HOBOKEN – There’s a war here going on among the usual ramble of Washington Avenue bars and coffee shops and pizza dungeons and specialty food kitchens and bistros, and it comes in the form of politics, where the festive fronts of the different mayoral candidates’ headquarters look like the stagecraft of emergent power.
Presumably one of these temporary set pieces will transmogrify a candidate onto the mayoral throne just down the block.
InsiderNJ walked past the orange and blue balloon habitation of Councilman Ravi Bhalla. There was Bhalla himself walking along the sidewalk. In the distance, the familiar smiling face of Councilman Mike DeFusco shone out on the world. At least three people in this mile-square burgh look at that face and think one thing: smug. One of them sat in a campaign HQ catacorner to Camp DeFusco. We turned and walked down a row of stone stairs and into the den of one of the other so-called four top tier contender.
Inside, back in the shadows, sat a beat cop turned bar owner and Hudson County Freeholder Anthony “Stick” Romano, his campaign manager Pablo Fonseca, and other assorted players in Stick World.
Why? InsiderNJ asked the candidate, who rates running off the line for reelection in 2014 against the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) as the most courageous move he made in his political career. Why does he think he should be mayor of Hoboken? And what specifically has prepared him for the job? Why should people rest easy at night with him in charge?
A long table of Romano diehards included, at one end, Fonseca, who’s running the ground game for Romano. The candidate talked him up. Straight shooter. Rough but big hearted. Loyal to a fault. Stood by Romano when times were tough, like when the HCDO tried to toss him but failed. Uncanny organizer.
“He’s not dirty, like some other people who are involved in this election,” the freeholder said. “I wouldn’t lay the tag ‘mercenary’ on him. Mercenaries don’t care who they serve. Pablo is a sergeant major.”
Romano sat down, relaxed, easy-going, and fielded the question. He was a police commander. He’s been on the scene of a crisis when there was a crash in the river. He was that police officer on night duty. He walked the streets in this town once, two and a half years as a beat cop. He knows the streets, he says, and the locals who populate them.
It doesn’t take him long to ding DeFusco, everyone’s favorite target early as that nagging contender raising solid money who, in the grumbled words of his detractors, also more than anyone else so far has more of a youthful tendency to tell people what they want to hear. He’s also brandishing very sharp elbows, and Romano has found himself poked in the eye a few times, probably because at least one poll shows him leading the contest right now on the strength of his most obviously solidified base.
“There’s one candidate in this contest who has only been in office for two years,” Romano told InsiderNJ. “The other candidates have served for at least two terms, and the experience on the municipal level is there. One is a real estate agent [Jen Giattino]. The other is a lawyer [Bhalla]. Overall, experience works in my favor.”
He has relationships in the political world, arguably more than the other candidates in the contest, with the possible exception of Bhalla.
“I cant speak for Ravi, who I respect,” said Romano. “I can only say it has been such a wonderful learning experience to develop these relationships up and down, with the likes of Congressman Sires, U.S. Senator Menendez, Senator Booker, State Senator Stack, Senator Sacco, Senator Cunningham, council people, mayors, Mayor Fulop. I have a very good relationship with Mayor Fulop, we’re good friends, because I represent Jersey City. As a freeholder I have served three different municipalities, which is relevant when you consider how what happens in Weehawken or Jersey City impacts Hoboken. That kind of experience comes with being able to work with different people.”
He has a special relationship with Menendez.
“Bob is not just a political mentor,” Romano said. “He is a family friend. Bob and my cousin Jay – they started out together.” Asked to consider the embroiled Menendez as the senator attempts to fend off federal corruption charges, the freeholder added, “First and foremost you have to follow the investigation. It’s up to juries to judge all the facts presented. I wish him well and hopefully the situation will come to a just conclusion.”
But what about Stack? The name jumps out of the pack and sticks in the atmosphere like a quivering dart as a consequence of the Union City mayor and 33rd District state Senator’s active campaign against Romano.
“I still look for the support of Senator Stack,” the freeholder said hopefully. He has not had any interaction with Stack since learning of the power broker’s decision to actively campaign against him. “Hopefully the situation will be rectified,” he said. “I definitely think there is a misunderstanding and hopefully I will have the opportunity to straighten it out.”
The slap at DeFusco at the outset caught InsiderNJ’s attention and, prodded, Romano doubled back for seconds.
“In one candidate’s case, that candidate talks about the future- but the future doesn’t come without having a past and present,” the mayoral candidate said.
Romano argues that he has better government scaffolding in place as he seeks an office that will require him to work with a governor, senators and other elected officials. But what about the fact that he continues to run for freeholder while seeking the mayor’s office? Won’t that confuse voters? They’ll go into a polling place and find the name “Anthony Romano” in two places on the ballot. They may vote for him for freeholder then walk out and give them the thumbs up. “Hey, Stick, I voted for you,” and that may be the truth, only it wasn’t for mayor.
