(ABOVE: image via facebook)
This election didn’t have to be about Ravi Bhalla.
Tuesday was a Hoboken Municipal Election for City Council. The Faulkner Act, the municipal charter under which Hoboken operates, provides for the election of various council members (9 for Hoboken), while granting the Mayor broad executive power.
The Mayoral election was in 2017, and Ravi Bhalla won. His job is to work with the Council and run the City of Hoboken.
Nevertheless, the Mayor, citing a need for “new leadership” and “fresh perspective” in the Council, introduced #TeamBhalla last May. The list of candidates that fit the Mayor’s criteria included City Hall employee Migdalia Pagan-Milano, born-and-raised local activist/journalist Nora Martínez-DeBenedetto, attorney Lisa Sprengle, attorney Phil Cohen, and born-and-raised activist/television producer Cristin Cricco-Powell.
“Taken together, this slate of candidates represent the new energy, new ideas and public spiritedness we need to keep moving Hoboken in the right direction,” said Bhalla back in May—just days after making the news for having City Council members removed from City Hall by security. “As Council members, I know Migdalia, Nora, Lisa, Phil and Cristin will put Hoboken first, working cooperatively to move our City forward, forgoing the political attacks and grandstanding that have too often sidetracked the current City Council.”
Confrontation has been a hallmark for the Bhalla administration following an exceptionally contentious 2017 election.
With former Mayor Dawn Zimmer stepping aside, Bhalla managed to win the calamitous six-way race that followed, assuming office with 32.7% of the vote. With such a small percentage of demonstrable support, making the Hoboken City Council campaign a de facto referendum on his administration was a bold decision. Last year’s referendum reinstating runoffs for candidates who fail to secure 50+% of the vote should have been a good indicator for how this might turn out—with 74% of Hoboken voters supporting the measure.
In many ways, the 2017 campaign continues to this day, as the Mayor and his staff have struggled when it comes to working with his former City Council colleagues… to say the least.
And yet, the City has been able to move forward on so many issues—together. Despite an apparent need for incessant drama and rallies and calls to action, the Mayor and the Council have managed to find common ground on pivotal topics like Union Dry Dock, SUEZ Water Main contract, the Monarch Project, the Northwest Park, flooding initiatives, and other issues vital to voters in Hoboken. The Council has even been on board for a number of administration miscues, including the Dynamic Parking experiment (repealed weeks after its implementation) and the controversial “giveback” program for development of the Hoboken Hilton project (which has since been restructured, and remains contested).
So where does all this perceived drama come from?
Bhalla has spent an inordinate amount of time in the spotlight, for the Mayor of a small New Jersey City. Just prior to his election, he received international attention over a fraudulent flier that wildly impugned his religious heritage. Since then, he has been making headlines for everything from scooter rideshare, to gun control, to gender neutral bathrooms, to tough-talking battles with utility companies.
Bhalla’s time in the spotlight has brought him a considerable amount of social media attention. He has a significant number of online followers—some real, some fabricated. Social media activity was frenetic during the lead-up to the November 5th election, as messages reverberated around an online echo chamber in support for the Mayor’s initiatives and the #TeamBhalla slate.
Unfortunately for #TeamBhalla, social media accounts don’t vote—not even in Hudson County, New Jersey.
When the results came in, the slate lost all but one contest. The most surprising was in the First Ward, where incumbent Councilman Michael DeFusco beat Migdalia Pagan-Milano by a 2-to-1 margin. DeFusco has emerged as Bhalla’s chief rival, with Bhalla narrowly beating DeFusco in the 2017 Mayoral contest. DeFusco’s own brand has taken its lumps throughout the campaign, but managed a very clear and comfortable win in what was widely expected to be a much tighter race. Councilman Ruben Ramos, Jr. held his position in the Fourth Ward, following an assertive campaign from Lisa Sprengle. Ramos has long maintained reliable support among his constituents, and Sprengle was facing an uphill battle. In the Third Ward, Councilman Michael Russo defeated activist Ron Bautista. While Bautista did not have the Mayor’s direct backing, he still managed 32.7% of the vote… as much as the Mayor got in 2017.
Two of the more dynamic fights came in the Second and Sixth Wards, where born-and-raised activists Nora Martínez-DeBenedetto and Cristin Cricco-Powell fell just short in their respective bids to unseat Second Ward Councilwoman Tiffanie Fisher and Sixth Ward Councilwoman Jen Giattino. The incumbents held onto their positions by single-digit percentage points, leaving some to wonder how it may have played out if the challengers weren’t under the #TeamBhalla banner.
That argument becomes a lot clearer in the Fifth Ward, where longtime political operative Phil Cohen was initially set to face Peter Cunningham. After 12 years on the Council, Cunningham decided to step aside, which meant the Fifth Ward was essentially Cohen’s to lose.
And he nearly did, as a pair of candidates emerged to challenge Phil’s presumptive possession of the seat—basically running on the premise that they weren’t going to be the Mayor’s rubber stamp. Despite late entries into the race, Nicola Maganuco and Tim Crowell ran gutsy grassroot campaigns to come within 85 votes of forcing a runoff against Cohen, who only managed 52.3%.
To recap, #TeamBhalla lost against ALL incumbents—and barely escaped with the one seat that they pretty much could have banked on.
What does all that mean?
If you take election results as any indication, it means that Hoboken doesn’t want a rubber stamp. Hoboken doesn’t want an agenda. Hoboken doesn’t want a cult of personality. Hoboken doesn’t want a squeaky-wheel republic where policies are crafted to placate an antagonistic political minority.
Hoboken wants an effective system of checks and balances in which the needs of the many are presented and considered before actions are taken. Despite assurances from #TeamBhalla candidates that they would operate independently, the majority of Hoboken voters seemed skeptical of that. The Faulkner Act already has an element that gives the Mayor strong executive powers. Removing any remaining checks and balances by delivering the Council on a platter just left a bad taste in a majority of mouths.
This result should send a message to the Bhalla administration that it might consider a different approach to leadership over the next few years. What’s important to realize is that Tuesday’s winners may not have been given some emphatic mandate, but they did win their races by somehow appealing to the majority.
Hoboken has a lot of infrastructure issues. Hoboken’s political infrastructure might need the most work right now. Bridges need to be rebuilt, and fences need to be mended. A lot of vitriol has been spilled over the past few years, and the 2017 campaign has never ended. It’s time to mop that up, put a lid on it and get on with things.
In politics, crisis represents opportunity. We get that. But Hoboken has enough crises—we don’t need to invent more. With the elections behind us, it’s time to step away from politics and focus on governance. If your ambition is to serve Hoboken, then serve Hoboken. If your ambition is to seek a higher office, then ensure that your promotion is meritorious, rather than mendacious. Cut your teeth here and become better leaders, accountable leaders, and focus on serving your constituency.
Christopher M. Halleron is the Publisher/Editor of hMAG.
As a columnist and journalist, he has covered various aspects of life here in the ‘greater Hoboken area’ and beyond for the past two decades.
His opinions are his own.