Deemed a man ahead of his time, Musto was revered as much as he was criticized, and despite his conviction on racketeering charges, which ended his political career in 1982, many still remember the legislator who fought for his people.
"William Musto was probably one of the greatest legislators New Jersey has ever had," said Union City Mayor Brian Stack. "He was an excellent mayor for the city of Union City, and his effect on politics will be felt for many, many years to come."
Ahead of his time
William Vincent Musto was born on March 27, 1917, in West Hoboken, now the southern part of Union City off the border of Jersey City.
A lifelong resident of Union City, Musto first stepped into the public eye in 1946 when he was elected to the state assembly with the backing of Jersey City Mayor Frank "I am the law" Hague.
"He was probably one of the most innovative legislators of the time; he was the father of the lottery, and he had another concept which was never implemented," said Tony Amabile, a political consultant and former reporter of the defunct Hudson Dispatch.
According to Amabile, Musto envisioned Hudson County becoming one major city, like New York City, which would consolidate city services, including education, police and fire departments, and municipal governments into one city, thus potentially saving millions in tax dollars.
In recent years, a similar concept sparked the merger of local fire departments to form the North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue.
"He had this concept in the '50s, and eventually it will come to pass, especially with the rising cost of health care and property taxes," Amabile said.
In the beginning
A graduate of John Marshall Law School, now Seton Hall, Musto enlisted in the army in 1941, where served as a captain in the field artillery battalion under Gen. George S. Patton during World War II. He participated in the African, Middle Eastern and European campaigns, and received several commendations including a Bronze Star. After three years in the assembly working alongside Hague, Musto allied himself with the John V. Kenny Victory Ticket in 1949, and by 1953 became the Democratic minority leader of the state assembly.
"I've known [William Musto] for probably 40 years; from my own experience, he was a very compassionate man, always helping people," said James Terlizzi, former deputy mayor of Weehawken. "I got to see him on the senate floor. He was an incomparable legislator and an excellent speaker."
According to Terlizzi, few will ever know the number of people from all walks of life who "Uncle Bill" helped because he always did it quietly, and never for attention. He always returned a call, wrote a personalized note, and never promised what he couldn't deliver, Terlizzi said.
"He believed in the attitude of never promising something unless he could do it," said Matthew Amato, former legislative aid. "Forget the young politicians of today, they wouldn't be fit to shine his shoes." In 1954, Musto ran for a seat on the Union City Board of Commissioners alongside Mayor Harry Thourot, whom he later defeated in 1962.
By 1965, Assemblyman and Mayor Musto was elected to the New Jersey State Senate. However, in 1970 Musto lost the city election to reform candidate William Meehan, and did not return to the mayoral seat until 1974, where he remained until the 1982 election.
"He was talked up to run for governor as well, but he told me personally that he never wanted to be governor: 'Why be governor when you can be mayor of a major city?' " Amato said.
Musto's comment was in reference to his idea of consolidating Hudson County into one major city. "Musto also did a lot for the Cuban community; he's the one who brought them in and [accredited them] with revitalizing Bergenline Avenue," Amato said.
Throughout his career, Musto has been credited with bringing in the New Jersey State Lottery, casino gambling, and helping to revitalize the Meadowlands. Known for his patience, he was pro-women's rights and medical reform, and, Amato said, "he loved his mother very much."
"He was a grown man, but he was like a kid talking to his mother: 'Hi mama, how you doing?' " Amato said.
Musto was also the originator of the North Hudson Council of Mayors, which was meant to offset Jersey City's 'dominance' of county government in 1972.
Musto's troubles began in 1977, when investigations began on the city's dealings with Rudolph Orlandini, who was hired for a $2.2 million project to construct additions on Emerson and Union Hill high schools. However, it was discovered that $12 million had been spent before the additions were completed.
In 1979, preparations for the impending trial were on the horizon. Deputy Public Works Director Bruce D. Walter and Board of Education Secretary Robert Menendez (now New Jersey's Junior Senator in the U.S. Senate) formed Alliance Civic Association and publicly questioned the overrun costs on Orlandini's construction company.
Then in April of 1981, the grand jury indicted Musto, 64 at the time, and six others, including Hudson County officials and businessmen, on 36 counts of racketeering, extortion and fraud.
Musto's conviction was met with disbelief from some of his contemporaries.
"Shocked would be an understatement, and knowing the man, I'm still not convinced [of his guilt] to this day," Terlizzi said.
Although the evidence was largely circumstantial, and the prosecution was not able to directly link Musto with the bribes, on March 26, 1982, Musto and company were convicted in skimming $600,000 in kickbacks for Orlandini contracts for additions to Union Hill and Emerson high schools.
Musto was sentenced to seven years in prison.
Still a winner
Even throughout his legal troubles, Musto still managed to maintain his adoration from Union City and continued his 1982 reelection campaign for the city commission.
On May 11, 1982, a day after his sentencing, he won the election against Menendez. However, the courts ended up forcing him from office, and Musto's wife, Rhyta, won her husband's seat in a special election. After two years of appeals, Musto entered prison in 1984 on a reduced sentence of five years.
After serving three and a half years, he was granted early parole to a Manhattan halfway house in 1987 for two months before returning home.
"I know he had a lot of troubles at the end, but Musto did a lot of good in his time," Stack said. "He was somebody who definitely had a foresight of the future, and was way ahead of his time."
After his release, Musto retired from the public eye, and continued to proclaim his innocence until the very end. Musto was a lifelong member of the American Legion and VFW, as well as a member of the Elks. He also served as Honorary Chairman of the American Red Cross, North Hudson Chapter.
"He was a tremendous human being, and my memories of him will always be fond," Amabile said. Musto is survived by his wife of 60 years, Rhyta (nee Palmerini), his son Patrick E. Musto and daughter Patricia Griffin. He is the brother of Patrick Roy Musto, the grandfather of William and Brian Musto, Erin, Sarah, and Daniel Griffin, and great grandfather of Cyrius and Asia.
"My heart goes out to his wife and his family, who are all wonderful people," Stack said. "I share in their sympathy and suffering right now."
Funeral arrangements were made under Union City's Leber Funeral Home with a mass scheduled for Friday, March 3, at St. Joseph and Michael Church in Union City at 9:30 a.m., followed by a procession to Fairview Cemetery for burial.
Jessica Rosero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.