Voters in Hoboken’s 4th Ward, the so-called “forgotten ward,” have just over two weeks left to decide who will best represent them on the City Council. The battle over the seat once held by Mayor Dawn Zimmer shifted from a war of press releases to face-to-face encounters last week.
On Wednesday morning, Councilman Michael Lenz squared off against his challenger Tim Occhipinti in a debate filmed at the Hudson Reporter offices uptown. A complete video of the debate will be available on Monday at www.HudsonReporter.com. Then on Wednesday night, the candidates faced questions from the public in a debate at the Jubilee Center.
Issues aplenty Occhipinti’s goal during the Reporter face-off was to convince the voters, despite Lenz’s claims, that he is an independent voice, not manipulated by the same team that surrounded imprisoned former Mayor Peter Cammarano.
“My name is Tim Occhipinti, not Peter Cammarano, as Michael Lenz would like you to think,” Occhipinti said in his opening statement.
Lenz said in his opening statement that he has lived in Hoboken since 1987, and touted his past as both a private sector employee and government worker. The key word of the day for Lenz was “experience,” and he said during the debate that it was “tough to run against someone without a record.”
Don’t let us decide who won the debate; see for yourselves. View the Hudson Reporter debate on HudsonReporter.com then cast your vote for who performed the best.
Both candidates agreed that the 4th Ward is the “forgotten ward.” Occhipinti pointed to a lack of services and open space and poorly paved roads, and said from his experience that residents of the ward do not feel like they’re part of the city. Lenz stressed the need for more parks and open space throughout Hoboken, but especially in the 4thWard.
Lenz said the $10 million budget surplus is the appropriate amount for the city because it improves the city’s bond rating, and would serve as a savings account. Occhipinti said the purpose of government is to spend only what it needs, and that the surplus does not belong to City Hall; it belongs to the people of Hoboken.
The sparring continued on Wednesday night in a public debate presented by Hoboken’s Quality of Life Coalition, People for Open Government, and the Jubilee Center located within the 4th Ward.
A main issue in both debates was redevelopment.
“[We need] balanced development that will strengthen and support Hoboken,” Lenz said on Wednesday.
“You get one shot at it,” Occhipinti said of redevelopment. “We do not need 25-story condo buildings. We don’t have coffee shops. We don’t have a place we can enjoy a sunny afternoon [in the 4th Ward].”
Lenz claimed that if Occhipinti were to be elected, his campaign would cater to the needs of developers.
“The people behind Tim want to see unrestricted development,” Lenz said, which Occhipinti countered. “I am an independent voice,” he said. “No one controls me.”
One question asked at the public debate was how taxes would be cut.
“Eighty percent of our budget is salaries,” Lenz said. “We aren’t going to cut the budget without addressing salaries. Every salary line must be looked at, and that includes public safety.”
Occhipinti said he would begin with a $23,000 cut from the budget by not accepting the city health benefits that Lenz currently receives. Occhipinti also said he would freeze patronage hires and salary raises for public relations employees.
Occhipinti attempted to paint Lenz as a political insider. To counter, Lenz tried to prove that Occhipinti is not a “newcomer” on the political scene, as Occhipinti labeled himself in his opening statement, but rather that the challenger is a pawn being controlled by the same people who backed Cammarano.
The council is divided with a 5-4 majority agreeing with Zimmer on most issues. That means the 4th Ward winner could operate as a “swing vote” either in favor of Zimmer or alongside her opposition. Though this is the likely political reality, both candidates told voters, “not so fast.”
“You’re running to be the mayor’s fifth vote,” Occhipinti said. “I’m running to put the 4th Ward first.”
Lenz said he supports the mayor on a lot of issues, but doesn’t always agree with her. For example, he said providing raises to her aides on the same day as announcing police layoffs was “not the smartest thing” she ever did.
He said he often agrees with Zimmer, but there are times when they are in disagreement.
Who won the debates?
Both sides seemed confident they achieved victory following the debate. Lenz, a seasoned professional, said the debates went well, and complimented Occhipinti on his debate skills throughout the day.
Lenz’s campaign manager, Sam Briggs, said after the debates that the day was positive for his side and it should be clear that Lenz was the best choice for council.
An Occhipinti campaign official said that he believes the Hudson Reporter debate was a draw, but the evening debate at the Jubilee Center was “a clear victory for us.”
A few audience members criticized Occhipinti for reading some prepared answers, while Lenz spoke extemporaneously during the debate.
A criticism of Lenz was that he referenced the “people who support Tim” throughout the debates. One source inside the Occhipinti campaign thought this was a positive for Occhipinti, and said Lenz went after “ghosts,” rather than his opponent on the ballot.
Don’t let us decide who won the debate; see for yourselves. View the Hudson Reporter debate on HudsonReporter.com. After you’ve watched, vote in our poll and let us know who you believe performed best.
Ray Smith can be reached at RSmith@hudsonreporter.com.