Romano shook his head.
“The modern voter is very educated,” he said. ” To begin with, when they look and see there is the party line.” And then there is a separate, non-partisan section for mayor of Hoboken. “It was the circumstances of how everything came about that made this situation what it is,” the freeholder said. “Obviously, I ran on the Democratic line in the primary with the Democratic gubernatorial candidate. After that, Mayor Zimmer came to the decision not to run for reelection. After discussions with family and staff, I decided to run for mayor.”
What does he want to do?
“There is a difference between visions and pie in the sky statements,” he said, and again the slap at a rival without him naming names resounded in the narrow room. “Theory and dreams are a fine thing. But when you have plans, you better have the finances to back up those plans without burdening your tax base. Hoboken has been slowed with the rapid growth in Jersey City. We face parking issues and parking enforcement issues, which discourage people from coming to visit. My vision is to get Hoboken back on track.”
He feels he is best poised to revitalize the North End of the city, while simultaneously best serving the needs of the Housing Authority crowd in the 4th Ward.
“Both my grandmothers lived down there,” Romano said. “I read write and speak Spanish and still play softball on Sunday and Monday nights there; I grew up on Tenth and Willow, and the federal housing area will always be ear to my heart. I’m proud to be born and raised here. With that being said, with both positions , as a police officer and as a freeholder, I’ve interacted with people from all over the spectrum, including the young millennials. I don’t see the other candidates at those events. I don’t see them interacting, donating to the kayak group uptown. I helped get a grant for the kayak club. I don’t shy away if someone happens to be a Mayor Zimmer supporter. I dive right into the hornet’s nest. I don’t like to place blame. Issues in any segment of the community are important to me, and I believe I can reach out to any group. It’s one Hoboken, one city, and that encompasses any group in our population. When I headed the community policing bureau, I always made it a priority that no one is left our or treated unfairly.
“Maintaining affordable housing is important,” he added. “Addressing conditions regarding mold rehabilitation is essential and important. I would like to work with the director of the housing authority and something on those vacant lots, see if we can build more housing, and, of course, improve the safety of those residents. Maybe create a police precinct there.”
He supports body cameras for cops.
“I don’t see it as a problem,” he said “The more the police officer is protected or when he does an action that is inappropriate there is a record.
As for who he would put in a Romano cabinet, he said, “Look, it’s not about placing cronies in positions. You need qualified people to make government run effectively and efficiently. I believe in putting people in there with experience, people with good reputations. Right now, people are very wary of elected officials. You don’t want to give them more to be wary of, whether someone is in charge of public works or the legal arm of government.”
He said he’s running hard, running the way Menendez told him a person has to run even when he believes to have the lead. “I see myself running scared,” Romano said. “I’m at the bottom fighting to get there. We are fighting to get to the top. I believe in humility. People don’t respect arrogance. Our whole focus is to run like we’re behind.”
As the rattle of roadwork sounded outside, InsiderNJ asked Romano to assess the sitting chief executive of the city: Mayor Dawn Zimmer.
“I think Mayor Zimmer was at the right place at the right time,” he said. “I don’t think she ever wanted to be involved until it was thrust upon her with the demise of Mayor Cammarano. One of Mayor Zimmer’s strong points was that she was honest, and she always believed what she was doing was right. The flooding issue was near to her heart she tried to resolve it. But I feel that Mayor Zimmer did not have that ability to be comfortable and interact with people who were not from her inner circle.”
His own personal model for leadership is General Colin Powell, who, incidentally, has the admiration of Stack, who once brought Powell to Union City to name a school after him.
“George Bush senior is also a political hero of mine,” Romano said. “He proved himself at sports at Yale, he was a decorated WWII fighter pilot, and a gentleman who showed decorum. As for my own leadership style, I would say you cannot be laissez faire but at the same time you cannot micromanage. The staff has to state their opinions. It’s important to have trust. And so far, the most important thing I’ve found about during this election is some people have a dark side .
“It’s supposed to be about policy,” he added.
“We’re going to run a campaign based on issues and policy,” added Fonseca, when prodded for his take on the race. “Anthony and his team are what’s best for Hoboken and its residents.
“If people get out of hand it’s not like we’re going to stand by and not hit back,” he added. “Everything we have done has been positive Anthony has been attacked personally and we’re taking the high road to focus on what people really care about. It’s not your personality and who you’re friends are. Our goal is to go through this on policy and issues based campaign.”
A DeFusco ally confronted Romano earlier this summer at a Jersey City event and tried to bully him.
Fonseca shook his head.
“I think that’s totally unacceptable,” he said. “That’s a line you don’t cross in this business. But people do desperate things at desperate times. We continue to follow our game plan on our way to victory.”