JERSEY CITY — In a city where public corruption is considered commonplace, an estimated 250 residents turned out to say it should not be.
Protestors gathered in front of City Hall tonight to put a new spin on the National Night Out, focusing on political crime as opposed to street crime in a city where eight public officials and several other political insiders were arrested in last month’s massive corruption bust. All of the arrests involved taking bribes from an FBI informant posing as a developer interested in doing business in the city.
It was the second protest in the nearly two weeks since the sting. At last week’s protest, which was organized by One Jersey City – the political arm of the reform group CivicJC – about 80 protestors called for the resignations of City Council President Mariano Vega, who was among the arrested officials; Mayor Jerramiah Healy, who was not arrested but met with the FBI informant and shows up in a criminal complaint as “JC Official 4”; and Councilwoman Nidia Lopez, who is facing a separate controversy over her residency status. Tonight, the protestors only called on Vega to resign, though they did not spare Healy from criticism.
Brooms were distributed to chants about sweeping out corrupt officials. Some protestors wore shirts that read "Get drunk, get naked, get elected" — a reference to a photograph of a nude, passed out Healy that surfaced during his 2004 run for mayor. Many residents held small signs made up of an image of a January, 2007 front page of the Jersey Journal picturing the event’s organizer, Ward E Councilman Steven Fulop, behind the headline “City not for sale.”
Fulop took the megaphone on the steps of City Hall and started his short speech by saying that the event wasn’t about him.
“It’s about a tax on each of you that’s a corruption tax. Every single time that the city hires somebody’s brother, somebody’s cousin based on political patronage, every single time that a contract doesn’t go to the lowest bidder, every single time that an envelope is taken, it is a tax that you pay for at the end of the day,” said Fulop, who since winning a seat on the council in 2005 has spent much of the time fighting with Mayor Healy and his allies on the body.
Fulop, a Democrat, went on to criticize Gov. Corzine for writing an executive order freezing development approvals that did not apply to Jersey City. He called on Vega to resign and promised that he would reintroduce legislation on developer pay-to-play, which was defeated by the City Council two years ago.
“We will either pass it or we will shame them,” he said. “Two years ago, the response on the council was that this was not necessary, that they were honest.”
Fulop has never hidden his ambitions for higher office, and the city’s high profile role in the corruption scandal serves to widen his profile beyond Ward E, where he has developed a strong base that helped him easily win reelection over Healy backed Guy Catrillo — another Jersey City politico who was arrested last month
The response from the crowd after Fulop’s speech indicated that the night was at least partly about him.
“Steve for mayor!” they shouted.
Protestors bristled at Jersey City’s reputation for corruption, though they did not challenge its validity. Education activist Shelley Skinner, a key Fulop ally, summed up the sentiment.
“This has not been an easy past several days for our city. Once again we have been labeled the most corrupt city in our nation,” she said. “All of you and all of us deserve better than this hideous label. Tonight we’ve come out to tell everybody that this city will not be sold for an envelope full of cash.”
No state Democratic bigwigs attended. The only person currently seeking office who showed up was Irene Kim Asbury, a Republican assembly candidate in District 31 – the district of outgoing Assemblyman L. Harvey Smith (D-Jersey City), who was arrested in last month’s sting.
Asbury, whose district has a six-to-one Democratic registration advantage, lamented watching property taxes go up while big developers continue to get tax abatements.
“Corruption is an open secret here in Jersey City, especially when it comes to issues like development,” she said. “Especially when the big property owners get tax abatements and the small property owners like me get none.”
Conspicuously absent from the protest was former mayoral candidate Dan Levin, a good government activist, and other members of his One Jersey City slate (Fulop did not show up to Levin’s earlier protest either). Though Levin and Fulop often find common cause, they have a prickly relationship.
Ward F community organizer Bruce Alston, who often works with One Jersey City, did attend. He said that Levin was conducting a voter registration drive in a different ward.
“I’m trying to build alliances for our ward with any organization that truly believes that we should unite as a city. I’m not a One Jersey City guy. I’m not a Steve Fulop guy. I’m a Jersey City guy,” he said.