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New York Times: The Naked and the Dead

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Posted by GET NJ on October 11, 2004 at 07:30:08:

The Naked and the Dead
Jersey City Mayor's Race, Where Hitting Below the Belt Is a Soft Touch

The New York Times
The New Jersey Section
October 10, 2004


THERE are photographs of one candidate naked and slumped over on his front porch. Another candidate was removed from the ballot because he does not live here. There is a whisper campaign about yet another one's personal life. There are rumors of surveillance and charges of drunkenness and break-ins and race-baiting and the invocation of a dead mayor for political gain. And according to a chat board on the Web, every candidate is gay.

In short, it is business as usual.

Such is the hyperventilated state of New Jersey's second-largest city as it gears up
for a special election on Nov. 2 in which 11 candidates will be vying for mayor. And in Jersey City, where hitting below the belt is considered a soft touch, skullduggery abounds.

All this comes just five months after the death of Glenn D. Cunningham, the city's first black mayor. Though a popular figure credited with attempts at rejuvenating some of the most downtrodden parts of the city, his time in office was marked by a bitter feud with the county's Democratic organization and the powerful congressman from the district, Robert Menendez.

Many here even wanted Many here even wanted the dead mayor's politically savvy wife, Sandra A. Bolden Cunningham, to take up his mantle. But when she decided not to run in August, it left the field wide open.

"I think it has the potential to get more ugly," said Joseph Lauro, a former campaign adviser to Mr. Cunningham. "And when you have such a crowded field, it's hard for someone to sell themselves in a positive light. It's like having that loaded gun next to your bed and you keep thinking of reaching for it. In Jersey City, there's been a long history of people not voting for someone but voting against someone."

Someone will have to win, but that bloodied victor will only be able savor the victory
briefly since in May another election will be held for a full four-year term.

Of the 11 candidates, only a handful have a legitimate shot, according to conventional wisdom here. Many expect a tight three-way race among Louis M. Manzo, a state assemblyman and former Cunningham supporter; L. Harvey Smith, the acting mayor and council president; and Jerramiah T. Healy, a councilman and a former municipal court chief judge, who has the support of the city's Democratic organization but not Mr. Menendez, who controls the county organization.

Last week, Mr. Healy, a diabetic, said that photographs showing him naked were the result of a night out drinking six to eight beers over a three-hour period - though he is still scratching his head and wondering how he ended up on the porch. "I wish I recall how I got back out there," he said. "But I don't."

Many of the candidates are trying to take up the mantle of Mr. Cunningham, including Willie L. Flood, a former councilwoman and chairwoman of Mrs Cunningham's nascent political faction. Her campaign literature proclaims "Keep the legacy alive!" and her campaign headquarters on Jersey Avenue has all the trappings of a Cunningham death cult. Taped to the windows are heart-shaped pictures of the former mayor.

"I ran because I didn't see anyone step up to the plate," Ms. Flood explained in a recent interview.

In a debate held two weeks ago, every candidate invoked the dead mayor's name (some more often than others) in the hopes of scoring political points.

It shocked some that Ms. Flood, a close aide to the former mayor, did not get Mrs. Cunningham's endorsement - at least not right away. That prize went instead to a man who is no longer on the ballot - Ronald D. Buonocore, the city's police chief. But two weeks ago Mr. Buonocore, who has a home in Hardyston, was declared ineligible by a state superior court judge for failing to meet the one-year residency requirement. When Mrs. Cunningham finally realized last week that her preferred candidate was out of the running, she endorsed Ms. Flood.

Residents can be forgiven for experiencing deja vu. In 1992, Mayor Gerald McCann was forced to resign after his conviction on federal fraud charges. A 19-candidate field resulted in the surprise election of Bret D. Schundler, a Republican who went on to setve two terms and was later his party's gubernatorial nominee.

Much has changed since then, and today this is a city of stark contrasts. In the past 1 years, the Hudson waterfront has gone fror a gritty tangle of abandoned rail yards an decaying warehouses to a high-end busines district, a haven for luxury condominium and a quickly gentrifying downtown.

Yet the majority of the city is solidly working class, with large numbers of immigrants among the 240,000 residents - two thirds of whom are members of minority groups. In many quarters, it is desperate!; poor, with large numbers of black, Hispanic South Asian and Filipino residents. The pov erty rate is 18.6 percent.

The practical result of this demographic change has been a grand shift in traditional voting patterns, and the death of historic boss-style machine politics that once
gripped this riverfront city.

"You've had an influx of new people, and Middle Eastern, Latino," Mr. Lauro said. "It's hard to have large blocs of voters and control them as in the past. And that's why you have more candidates, because there are more people who think they have a shot."

The town that gave the world Mayor Frank "I am the Law" Hague has changed. "There is no machine," Mr. Lauro said. "It's a free-for-all."

Not surprisingly, many candidates are running on anti-corruption platforms. "Fighting Corruption" (Healy) and "Reform Government Now (Steve Lipski)," are just two examples.

Mayor Smith, a former schoolteacher, put it this way: "I'm poor. I'm 55 years old. I'm too old to go to jail. I still bounce a check every now and then. I don't take cash. I don't let people give me things."

Under a fading sun, Mr. Smith made the rounds through the Greenville section of the city last week, clasping hands and talking about jobs, more police and housing, while men sat on porches drinking beer and children played ball in a driveway. He approached a young woman and some children on Wade Street.

"We're putting in plans and programs for affordable housing," he said.

With that, 7-year-old Anjalyn Mitchell said, "My mother says she needs Section 8."

Taken aback, Mr. Smith leaned down and said, "Tell your mom that's a federal program and she needs to apply."

He turned to leave, but then thought of a better answer.

"Tell your mom she needs to call me," he said.

Nearly all the. candidates believe that fighting crime is the most urgent issue facing the city. Despite an overall drop in crime through the 1990's that continues to this day (from 1997 to 2002, the crime index dropped 22 percent, according to state police reports, though violent crime rose slightly from 2001 to 2002), candidates charge that gangs, guns and drugs are still prevalent in large parts of the city.

And like many New Jersey cities, Jersey City has struggled with its budget and property taxes. In September, the city adopted a controversial refinancing plan of its debt that lowers its payments now, but over time will cost the city an additional $18 million. Mr. Smith has promised that if elected he will not raise taxes.

Since this is a presidential election year, campaign organizers are expecting a large turnout. And one of the great, untapped blocs that will probably turn out in droves are the newcomers to the waterfront. Still, many here question just how many professionals living in expensive high-rise apartments and condominiums will realize that Michael Bloomberg is not their mayor.

In Newport, the sprawling business and residential complex, campaign organizers are not permitted in the buildings, and residents there have New York-based cable.

Steve Miller, the city's chief of administrative services who is working for Mr. Manzo's campaign, said that past experience is not promising: "Four years ago, we're telling people, 'Are you voting for mayor?'" Their response? 'Oh yeah, we're voting for Giuliani.'"

Among the expected also-rans are a waiter of Egyptian descent; a seafood counter worker at an A & P who claims Ronald Reagan came to his home several years ago to encourage him to run for office; a lawyer; a high school teacher; a food service manager at the Meadowlands; and finally, a candidate who, when approached in the hallway outside his apartment about his campaign, explained, "I'm still waiting on God before I say anything."

Silent but with a faith that is unwavering, his official campaign slogan remains, "Yes Lord!"

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