If you’re worried that Mayor Dawn Zimmer has been losing sleep after a week of being both praised and scrutinized in the national media, being called either a hero or a liar by the political left and right, and taking aim at a powerful governor and presumptive presidential nominee, then don’t.
“There were a few days of the press being parked outside my door; they were shining lights on my neighbors as they came into the building and stuff, but I’m back to walking to work and my kids are walking to school, and I think we’re doing fine,” she said in an interview with the Reporter on Friday.
But the situation on which Zimmer has been commenting is not going to be resolved any time soon.
Last Saturday morning, Zimmer alleged on national television that in May, New Jersey Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno suggested to her during a visit to Hoboken that the city would get more Hurricane Sandy aid if Zimmer helped pave the way for three blocks of uptown development by the Rockefeller Group of New York. The private development company has been buying up underused plots of land at the city’s industrial northern border since June 2008. They have never submitted a formal development proposal to the city, but they have talked publicly of wanting a 40-story building in an area where the current zoning allows buildings to climb only to two stories. Thus, they’d like the city to move forward on plans to somehow change the zoning in the area, plans that the city’s Planning Board rejected for more consideration last May.
Rockefeller has been represented by lobbyist David Samson, a close ally of Gov. Chris Christie and the chair of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey – hence Christie’s potential interest in the project.
Zimmer’s accusations were stunning. Not only was she saying that Guadagno allegedly suggested a quid pro quo between public funds meant to help hurricane victims and a private project that may simply put money in developers’ pockets, but Zimmer leveled the same accusations against other high-ranking administration officials: Dept. of Community Affairs Commissioner Richard Constable III and Director of the Governor’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding Marc Ferzan.
She wrote in her private journal, which she has presented to the media and federal investigators, that Guadagno said she’d deny the comments if Zimmer ever went public. She also wrote that she was emotionally shaken to learn that Christie was “cut from the same corrupt cloth” she had been fighting locally.
Zimmer’s bombshell came two weeks after the state media had published stories suggesting that Christie’s top aides closed lanes in Fort Lee near the George Washington Bridge as political retribution because the mayor of Fort Lee didn’t endorse him in last November’s gubernatorial election. All of a sudden, there were two possible scandals surrounding Christie, who has been portrayed in the media as a future Republican presidential candidate. Zimmer’s comments unleashed a media frenzy.
Television humorist Jon Stewart joked on Wednesday evening about Zimmer’s journal entries, while Democrats and Republicans spent much of the week making a show of either embracing or discrediting her. But the most pressing question on many people’s minds was simple: Is Zimmer telling the truth? And if so, how will it affect Christie?
There have been lesser questions as well: Why was Zimmer sending out Tweets praising Christie before his re-election this past November? Why would Zimmer – who often touts her anti-corruption record at the local level – look the other way for eight months when it came to frying a much bigger fish, potentially allowing him to swim into the presidency while employing such tactics? If the bridge scandal hadn’t gone public, or if Hoboken had received more aid, would she have stayed silent? And have similar situations occurred in other towns in New Jersey?
Some are curious if the media attention will be enough to sink Christie, elevate Zimmer, neither, or both.
‘Brave’ and ‘role model’
On Zimmer’s Facebook page last weekend, she elicited more than 200 supportive comments – at least one of which from Mexico – after she wrote, “Thanks to everyone for expressing your support. This was one of the hardest things I have ever done.”
She picked up nearly 3,000 new followers on Twitter since the first TV appearance, and the number of times she was mentioned on the internet in general skyrocketed nearly 300 percent from previous levels. According to Webfluenz, a tracker of internet trends, about 60 percent of online sentiment regarding Zimmer was positive, 15 percent was negative, and 25 percent was neutral.
“Thank you for having the courage to expose the situation. You did what was best for the people of our city,” wrote resident Maria McCabe on the mayor’s Facebook page.
“You are a role model for our children,” wrote Carol Losos.
Even two of Zimmer’s past political opponents said last week that they support the mayor.
Paul Swibinski, who has run several campaigns against her (working for other Democrats, as Hudson County is a largely Democratic county), said, “We’re not on the same side very often; I’ve managed campaigns opposing her. I certainly wouldn’t say we’re allies, but I really respect what she’s done. She took a stand.”
Jamie Cryan, the chairman of the Hoboken Democratic Committee who supported Zimmer’s opposition in last November’s mayoral election, said, “I believe her. Hoboken supports Hoboken. If you’re asking me who’s more honest, the Christie administration or the mayor, I’m going with Mayor Zimmer every time.”
