Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Wheels Come Off the Machine

Does Cammarano Arrest Mark the End of an Era?
(scroll down for updates)

Only 21 days in and Hoboken’s Cammarano era has come to a sudden and stunning close as the city’s freshman mayor is hauled in by the FBI to face charges of corruption.

Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano is among more than 40 people rounded up on Thursday by FBI agents. Those arrested face charges related to their alleged involvement in a convoluted money laundering and property development scheme.

In custody alongside Cammarano are Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt (R-Ocean), Secaucus Mayor Denis Elwell, Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez, Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega and Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini. According to the Newark Star-Ledger, the FBI sweep continues.

Hoboken's Walk of Shame
While Cammarano has yet to be indicted -- and remains innocent until proven otherwise -- the charges confirm suspicions that he was deeply engaged with a Hudson County political machine that treated back-slapping cronyism and influence pedaling as status quo.

The actions he's accused of would be more shocking to locals were it not for the state's history of crooked politics, which has landed more than 130 Jersey officials in jail since 2001, and conditioned us in Hoboken to accept corruption as a natural feature of the landscape.

But this could soon change. Cammarano’s future as mayor of Hoboken remains murky. Much depends on the outcome of the ongoing FBI investigation. Guilty or not, it's fair to say that the prospects of this onetime political hopeful are now D.O.A.

Cammarano, 32, was thought by HobokenLocal to be simply naïve – an ambitious young politician swept up by a system that would do whatever it takes to further his career.

Aligning one's political prospects with the Hudson County political establishment had been a sure path to electoral victory. But this arrest, and the widespread corruption it allegedly involves, may prove the end of politics as usual in our city of 40,000.

Some of you may scoff at that. But remember: Cammarano narrowly defeated rival Dawn Zimmer after a recount of questionable absentee ballots gave him the edge over her majority earned in the voting booths.

Zimmer's success -- even in a losing effort -- proved that the machine's hold on local democracy is increasingly tenuous. Cammarano's fall may be its final undoing.

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UPDATE: 9:00am ET, July 26 -- Yesterday I posted the following analysis at DailyKOS and the Huffington Post. In summary: Cammarano's downfall is an opportunity for New Jersey's progressive movement. It's our chance to pry the state's Democratic Party from the patronage machine that has put "business as usual" before accountability. Time to get organized, not only to remove Cammarano from office, but to put in place new leadership and principles and build a future where other Cammaranos have no place in politics. Stay tuned.

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UPDATE: 9:00pm ET, July 24 -- Another citizens petition calls for Cammarano's immediate resignation. The goal of 10,000 signatures is ambitious given the city's population (39,853). Despite Hoboken411's claim to the contrary, online petitions do work if tied to smart offline organizing. A broad and well orchestrated statement of public condemnation could go a long way towards showing our indicted mayor the door.

Cammarano's support from outside and within the machine is disintegrating. Members of his 88-member transition team are already de-camping. One, Phil Cohen, put it succinctly in his resignation letter to the mayor: "Having read the Criminal Complaint unsealed yesterday by the United States District Attorney, I believe it's not possible for you to serve as an effective leader of our city."

Meanwhile, two other mayoral candidates, Beth Mason and Dawn Zimmer, have indicated that their campaigns were approached by a property developer looking to exchange money for political favors (the same "cooperating witness" identified in the Cammarano complaint). Both said no. Cammarano, however, reportedly took the bait again, again, and again.

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UPDATE: 1:00pm ET, July 24 -- Making a brief statement before the cameras today, Mayor Cammarano denied any wrongdoing and said he has "no intention" of resigning. "I believe I am fully capable of filling out my oath of office while this case is pending," Cammarano said. Others -- including City Council President Dawn Zimmer, the Hoboken Republicans, Councilwoman Beth Mason, Councilman Peter Cunningham and the organizers of several citizens' petitions -- have called for the mayor to step down immediately.

Were the mayor to follow his own advice, dispensed earlier this month when Hoboken Housing Authority Commissioner Hector Claveria was charged with accepting bribes, Cammarano would show "zero tolerance" for himself and resign at once. Apparently King Peter III is above his own decree.

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UPDATE: 6:00pm ET, July 23 -- The nature of the complaint against Cammarano are detailed by the Hudson Reporter including an allegation that he claimed that those who stood up against him in the mayoral election would be "ground into powder" once he entered office. "The way I operate politics, anybody who helps me, I help them," Cammarano said. U.S. Attorney Ralph Marra referred to these quotes and others attributed to Cammarano as evidence of "arrogance and a shocking betrayal of the public trust."

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