VILE GOES VIRAL: Bhalla and DeFusco Share Thoughts on Bias Impact in Hoboken Mayor Campaign — EXCLUSIVE
by Christopher Halleron
The 2017 Hoboken Mayoral campaign had been one for the ages. Councilman Michael DeFusco announced his candidacy early on, setting up an apparent head-to-head with incumbent Mayor Dawn Zimmer. But that narrative changed dramatically in June, when Zimmer announced that she would not be seeking re-election.
Despite endorsing Councilman Ravi Bhalla on the spot, Zimmer’s departure from the race opened the door to a slew of other challengers who also felt they could sit at the big chair in Hoboken City Hall. The result is a six-way race, with Bhalla and DeFusco being joined by City Council President Jen Giattino, Hudson County Freeholder Anthony Romano, businesswoman Karen Nason, and activist Ronald Bautista in the field.
With so many voices, the conversation has been cacophonous, and certainly spirited at times. Yet on Friday it managed to get louder, and much uglier…
Forged fliers based on literature from DeFusco’s campaign were distributed in Hoboken, with the header “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our Town!” The Hoboken Police Department are currently investigating, and have released images of men suspected to be involved.
As for the candidates involved, the October Surprise came a little late this cycle, but it sure was a doozy.
Local, national and even international media have picked up the story, painting the Hoboken Mayoral race as one rooted in bias and xenophobia.
“My wife and children were understandably upset,” said Ravi Bhalla, in an exclusive interview with hMAG. “But we know Hoboken has been great for our family. And as Mayor, I will work to keep our City a welcoming one where all people are treated with respect.”
DeFusco, Hoboken’s first openly gay elected official, also spoke with hMAG. “There have been undercurrents of hate and bias throughout this campaign, in many forms. I have seen people on social media make disparaging comments about Councilman Bhalla’s race and religion. At the same time, I have been the target of anti-gay slurs and a supporter of another campaign contacted my partner’s boss, something that should be totally out of bounds,” he said. “This campaign has exposed some of the the worst of our city, but the most troubling part is that the actors behind it were not publicly admonished by the campaigns they were publicly aligned with. I’ve had a zero tolerance policy with hate speech in my campaign, be it my staff or the voters, and have spoken out against inappropriate language in every instance, whether aimed at me or another candidate.”
With the investigation ongoing, the candidates were reluctant to share their theories on who was behind the forged materials.
“I do not know who is responsible. There is an active police investigation and I am hopeful the culprit(s) will be identified soon,” said Bhalla.
“The Hoboken Police Department and the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office are investigating these fliers and I’m hopeful they will identify a suspect before Tuesday. It’s obvious that whoever did this meant to hurt my campaign,” said DeFusco. He also drew comparisons to a broader trend of willful misinformation plaguing the campaign process. “Sadly, there have been several other recent incidents such as this with racist political material being distributed in other towns in New Jersey, but this is the only one where it was falsely attributed to another candidate. My campaign has been about challenging the status quo and entrenched interests since day one, and obviously we have struck a nerve because we’ve seen not only this reprehensible tactic, but also a Super PAC spending over $50,000 to falsely attack me and numerous anonymous fliers spreading lies about me.”
The term #FakeNews is seeing a lot of use these days. It gained momentum in the 2016 election cycle, and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. The notion of campaign chicanery is certainly nothing new—particularly here in Hudson County, New Jersey. However, Friday’s stunt made even some of the hardest-nosed politicians take pause.
“’Fake news’ like this is a major problem—look no further than the 2016 election. Social media gives nefarious forces the opportunity to quickly spread misinformation and once the genie is out of the bottle it’s hard to put it back in,” said DeFusco. “My campaign has been incredibly aggressive in pushing back on the false narrative created by these fliers, both in traditional media and online, but it can feel like we’re running uphill. In fact, even Senator Cory Booker tweeted about the flier without also saying that it is a misrepresentation of my views and an awful attack on me and on my campaign. It is critical that influencers like the media, prominent politicians and community leaders fact-check what they see before sharing it, and that consumers of information do so with a healthy dose of skepticism. This is a societal problem that we must confront, not just in Hoboken but across our country.”
My friend @RaviBhalla is running for Hoboken mayor. This vile hateful flyer was put out. I️ condemn it! We all must condemn bigotry & hate! https://t.co/3Wz5Io9kNZ
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) November 4, 2017
As for the Hoboken campaign, Decision 2017 takes place tomorrow, and the candidates are intent on shifting the conversation back to issues that have been debated throughout the race.
“The focus of our campaign has not changed. I am confident the voters of Hoboken will judge me on my experience, qualifications and vision,” says Bhalla. As a leader on the Council, I worked closely with Mayor Zimmer to turn our city around, moving our bond rating from junk to AA+, saving our hospital and helping to secure federal funding for comprehensive flood protection. I have put forward detailed plans on the major challenges facing our city, including upgrading our aging infrastructure. And I am the only candidate standing up to President Trump when it is called for.”
When asked if he felt safe in Hoboken, Bhalla’s answer was a swift and succinct, “Yes.”
As for the campaign, it had been seen be any and every astute observer to be “too close to call.” For his part, Bhalla remains positive.
“I am optimistic about my chances and believe we are gaining more support every day.”
We asked DeFusco how he felt the fliers would impact his campaign.
“These fliers made national news and were shared by thousands of people on social media, many doing so without acknowledging that my campaign did not create them and that I was also being targeted and damaged,” he said. “Obviously this had an effect and I think that in a close election like this one it could be viewed as decisive. We’ve run an incredible campaign full of exciting new ideas that has garnered support from all over our city and to see it be potentially defeated by a small-minded, hateful act like this is something that I will unfortunately be thinking about for a long time, if we do not win this election.”
In turn, we asked Bhalla if he would look look at xenophobia as one of the deciding factors, should he lose on Tuesday.
“No. I won’t,” he replied.
Polls open Tuesday, November 7 at 6:00 a.m.