By Ron Hine | FBW | January 22, 2014
On January 18, in a MSNBC interview, Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer accused New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s administration of holding hostage millions of dollars in Sandy flood mitigation funds unless she green-lighted a two million square foot office development at the north end of town. Zimmer said that top officials in the Christie cabinet told her that the project was “very important to the governor” and if she worked for its approval, “the money would start flowing to you.”
In the preceding weeks, a scandal that involved lane closings on the George Washington Bridge, allegedly for political retribution, put the governor and his administration in damage control mode. Christie was forced to dismiss an aide who stated in an email, “Time For Some Traffic Problems In Fort Lee” and Bill Baroni, the Deputy Director at the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey that manages the bridge, was forced to resign along with David Wildstein a close friend and political operative of Christie. Zimmer’s charges added fuel to that fire and may have delivered a knock-out blow to the Governor’s presidential prospects.
The election of Dawn Zimmer as mayor in 2009 marked a sea change in Hoboken politics. Her predecessor, Peter Cammarano, was arrested by the FBI just 22 days after being sworn in as mayor. He subsequently pled guilty to accepting a $25,000 bribe. He was caught on tape by an undercover cooperating witness posing as a Hoboken developer looking to get his project expedited. In 2004, former Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo pled guilty to accepting thousands of dollars in bribes from the owner of the City’s accounting firm in exchange for awarding contracts to that firm. Then U.S. Attorney Chris Christie successfully prosecuted both of these cases.
Unlike nearly all of her predecessors, Mayor Zimmer was not born and raised in Hoboken. She was born in Maryland and raised in New Hampshire. She had only lived in town for five years before being elected to the City Council in 2007, her first foray into politics. Prior to that she had worked as a family portrait photographer. She had also worked for several corporations doing public relations and communication work that may help explain her flair for dealing with the media.
Several factors contributed to her unlikely rise to political prominence. Hoboken’s development boom began in the 1980s and reached a fever pitch by 2008. Hoboken lies on the other side of the Hudson River from Manhattan and developers began to call it the sixth borough of New York City. The Hoboken renaissance brought waves of new residents to town. From 1990 to 2012, the town’s population grew by over 18,000. Many of the old-time residents were displaced. Much of the political patronage consisted of jobs at the police and fire departments and the Board of Education. But many of these municipal workers moved out of town and could no longer vote in Hoboken elections. Elected officials became the biggest boosters of the development boom yet ultimately, it eroded their own political base. Newcomers were eager to dispense with the old-style machine politics seen as corrupt and out-of-date.
By 2005, Mayor David Roberts’ re-election campaign raised an unprecedented $1.4 million. Most of these funds poured in from companies vying for municipal contracts and developers seeking approvals for their projects. For those doing business with the City of Hoboken, showing up for political fundraisers was mandatory. Major developers all gave the maximum allowed. For them it was a small cost of doing business in Hoboken. But a local group, People for Open Government (POG), fought back and successfully passed a ballot initiative banning political contributions from professional firms working for the City. Subsequently, POG pushed the City Council to pass an ordinance that prohibited political contributions from developers with redevelopment contracts with the City. By the time Dawn Zimmer ran for mayor, the new ordinances dramatically reduced campaign cash and leveled the political playing field.
In her initial election campaign, Zimmer vowed to clean up corruption and put the brakes on over-development. When she became mayor, she enjoyed a slim 5 to 4 majority on the City Council. She acted with her council allies to appoint new members to the Planning Board and Zoning Board of Adjustment eventually replacing nearly all of the “born & raised” commissioners with “newcomers.” This past November, she was re-elected to second term as mayor with 47% of the vote. Her council slate also took all three at-large seats. In that election, she regained control of the City Council that had for months been locked in a 4 to 4 stalemate. A split opposition made easy work of this re-election effort. During the campaign, her political opponents leveled charges that she was divisive and treated long-time residents with contempt.
