Where have all the Hoboken Reformers Gone?

Hoboken City Hall.

When folk singer, Peter Seeger, penned his classic anti-war anthem “Where Have all the Flowers Gone,” he raised monumental questions about the impact of political conflict in war, about right and wrong, and the morality associated with the pursuit of power. As with Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind,” Seeger hoped to make clear that good guys and bad guys aren’t often what they seem, and the causes that people fight for are sometimes entwined with self-interest.

Reform movements in Hoboken over the last four decades have often blown in the wind, rising up at critical moments to vanish in a sudden political change of weather.

In the early 1990, people flocked to people like Ira Karasick as kind of David vs. Goliath to stop the rise of then politically powerful Anthony Russo. Later, many of the same people who supported Karasick backed a ticket led by Dave Roberts to bring down the Russo regime – only to be disappointed when Roberts became another Russo in their eyes. While people like Tony Soares, Michael Lenz and Carol Marsh retained the mantle of reform, it wasn’t until Dawn Zimmer came onto the picture that reformers were able to fully galvanize their potential, and gain control of government, reforming it from the inside out.

You don’t have to like Zimmer to admit that she wielded great power during her two terms as mayor and managed to get herself elected through clever manipulation of the political process and fierce loyalty by her supporters.

But Zimmer’s decision two years ago not to seek reelection to a third term shattered the once powerful

Bhalla and Zimmer
Bhalla and Zimmer

coalition and created divisions that make it unclear just who are the reformers these days. Council members and others who had supported Zimmer in the past leaped into the political fray to seek to replace her, attempting to prevent Ravi Bhalla – Zimmer’s heir apparent – from ascending to the throne.

For Bhalla, who managed to win a close election with less than 50 percent of the total votes cast in 2017, this new political landscape is a complete mystery.

While he managed to inherit many of the successful reforms of the Zimmer Administration, he did not inherit the loyalty of those who ran with Zimmer in the past.

“The good news is that there was no need to drain the swamp in city hall,” Bhalla said. “Mayor Zimmer performed that task to the benefit of the people of Hoboken.”

He said much of the work at reforming government had been accomplished and he inherited a good team of directors in city hall, “professional, skilled, honey and caring,” policy oriented rather than political.

“The bad news is that Mayor Zimmer had the cooperation of the council, I do not have,” Bhalla said, describing the upcoming mid-term council elections on Nov. 5 as an opportunity to give him a voting majority on the board that will allow him to continue the Zimmer legacy, and perhaps build a reform legacy of his own.


Moves by the council to appoint Councilman Rubin Ramos as council president and to replace Councilman Jim Doyle on the Hoboken Planning Board.

“Fortunately, this is a strong form of government and I’ve been able to enact the priorities of my administration,” he said. “And for most of the big ticket, the council has agreed.”

But there is real hostility between the mayor and the council, which often translates into marathon meetings and a lot of talk.

He would like to see term limits of two terms that would allow committed activists to get into office – such as most of the slate of candidates he’s supporting.

While Bhalla sees a lot of the attacks at petty and seeks a council that is more interested in policy than politics, his opponents do not see him as cut in the mold of Zimmer – which is why he faced such stiff opposition during the mayoral election.

To confuse the situation in Hoboken even more, none of the sides fit the old model of reformer verse old


guard. While Ramos appears to be the standard bearer for what used to be called “Old Hoboken,” so is Councilman Michael Russo – the son of former Mayor Russo. Bhalla did not put up a candidate against Russo suggesting an unholy alliance between reformers and old Hoboken. On the other side, Councilmembers Tiffanie Fisher and Jen Giattino – previously aligned with Zimmer – at times have aligned with Ramos against Bhalla. Considering all the ink spent and blogs posted against Ramos and Old Hoboken in the past, this is more than a little ironic.

Even more to the point, Councilman Michael DeFusco, who ran with the support of Zimmer in the past, is Bhalla’s archrival, a man who ran against Bhalla, and speaks out most offend at council meetings against many of Bhalla’s policies.


Adding to all this are accusations that the allies of some of Bhalla’s candidates have made possibly homophobic remarks against DeFusco – who is openly gay. This harkens back to the 2017 election when someone circulated a racist flyer against Bhalla, which many believed may have won Bhalla a sympathy vote.

Behind the scenes is a much larger conflict being waged in which powerful Hudson County political bosses appear to be taking sides. A number of anti-Bhalla candidates appear to have the support of political operators in North Bergen – if not openly the support of state Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco. Bhalla, on the other hand, has more open support from state Senator and Union City Mayor Brian Stack. Hoboken is in Stack’s legislative district, not Sacco’s. But both political bosses have the potential to bring serious resources to the Nov. 5 election for their candidates. So, it is possible that armies of campaign workers may descend on Hoboken to help get the vote out.

North Bergen Mayor Nick Sacco
North Bergen Mayor Nick Sacco
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