During his re-election campaign announcement two weeks ago Jersey City’s mayor, Jerramiah Healy, set an alarmingly divisive tone for his quest for a third term. As far as vision goes, Healy’s is not a forward looking path to hope and change. It is one of balkanization of the voters. Apparently in his world of Hudson County machine politics there is no positive cultural and economic melting pot to celebrate, to build upon. Rather, Jersey City is a population meant to be fractured and made hostile to one another.
The mayor’s words from the event speak for themselves. Referring to his main opponent, Ward E councilman Steven Fulop: “This young man wants the title of the mayor but not the job of the mayor. Get out to vote so that… Jersey City can remain for Jersey City, not some newcomers, some interlopers who don’t know the city, don’t care about the city, and want to use the city for their own personal ambitions.” This is not vision but desperation.
Webster’s defines the word interlope as “to encroach on the rights of others; intrude, interfere.” Perhaps the mayor fears newcomers interfering with his habit of awarding sweetheart tax abatements to new waterfront real estate developments. These giveaways are financed on the backs of long time small property owners. Property taxes have soared under Healy, while he welcomes big developer interlopers, and their campaign cash, with open arms.
It’s debatable that abatements are necessary one hundred percent of the time in order to lure new real estate development. What’s not debatable is that the resulting projects, overwhelmingly of the waterfront condo and office tower kind, add zero dollars to the local public school system, a tiny fraction of dollars to the county, and the rest used as a crutch to fill holes in the city budget. Abatement recipients’ payments in lieu of taxes in 2008 equaled 17 percent of Jersey City’s total budget.
Recently Team Fulop has been rolling out a series of detailed policy proposals. A complete picture of possible abatement reform is hopefully forthcoming. For now, what’s notable in his education platform is a promise to use tax revenue from real estate development for public schools.
Meanwhile, thirty thousand feet below the lofty business of actually discussing ideas, petty politics made an appearance at last week’s city council meeting. Councilwoman Diane Coleman, an African American head of a non-profit that assists the poor, and a Fulop ally, made an unfortunate and thoughtless gaffe recently, implying (jokingly, she insists) that everyone in Ward F has a criminal record. The resulting flap evinced the Team Healy style. About a dozen “protesters” unfurled anti-Coleman signs Wednesday night in the chamber. All of them written in the same handwriting. And the sign-holders were mightily bored. Sitting just one row in front of them, I could overhear the laughing and conversing about anything but Ward F, while others used the signs less to make a point than to hide their non-stop texting and other iPhone activities. A tired machine to be sure.
These decrepit tactics reflect the incumbent machine way of campaigning. Fulop’s volunteers, on the other hand, and their grassroots activities, exhibit an energetic flair for community organizing. One finds actual passion in the body language of his campaign workers going door to door. Some of them may be “newcomers”, whatever that means, but it is safe to say that people are motivated to action when a leader offers vision over fear mongering, specifics over tactics.
Here are some examples of other newcomers that Healy ignored in his speech. The venerable housing non-profit Habitat for Humanity set up shop in Jersey City in 2004 and began its first project in 2008. The Jersey City Fashion Week was founded in 2012. This event donates proceeds to charitable causes throughout the city, and you can see a smiling Jerramiah Healy presenting a proclamation of thanks to its founders on their website. The Jersey City Library Literacy program, which provides free tutoring for adults who can’t read, is led by a woman who immigrated to the U.S. in 2000. Interlopers!
I look forward to the debates. Perhaps the mayor can explain exactly which parts of his Jersey City (i.e. which patronage jobs and their occupants) he wishes to remain for Jersey City.