As U.S. Attorney, Chris Christie made a name for himself going after corrupt public officials and developers. In addition to successful prosecutions of Hoboken Mayors Russo and Cammarano, he also oversaw the case against Hoboken’s biggest developer at the time, Joe Barry, the president of Applied Companies. Barry was caught in a sting operation providing kickbacks to Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski in exchange for securing government funds to subsidize his development projects. Prior to his arrest and conviction, Barry enjoyed overwhelming influence with political leaders in Hoboken. He had built up a huge political base developing federally subsidized Section 8 housing where his employees turned out the Section 8 tenants to vote for the candidates he favored.
The Rockefeller Group
In 2008, towards the end of the Roberts administration, the Rockefeller Group began purchasing property in a three-block area at the north end of town, near the waterfront, This was part of larger 19-block area as yet undeveloped and still zoned for industrial use. The blocks purchased by Rockefeller formerly housed the Stahl Soap factory and the warehouse where floats for the Macy’s Day Parade were constructed. Last year, the Rockefeller Group demolished all the buildings on this site.
Rather than simply rezoning this area, the City of Hoboken sought to declare it a redevelopment zone, a process governed by the state’s redevelopment statutes. This has been done in Hoboken for a number of other former industrial zoning districts that subsequently became new residential developments. To begin this process, the City is required to hire consultants to undertake a study. In 2011, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey provided a $75,000 grant to the City to hire Clarke Caton Hintz, a planning firm in Trenton, New Jersey to conduct the study. Remarkably, this report found that only three of the 19 blocks were in need of redevelopment. They were the same three blocks owned by the Rockefeller Group.
In 2013, the Hoboken Planning Board rejected the findings of Clarke Caton Hintz. The Rockefeller Group has sought to meet with Mayor Zimmer, but she has declined to do so. Other major developers have also complained about lack of access to the Mayor who has said that she does not negotiate with developers. Other developers have similar complaints about stalled development projects under the Zimmer Administration.
Early on, Mayor Zimmer allied herself with Governor Christie and secured funding from him in her successful effort to sell the Hoboken University Medical Center which the City had purchased during the Roberts Administration. So, it seems logical that the Rockefeller Group would hire the law firm of Wolff & Samson to lobby on their behalf. David Samson, a founder of the firm, was chief counsel to the gubernatorial campaign of Chris Christie and chaired Christie’s Transition Committee. When Christie became governor, he appointed Samson to the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey and in 2011, he appointed Samson Chair.
But David Samson landed in the middle of the controversy at the George Washington Bridge and is now caught in the tangled web involving the Rockefeller Group, Mayor Zimmer and the Christie Administration. Brian Murphy in a TPM piece details the actions of Lori Grifa, the Commissioner of New Jersey Department of Community Affairs under Christie who later went to work for Wolff & Samson as its chief lobbyist. (See link below.) She aggressively lobbied the City of Hoboken and its redevelopment attorney to move the Rockefeller project forward.
Mayor Zimmer has earned respect for being well-intentioned and earnest. She clearly does not fit the mold of an ambitious, calculating pol. A recent poll taken by the Jersey Journal finds 69% of respondents believing her statements about Christie. As these scandals unfold, Governor Christie’s image as a bully has been reinforced in the public’s mind. As more subpoenas are issued, testimony solicited and documents uncovered, light will be shed on Christie’s role.
TPM: Hoboken Mayor: Christie Team Shook Us Down for Sandy Relief
APP: Did Chris Christie shaft Hoboken? A breakdown of where the Sandy dollars went
Defining the key to Hoboken’s success as a thriving urban-community
Hoboken Rail Yard Redevelopment Plan fundamentally flawed
Citizen initiated ordinances bring an end to pay-toplay campaign cash
Hoboken developer Joe Barry targeted by federal investigators
Political turmoil and pay-to-play ordinances level the political playing field
Major contributions solicited from developers and city contractors
Developers pay to play at Hoboken City Hall by writing big checks