Ten Out-sized NJ Mayoral Personalities, in Honor of John T. Gregorio of Linden

You won’t see a lot of South Jersey brand names on this list, because, in the words of one source, the coveted office below exit 9 is senator, not mayor.

Witness the history of the likes of Atlantic City’s Hap Farley and Bill Gormley.

They were senators, not mayors. You always went to the senator to do the deal, said a South Jersey source.

But the coveted office up north is mayor – or at least was – and here are ten whose personalities in offices left an enduring mark…

Frank Hague

Mayor of Jersey City, 1917-1947

Presidents kissed his ring. When you hear about present-day men in trench-coats and fedoras trying to act like tough guys in charge of machines, keep in mind that they grew up on this guy’s movie. 

Bill Musto

Mayor of Union City, 1962-1970

A WW II hero, he cut an iconic figure on the streets of his Hudson County home town. But there will never be any reaction to a front-page Election Day headline more classic than Musto’s on May 11, 1982. Campaigning under the Jersey Journal full banner noting his prison sentencing on corruption charges, Musto that same day defeated one young Bob Menendez for commissioner and then declared to a roaring crowd of supporters at his victory party, “This is my jury.”

Sharpe James

Mayor of Newark, 1986-2006

He landed on the city’s political scene in jogging gear as a teacher/coach looking to make the transition to City Hall. The exuberant James defeated a legend in Ken Gibson, the city’s first African American mayor, and went on to preside over the city’s downtown redevelopment. While he loved the regular guy barbershop gossip session, the Nebuchadnezzar of Newark also couldn’t resist the jet-setting highlife and fell prey to the yachts and shiny cars. James got jammed up finally in a famous corruption trial launched by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie. After doing time and returning to his hometown on the Greyhound bus to a hero’s welcome, the former mayor later bragged, “I made Chris Christie.”

John Lynch

Mayor of New Brunswick, 1979-1991

He presided over the Middlesex County city’s renaissance. Asked to pick who jumps out at him as the most legendary mayor of his home county, current Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac did not hesitate: “You’d have to throw John Lynch in there.” During redistricting, state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36) marveled at the changes he saw in the city from the window of the Heldrich Hotel, and credited Lynch, who he first met in the state Senate.

Frank Rodgers

Mayor of Harrison, 1947-1995

You read that right – nearly 50 years in office; Harrison’s Silver Fox is in the Guinness Book of World Records. According to legend, he ran such a tight organization that on Election Day, loyal Board workers would lean in to the voting machines and grease the levers for Rodgers while simultaneously making the rival candidates’ levers squeaky and harder to activate.

Dennis Collins

Mayor of Bayonne, 1974-1990  

Collins (pictured with boxing gloves) epitomized the savvy old Irish guy in charge of a blue-collar town. Beloved and respected, people for years would run to Bayonne to kiss the ring and land the endorsement of Collins, who until his death embodied the quintessential mayor emeritus. He was known around the state for his quick wit and for the sign on his desk that said “The buck stops here.”

Steve Cappiello

Mayor of Hoboken, 1973-1985

A retired police officer, the late mayor of Hoboken invariably turns up on lists of Hudson County backroom operators when they consider “characters.” He was the epitome of old Hoboken: home of the first baseball game, Frank Sinatra, and tradition. When you see those dog-eared guys fighting the Dawn Zimmers of the world and trailing local epithets like “born and raised,” they are the soldiers of the ghost of Steve Cappiello.   

Tommy Smith

Mayor of Jersey City, 1977-1981

He played for the New York Knicks – a single game in 1951. But he also boxed an exhibition match at the armory against Muhammad Ali. Gov. Brendan Byrne was also on that June 29th, 1979 card, and provided the warm-up act to Ali v. Smith. An outsized personality in Jersey City who once knocked a tormentor cold with a single blow, Smith fell victim to ambition as Byrne prepared to leave office. The popular JC mayor opted to run for governor on the ill advice of Wally Shields, who wanted Smith gone so he could run for mayor. Shields ran around Trenton giving Smith a big thumbs-up to power brokers, and then when Smith entered a large field of statewide Democratic candidates that year, he got lost in the shuffle and lost to nominee James Florio. Shields ran for mayor, and found his own efforts to remove the incumbent stymied when he was stopped by a 31-year-old rising star named Gerry McCann.

John T. Gregorio   

Mayor of Linden, 1967-1982; 1992-2006

He left no doubt who was in charge, losing only one election, his last, in 2006, a squeaker against Richard Gerbounka. According to his protégé, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-22), Gregorio ruled with an iron fist. “He was the Christie before Christie,” Scutari said. Democrats in the blue-collar Union County recall a local presence of sheer force of will, and a lot of intimidation. “Not unlike the governor,” Scutari said.  “He was the unabashed head of that party; nothing moved without his okay.”  He also had rock star charisma, Scutari said.

Cory Booker

Mayor of Newark, 2006-2013

His naysayers want to badmouth him as a Hollywood hologram, but no one else among New Jersey’s outsized mayoral personalities ever forged the kind of transcendent, crossover statewide image from an urban city (see Tommy Smith (above), who tried to run statewide and ran into James Florio). Only Booker was able to leverage the local fistfights and enervating brawls into a U.S. Senate seat, and no other mayor has ever quoted as prodigiously from Richard Bach’s seminal Jonathan Livingston Seagull