He also said, “This guy, he put a patent on retribution…Mayor Zimmer may have felt a little more empowered and free to speak the truth than if none of the other mayors had said anything. Maybe she was afraid.”
Longtime Zimmer supporter Mike Lenz said, “If she isn’t telling the truth, then she’s the first person I’ve ever heard of in the history of this country to walk into the U.S. attorney’s office and lie for four hours about illegal activities committed by very, very powerful people.”
Christie’s officials have denied all of the accusations, and some suggested the mayor simply misheard Guadagno or was confused as to what exactly was said.
Guadagno called Zimmer’s claims “illogical.” The governor’s supporters have pointed to both Christie and Guadagno’s record of fighting corruption in the past, as they are both former prosecutors.
Secaucus Mayor Michael Gonnelli, who in the past has had a decent relationship with Zimmer and who endorsed Christie last year, said the mayor must have misunderstood Guadagno as they spoke following a joint appearance at Hoboken’s ShopRite in May to discuss Sandy recovery.
“If Mayor Zimmer is right about what she said, it would be different,” Gonnelli said. “But I think she must have misinterpreted what was said.”
Union City Mayor Brian Stack, who represents Hoboken in the state Senate and endorsed Christie, called Zimmer’s story “farfetched.”A Stack ally said that perhaps she drew conclusions from different conversation points, after being hypersensitive to a 2009 corruption sting that took down dozens of mayors in New Jersey. In that sting, a developer, Solomon Dwek, acted as a government informant and offered cash campaign contributions in exchange for support of local development.
Zimmer has made a point, even since before her election, of working against overdevelopment in Hoboken.
“[Former Mayor Peter] Cammarano’s conviction made normal discussions of development poison for her administration,” said a source close to Stack. “Any innocent comment about a project would be interpreted as corruption, when it’s not.”
Stack told CNN, “My relationship with the governor and his staff and this administration has been one of the best.”
Stack’s town, to be sure, has done well under the Christie administration, perhaps much better than Hoboken. Union City was one of a handful of New Jersey towns receiving special state aid for two years in a row. Stack and his Board of Commissioners also got a state exemption allowing them to receive health benefits while receiving that aid.
As for Zimmer, some have wondered why, if she was concerned about Christie, she praised him publicly before his reelection.
“He has done a great job for N.J. and Hoboken,” Zimmer tweeted on Aug. 20, in response to a Star-Ledger reporter’s tweet that the mayor would not endorse neither Christie nor his challenger.
What happens next?
Sources said that Zimmer had planned to talk about the matter at Wednesday night’s Hoboken City Council meeting at the request of some council members. But she had to stop making public statements on the matter after the U.S. Attorney requested that she maintain silence as they pursue an investigation.
She did, however, continue to give interviews as long as she didn’t get into specifics.
Media sources revealed that her aides, Juan Melli (a longtime Democratic player) and Dan Bryan, as well as Councilman David Mello, had been interviewed by the FBI about the matter. Mello said that Zimmer had related the Guadagno conversation to him some time last summer (see sidebar, page 14).
Some have wondered how the situation will play out on various levels.
“I certainly wouldn’t say we’re allies, but I really respect what she’s done. She took a stand.” – Political operative Paul Swibinski
“I think if he makes it through this, there’s probably a good shot that he will, I think so,” he said, when asked if Christie could still be president. “The national Republican party does not have a lot of superstars.”
He added, “The Fort Lee stuff is damaging. I’m not sure if he gave the order or whatever. This [Hoboken] stuff is incredibly damaging if proves to be true, but may turn out to be a ‘My word against her word’ sort of thing.’ ”
Swibinski said that if Zimmer has aspirations for higher political office, this week’s events will help develop her reputation.
“I don’t know if she has any higher aspirations, but regardless, I don’t think she did this for political reasons,” he said.
As for Christie, Swibinski said the governor’s ties to developers will come under increasing scrutiny.
“His inner circle is clearly interested in big development,” he said. “We don’t know the extent of their involvement.”
Former Assemblyman Ruben Ramos, who faced off against Zimmer for mayor last November and has been critical of her wait to come forward, said her political future could be bright.
“Obviously if this is true she’s going to be viewed very favorably,” he said. “She exposed something that’s wrong and possibly illegal and that’s something people will remember. If she’s not telling the truth, though, it could be very difficult for her going forward.”
Asked on Friday if Christie should resign, Zimmer simply said that she hopes the U.S. Attorney pursues “a fair and thorough investigation.”
