Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer has even the city council in her mile-square New Jersey town trying to figure out who knew what and when.
The 45-year-old Democrat said on national television Jan. 18 that Republican Governor Chris Christie’s administration threatened to withhold Hurricane Sandy aid unless she approved a new office tower. Council members Beth Mason, Ravi Bhalla and Michael Russo said in interviews that was the first they had heard of it. Councilman David Mello, a Democrat, said that he knew earlier, though he declined to elaborate.
“My phones lit up” after Zimmer’s appearance on MSNBC, said Mason, a Democrat who’s been on the nine-person council since 2007. “People wanted to know what was going on. It should have been brought to the proper authorities and not been brought out in the media that way.”
The disclosure deepened a crisis for Christie, thrust Zimmer into the spotlight and re-opened wounds in a city where two of the last three mayors were charged with corruption. A mother of two who entered politics to create a park, Zimmer took over the city in 2009 after her predecessor was jailed for bribery. She and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop have pledged to end an era of Hudson County patronage that dates back almost a century to the days of Boss Frank Hague.
Christie, a 51-year-old possible presidential candidate, is facing trouble on several fronts. He’s under scrutiny from lawmakers and prosecutors in connection with politically motivated lane closings at the George Washington Bridge that snarled traffic in Fort Lee for four days in September. Mayor Mark Sokolich, a Democrat, had declined to endorse Christie’s re-election.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is auditing the governor’s use of Sandy funds for a $25 million marketing campaign in which he featured prominently.
And last week, Zimmer said on television that Lieutenant Governor Kim Guadagno told her in May that more than $100 million in relief funding was in jeopardy unless she supported the 40-story development in the North End of the city, which is across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
The developer, the New York-based Rockefeller Group, was represented by Wolff & Samson. The New Jersey law firm was founded by David Samson, Christie’s top appointee at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.
The day after Zimmer’s interview, Guadagno called the allegations “completely false” and “offensive.”
Wolff & Samson said in a statement yesterday that its “conduct in the representation of our client was appropriate in all respects” and denied Zimmer’s statements.
The mayor said in a statement that she met with U.S. Attorney Paul Fishman’s staff for two hours on Jan. 19 and gave them documents detailing the event, including journal entries she said she wrote after she and Guadagno spoke.
“I talk about everything with Governor Christie and what’s happened here, and then it ends with me talking about my husband and how much I love him,” Zimmer said on MSNBC.
She has since stopped talking to news outlets.
“The U.S. Attorney’s office has asked that we not conduct additional media interviews,” she said in a statement e-mailed by spokesman Juan Melli.
Zimmer’s comments have been publicly doubted by Republicans including Rudolph Giuliani, the former New York mayor, and Haley Barbour, a former Mississippi governor who referred to Zimmer as “a lady mayor” in a television interview.
Jon Stewart, a New Jersey native who hosts the satirical news program “The Daily Show,” lampooned Zimmer with a segment called “Diary of a Lady Mayor,” which featured an actress reading from the journal as a guitar played.
Russo said he wondered why the mayor waited to speak.
“The timing of it is starting to become very suspect,” said Russo, 38, a Democrat. “If this happened so long ago, what was the hesitation of going to the authorities then?”
Her role in the controversies swirling around Christie marks a new political challenge for Zimmer, who heads a city emerging from decades of struggle.
Hoboken, the birthplace of Frank Sinatra, was the filming location for “On the Waterfront,” the Oscar-winning 1954 movie about dockside corruption. Its maritime industry crumbled in the 1970s as companies moved to bigger ports with deeper waters.
In 2004, Anthony Russo, who had been mayor from 1993 to 2001, pleaded guilty to accepting cash to award contracts to an accounting firm. He got 30 months in prison.
In 2008, New Jersey placed Hoboken under supervision after it missed a budget deadline for the seventh-straight year.
The next year, Mayor Peter Cammarano III was arrested in a federal corruption sweep three weeks after taking office. He pleaded guilty and served two years in prison.
Yet as Manhattan real-estate prices soared, the city of 52,000 has been populated by young professionals, and is known for bars, restaurants and nightlife.
Zimmer, a councilwoman at the time of Cammarano’s arrest, became acting mayor in mid-2009 and won a full term that November. She had worked in communications after graduating from the University of New Hampshire, where she rowed crew for four years, according to her biography on the city website. Her husband, Stan Grossbard, is president of a family-owned diamond business.
Since taking office, Zimmer reduced taxes and established a surplus for the first time in years, according to her biography. She ended the St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a 25-year tradition that had become an alcohol-soaked public-safety headache.
Then, Sandy struck in October 2012, flooding most of Hoboken and leaving 90 percent of the city without power.
Zimmer requested $120 million in recovery funds, or more than a third of the state-controlled sum of $300 million, Marc Ferzan, executive director of Christie’s Office of Recovery and Rebuilding, said on a Jan. 20 conference call with reporters. He said it wasn’t clear how much of the promised funding was delivered to Hoboken.
The mayor said on MSNBC that she has gotten only $142,000 toward a single back-up generator, plus $200,000 more in recovery grants.
Bhalla, the councilman, said he’s close to Zimmer and was “a little bit shocked” when he saw her on television.
“Residents here are still suffering from Sandy,” said Bhalla, a Democrat. “Emotions are still raw. It was only 14 months ago and we still have people who haven’t been able to return home. It’s shocking the relief our city needs might have been held hostage to real estate interests.”
Mason, the councilwoman, said she and Zimmer have clashed on issues such as raises for city workers. She said she isn’t sure what Zimmer would gain from her statements and said Hoboken needs a respite after the corruption, the takeover and the hurricane.
“We’ve been through so much,” she said. “When do we get a rest?”