"I'm in a state of shock," said Michael Korman, the city's public information officer, as he stood shoulder to shoulder with 150 other Russo supporters in front of the mayor's campaign headquarters at Fourth and Washington streets Tuesday night just moments after the polls closed. A large dry erase board the mayor's campaign staff erected to record the results as they came in showed that Roberts had carried every ward in the city except for the 3rd Ward, where Russo lives with his wife Michele.
Since 1993, Russo has run the city in a manner that has left little doubt about who was in charge. While his hard-nose style has been oft-criticized by some, it is much-loved by others who see Russo as the primary force behind the rejuvenation of the downtown waterfront, the stabilization of taxes and other city improvements in recent years.
"This city has turned around thanks to the mayor," said Murray Fasco, a Russo poll-worker, who said he was surprised by the election results.
When Russo climbed on top of a chair at 8:25 p.m. to address his supporters, many of them wept. "I see some people crying and that should not be," the mayor said. "Change is the law of life,' as John F. Kennedy said. Those who dwell too much in the past will miss the future."
Though he was emotional about leaving his job, he told the crowd, "I do not feel badly about this." He even went so far as to say that the loss at the ballot box could be "a victory in disguise," since it would allow him to spend more time with his family.
Before he climbed down from his chair, he called for his 1-year-old granddaughter, Jenna Rae, to be brought to him. Russo seems to have a special bond with his granddaughter in part because she was born just before he was diagnosed with lung cancer last year. While he underwent chemotherapy last summer, he said that one of his biggest fears was that he would not live to see her grow up.
Tuesday night, Russo hugged her close while the crowd clapped.
"I beat the biggest battle of my life," he said to the loudest cheers of the evening. "And this is my present."
Even though he said he was looking forward to spending more time with his family, Russo did not want people to think that he was simply going to take a seat on the political sidelines.
"I'm not a person who holds his tongue," he said. He also quickly urged his supporters to give Roberts, a former ally who broke with Russo three years ago, "a chance."
Standing at his side while he spoke were the candidates who rounded out his ticket: City Council President Nellie Moyeno, Councilman Stephen Hudock and former Councilman James Fitzsimmons. All three lost to the candidates who ran with Roberts. Moyeno and Hudock's terms will end July 1.
Moyeno said that even though they lost, "I still feel victorious just to have you believe in me." Hudock added that he would not stop working to improve the city just because he had been voted out of office. "It's all about the kids," he said. "I'm going to keep fighting for a ball field [for the northwest section of the city]."
Finally Michele Russo got up to address the crowd. Russo sits on the school board and on the Parking Authority, and coordinates the city's cheerleading team.
"I'm so proud to have a family like this," she said of the crowd of supporters.
Hard to win a third term
Later, inside his headquarters, the mayor was thronged by supporters who wanted to shake his hand or get a kiss on the cheek before they left. In between hugs, Russo took a popular political tack and said that he thought part of the reason that he had lost the election was because he had not been treated fairly by the newspapers.
"[The unfair treatment] was not just for the political campaign but the entire eight years of my government," he said. "I could site chapter and verse on this, but I don't want to right now because that would be too negative."
The mayor's political advisers had a slew of other explanations for the loss. Chief among them was the notion that Roberts' win was orchestrated by "outside forces." Nearly every Russo pol cited the financial and tactical contributions of U.S. Senator Jon Corzine, U.S. Congressman Bob Menendez, and State Senator Bernie Kenny as key factors in the race.
However, Russo himself had had support from such forces over the years. This year, the tables were turned.
There was also a lot of talk at Russo headquarters about natural political cycles and how difficult it is to win a third term in office.
"Politics is cyclical," said Board of Education President David Anthony who also served as Russo's campaign manager. "Every administration has a certain life span. You can't get around that."
He added, "It's not like in business where if you are a CEO and your company is doing well, profits are up and the shareholders are happy, then you get to stay. This administration has done more in eight years for this city than any. But hey what can you do?"