Supporters embraced and tears flowed at Greenville Hospital late Tuesday as a crowd of approximately 250 people gradually learned that Cunningham was gone. Cunningham was the first Jersey City mayor to ever die in office.
Cunningham had been brought to the local hospital by his personal driver around 9:45 p.m. after complaining at home of chest pains. Earlier that day, he had ridden a bike and visited a local block party.
Those keeping a vigil outside the hospital Tuesday night, a throng so thick that it carried onto Kennedy Boulevard and blocked late-night traffic, hoped the rumors were simply not true. Then, a press conference after midnight confirmed their fears.
"He's going to be missed more than anyone can imagine, as much as anyone can be missed," said Stan Eason, Cunningham's spokesman and friend, at the site. "He touched so many people. He dedicated his life to this city, to the community that he loved. He made areas of Jersey City into golden neighborhoods."
Eason, a former reporter who joined Cunningham's staff three years ago, added, "It's hard to measure how big of a loss this is, but it's certainly a personal loss. Just looking around here right now shows how much he touched people and how much the people of Jersey City truly cared about him."
Cunningham became mayor in 2001 after having run for it unsuccessfully three times before. He was elected state senator last year.
His final day
Cunningham died at 10:45 p.m. Tuesday night, about an hour after he was transported to the emergency room at Greenville Hospital in complete cardiac arrest. He was brought to Greenville Hospital because it was the closest logistical emergency room from his home in Jersey City's Society Hill section.
Earlier that day, Cunningham had participated in a bicycle tour of the city as part of the Congressional campaign of candidate Steven Fulop, whom Cunningham was supporting in the upcoming Democratic primary against Cunningham's staunchest opponent, Rep. Robert Menendez.
Cunningham and Anthony Cruz, one of the city's deputy mayors, pedaled from City Hall up the steep hill on Newark Avenue near Dickinson High School, then completed the tour on Newark Avenue near Casa Dante restaurant, where a block party was being held.
"The mayor spent some time there, greeting people and having a good time," Eason said. "He seemed to be in good health and he was definitely in good spirits."
But after he returned home around 8:30, Cunningham, who had no prior history of heart disease or ailments, started to complain of chest pains. Around 9:30, he called for his personal driver to take him to a hospital. Twelve minutes later, he was in full cardiac arrest.
"He arrived her unconscious and unresponsive," said Dr. Ghias Moussa, the chief of cardiology at Greenville Hospital. "He was rolled in by the people on his detail. We knew immediately who he was. We had a team of four doctors who worked on him for about an hour, but after an hour, there was no sense of trying anything else and we pronounced him dead."
Ron Buonocore, the Jersey City police chief, was the one to make the official notification of Cunningham's death to a hastily-assembled media gathering soon after midnight.
"Last night, Mayor Cunningham was brought here to Greenville Hospital complaining of chest pains and at 10:45 p.m., he expired," a visibly shaken Buonocore said. "He was pronounced dead at that time. Our prayers and condolences go out to his family."
Cunningham had a long and distinguished career, first as a police officer who worked his way through the ranks to become a captain, then as a politician.
A veteran with the U.S. Marines, Cunningham was a member of the Jersey City police department for 25 years, beginning his career as a patrolman in 1967.
"We went to high school together and became cops together," said veteran Jersey City detective Calvin Hart, whose life was detailed in the famed Richard Price novel, "Clockers." "Glenn was a little older than me, but we did everything together. This really hurts. It hurts bad. It hurts big time. Regardless of what people thought of Glenn, whatever people's beliefs are, when you lose anyone like this, it hurts."
It was as a police officer that Cunningham got involved in politics, first serving as a Hudson County Freeholder (1975 through 1978) and also having two terms as a Jersey City councilman at-large, serving as the City Council president in the Tommie Smith and Gerald McCann administrations.
"He was elected with me in 1981 and he ran against me in 1989," said McCann, who was once again politically aligned with Cunningham and helped run Cunningham's campaign for the state Senate in the 31st District last November. "He was never really a foe. We did have our political differences, but we were never against each other. Glenn always had a great personality and a great spirit. That was always his strength. He was funny, he was personable. He was a strong personality in the community for the last 25 years, and he was clearly the black political leader in Jersey City."