Go to the media, or prosecutors?
Some local observers said that the matter should have been handled through law enforcement, not through the media. After all, federal prosecutors could have carried out a sting just like with the aforementioned Operation Bid Rig.
“The first thing she should have done was go straight to the prosecutor, then go on MSNBC,” said Ramos last week. “Television stations don’t prosecute criminals, prosecutors do.”
Second Ward Councilwoman Beth Mason, a frequent critic of both the mayor and Christie, demanded in statements released to the public and at a Wednesday night council meeting a list of who Zimmer told about the alleged May meeting with Guadagno.
“For the last year – during which she was running for re-election on the same ballot as a popular governor – she has been publicly praising Governor Christie while apparently secretly believing he is corrupt,” said Mason. “She states she did not go to law enforcement authorities with any her concerns and has claimed only to have told her chief of staff about them. Did she obtain any advice on what to do from our corporation counsel? Anyone else?”
Some also pointed to a possible contradiction in how Zimmer handles her political opponents and how she handles herself.
Earlier this month, Zimmer’s former public safety director won more than $1 million from a jury in a wrongful termination suit in which he charged the city with racial discrimination. Zimmer said she had fired him because he didn’t tell the truth about meeting with Dwek, the FBI informant at the heart of “Operation Bid Rig,” and had not reported any illegal offers he received to authorities. The terminated director, Angel Alicea, did not take any money and has not been accused of wrongdoing – but in a statement two weeks ago, Zimmer criticized him by saying, “I requested Mr. Alicea's resignation because he did not tell the truth to me or to the public and the press about the two meetings that he had with Solomon Dwek. Despite the fact that he was an experienced police lieutenant who served in the Internal Affairs Bureau of the Union City Police Department, he did not report these illegal offers to any law enforcement authorities at the time that they occurred.”
At Wednesday’s City Council meeting, Hoboken resident David Liebler asked how this was so different than what Zimmer herself had done. Zimmer has yet to respond to the question.
Proud of her
But Zimmer’s supporters, and even some critics, stood by her handling of the Guadagno situation last week.
“The Bridgegate scandal shows that the Christie administration was willing to use the authority of its office to try and get things in return,” said Phil Cohen, who emceed the mayor’s second inauguration earlier this month and was recently appointed by her council allies to the city’s Zoning Board. “Now, Zimmer could tell the truth and also have the confidence that she could be believed for telling the truth.”
Swibinski said at this point, the truth is what matters, more than how it came out.
“It doesn’t do us any good to question why she didn’t do the right thing sooner,” Swibinski mused. “It’s hard enough to do the right thing at all.”
Back at Zimmer’s house
So now, a week since Zimmer spoke out, how is she holding up? On Friday, she said she has almost defeated the cold she’s been fighting all week, and has resumed her normal routine.
She acknowledged the attacks and criticisms leveled against her on the internet and social media like Facebook and Twitter. She also said that the support she has received has contradicted any criticism.
“I’ve been so grateful for the support of the people of Hoboken, but also people who have reached out from across the country,” she said. “I’m going to keep doing what I do, which is look out for the people of this city.”
Dean DeChiaro may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
City hires attorney to represent it in Sandygate matter
The Hoboken City Council voted 5-4 on Wednesday night to hire high-powered attorney (and former Hoboken resident) Gerald Krovatin to represent city officials as they deal with an investigation into comments allegedly made by high-ranking state officials in conversations with Mayor Dawn Zimmer last year.
On Wednesday, MSNBC reported that Zimmer said she had told five people about the situation last year after it happened, including Zimmer's chief of staff, Dan Bryan, and her spokesman, Juan Melli. MSNBC quoted sources as saying that Bryan and Melli have already been questioned by the FBI.
David Mello, a staunch ally and longtime family friend of the mayor, told MSNBC that Zimmer told him over the summer about the alleged conversation with Guadagno, noting that he remembered the mayor saying that “the lieutenant governor said, ‘If this came out, she would deny it.’”
Mello told the Hoboken Reporter on Wednesday that he didn’t consider coming forward with what Zimmer told him at the time because he considered his knowledge of the situation to be “hearsay at best.”
“It wasn’t my place, but I do commend the mayor for her actions, it wasn’t an easy thing to do,” he said.
Three of Zimmer’s other allies on the council told the Reporter that they had no knowledge of the conversation between Guadagno and Zimmer. Councilman Ravi Bhalla said he received a courtesy call from Zimmer on Friday, the night before she appeared on MSNBC to make the accusations. -- Dean DeChiaro