew his father was inappropriately receiving benefits, Russo said he saw a list of people improperly receiving benefits, and forwarded them to then-state fiscal monitor Judy Tripodi to fix the problem. After that, he believed all those illegally receiving the benefits were taken off of the list. But his opponents charged that he must have known about his father and kept it quiet.
Russo’s challenger hammered home this point during his campaign.
3rd Ward voters sound off
When asked about his victory, Russo downplayed the influence of the tapes, saying the more difficult part of his campaign was the fact that both of his grandmothers passed away within a week of each other during the race. “As far as the political nonsense, I try to stay above that,” Russo said.
He said even he was surprised with the large margin of victory.
“I was humbled by the fact that my neighbors have full faith in me,” he said. “I continue to work every day, tirelessly, for my neighbors and my constituency.”
Last week, the Reporter took to the streets of the 3rd Ward to speak with random voters.
Many of them did not wish to give their full names, either because they fear retribution from political officials, or because they work for the city or own businesses.
Some 3rd Ward pedestrians said they didn’t know about the race or didn’t vote. But other residents were quick to defend Russo.
“What he said was just words,” said Pauline, who has lived in the 3rd Ward for 20 years. “It wasn’t that he did anything criminal. If he did anything criminal he would have been arrested. Everybody has said something more than they should have to make themselves look like big shots.”
Another 3rd Ward resident, Joanne Turso, said she voted for Russo because she was bothered by the threat of police layoffs last year. In 2010, Zimmer proposed laying off police officers after a state audit resulted in a report that said the Police Department was overstaffed. Both political factions argued over the need to cut police officers, as well as the credibility of the audit. Ultimately, enough officers retired and there were no layoffs, but officers were demoted.
As for the tapes, “Michael never committed a crime,” Turso said. “I would like to know where those tapes came from. How’d they get their hands on that tape?”
The tapes were not officially released by the government, and came from anonymous sources known to the authors of the “The Jersey Sting.” The authors, reporters for the New York Post and the Star-Ledger, released the tapes on-line after the book came out.Turso said she watched the tapes four times and didn’t see any crime committed.
“Michael is a great councilman as far as I’m concerned,” Turso said. “He always gets back to his people and helps them.”
Another supporter, Michael, was with another man near the Michael Russo Civic Association on Adams Street on Thursday. The association was founded by Russo’s father, and serves as both a political and charitable organization.
“He wasn’t charged with any crimes,” Michael said. “It was no big deal to me.”
Michael and the other man, a 3rd Ward resident, added that they do not believe Russo could ever lose the 3rd Ward seat.
Although Hoboken is teeming with new development, the midtown 3rd Ward also holds old Italian delis, bars, and affordable housing developments like Church Towers, where Russo lives with his wife and new baby. The 3rd Ward has many residents who are sometimes referred to as “old Hoboken” or “the born and raised.”
(When a political opponent raised the question a few years ago of how Michael Russo was able to get his own apartment in Church Towers despite the long waiting list, Russo said he applied like everyone else and didn’t know the specific details. Russo had grown up in the complex with his father, mother, and two brothers, but the complex does not give preference to family members of existing tenants.)
Zimmer’s council candidates were able to win two of the six wards in Hoboken in the May 10 City Council election, when all six ward seats were up for grabs. The council’s three at-large seats were not up for re-election, but are up in 2013. Those three seats are controlled by Zimmer’s supporters.
The two new victories were enough to shift the 5-4 council majority back to Zimmer’s allies, but if one tallied all votes for all sides citywide, as Russo pointed out on Election Day, the people voted against Zimmer’s team.
Part of the reason that Harry, a 3rd Ward resident, voted for Russo is because he believes Russo’s side is more in touch with “blue-collar Hoboken residents.”
When asked about the surveillance tapes, he said they had no impact on his vote.
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Harry said. “He only met with the guy once and he never took the money. If someone calls you up and says they want to give you $5,000, you’ll probably meet with them, and anyone who says differently is not telling the truth.”
Russo, a lifelong resident of the 3rd Ward, appears to have the community ties that his opponent lacked.
“I like Michael,” said a resident named Pauline. “I’ve known him all my life. He’s always helped me when I needed help. And in the end, it was only words…I feel he does a good job in the 3rd Ward.”
Pauline added she believes Russo’s opponents held “a witch hunt against Michael.”
“Everybody makes mistakes,” Pauline said. “He said the wrong thing and made himself look like a big shot. But he took his punches, which were rightfully deserved, and gave a very good speech about how wrong he was.”
In the election, approximately 25 percent of the ward’s registered voters turned out.
There is a certain population that moves to Hoboken for the commute to New York City and rarely votes or sets down roots. Thus, candidates who appeal more to new residents may have a hard time getting them to vote.
Spending less money
Russo even won his race spending less than the average candidate.
According to Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) filings, the average Hoboken candidate spent approximately $32,700 on the race. Russo spent $26,000. However, Lincoln spent only $10,900 on his campaign.
Lincoln said he believes good things came out of the race even if he lost.
He said if Russo had run unopposed, the tapes may not have come out, and Russo would have been able to “run amuck.”
Lincoln still thinks a “reform” candidate can unseat Russo in the 3rd Ward in the future.
“The stars would have to align in some ways,” Lincoln said. “If they do a lot of groundwork ahead of time and register voters, it is possible. The numbers are there to do it.”
Lincoln also said he believes Russo’s base “is not expanding.”
Zimmer’s allies did recently win one 3rd Ward election. Seventy-two townwide Democratic committee seats were up in the June 7 primaries. The seats make up the local Hoboken Democratic party.
The Democrats for Honest Government, the organization allied with Zimmer, won one 3rd Ward committee seat on June 7. It was the first time a person who was not also on the larger Hudson County Democratic Organization committee won a committee seat in the 3rd Ward.
Ray Smith may be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com