McCann was one of the 250 or so who stood aimlessly outside the hospital, awaiting word on the stricken mayor. Before he became the first African-American mayor of Jersey City in 2001, Cunningham was appointed by then-President Bill Clinton to serve as head of New Jersey's branch of the U.S. Marshal's office. Cunningham held that position for five years.
He emerged from a three-candidate race in 2001 to defeat Tom DeGise and Lou Manzo to win the mayoral seat that he had run for three times prior, once against McCann in 1989 and twice against a victorious Bret Schundler in 1992 and 1997.
"It's just shocking to everyone," McCann said. "You never think something like this could happen."
Cunningham was an avid historian, creating a video documentary about the history of Jersey City, as well as a slide presentation on the role of the Underground Railroad in the city. He brought the latter to local schools and made presentations periodically at the Jersey City Public Library. According to city officials, he was writing a book about the history of Jersey City.
Council president takes over
According to state law, the council president automatically assumes the role of mayor in the case of a death in office. City Council President L. Harvey Smith, whom Cunningham defeated in the race for the Democratic nomination for the state Senate in June of 2003, was immediately appointed as the acting mayor upon Cunningham's death.
A City Council meeting in the next 30 days will determine who will serve as the interim mayor from now until a special election is held in November. Whoever is elected in November will serve out the remainder of Cunningham's elected term. Cunningham was expected to run for re-election in May, 2005.
"I think there will be a lot of ramifications," said McCann, whose ouster from office in 1992 due to federal fraud charges caused two City Council presidents, Marilyn Roman and Joseph Rakowski, to serve as interim acting mayors. Then, Bret Schundler was elected in a special election that year. "Whether it's justified or not, many of the council members are thinking, 'Hey, I can do this job,' McCann said. "Who knows what will happen? There are splits in the council."
Greenville Councilman Peter Brennan was also among the mourners huddled outside the hospital. Brennan was elected while running on DeGise's ticket in 2001.
"I never had major differences with Glenn," Brennan said. "I was able to put everything aside. After all, I was Glenn's councilman [Cunningham resided in the Greenville ward]. Glenn and I were friends and never enemies. I always spoke highly of him and I know he spoke highly of me. It's a sad day for the city. There are a lot of people who love him. I feel like I've lost a close friend."
But there were many who had political differences with Cunningham. In 2002, the majority of Hudson County's mayors, as well as most of the Jersey City Council and Rep. Robert Menendez, backed former Jersey City Council President Tom DeGise to run for county executive. Cunningham, however, backed a different candidate, Jersey City-based lawyer Bernard Hartnett.
During the campaigns, the rhetoric often seemed to concern politics more than policy - who would get county jobs depending on which candidate won, and where the balance of power would be in the county. Cunningham was reportedly upset that Jersey City, once a center of power in the county, was weaker in the current political structure.
The Hudson County Democratic Organization's candidate, DeGise, won. Cunningham's candidate lost. However, Cunningham rose again. Last year, he defeated the HCDO candidate, drawing on his local base to win a term on the state Senate. It is not unusual in Hudson County for local mayors to also run for positions in the state legislature.
A time for healing
Brennan seemed to think that Cunningham's death might serve as a perfect excuse for the city's political sectors to unite in the face of tragedy.
"I think even Glenn would say that this should be a time for healing," Brennan said. "Maybe we can now bring everyone together. Maybe something good can come from this."
As for Cunningham's state Senate seat, the interim choice will be made within the next 30 days. Then, a special election will be held in November to fill the remaining three years of Cunningham's elected term. His friends were asked how Cunningham would be remembered.
"He was a guy who was loved and respected by everyone," said Calvin Hart. "He would do anything for anyone." "The mayor was a lifelong resident and a lifelong credit to the city," Eason said. "His legacy will always be the improvements the city has made during his tenure. He believed in everyone getting their five minutes. He was a good listener and someone who truly cared."
Eason added, "He kept a schedule that no one else could ever keep up with. It's really hard to measure this loss right now. It's hard to even imagine that he's gone."