Bencivengo v. Gilmore: Hamilton Mayor 2007
The Set Up
Wounded as a youth in an armed forces training exercise, Glen Gilmore carried a soldierly demeanor into his much anticipated announcement on the front lawn of a retired Army colonel. A lot of the buzz around the onetime rising star in the wake of Senator Pete Inverso’s retirement was whether he would run for mayor again or – in an attempt to escape his loss of a majority on the council and quickening economic troubles in Hamilton – senator. “Mayor,” Gilmore told the assembled crowd. For a third term. To run against him the Republicans summoned John Bencivengo, whose post-9/11 efforts to peddle anthrax-combating hand cream made him either a lovable or sinister huckster, depending on your political point of view. The GOP dismissed intra-party handwringing over Bencivengo with the argument that Gilmore – a John Lynch forged entity brought in from out of town to bump up Hamilton development – wasn’t exactly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, either.
The goodhearted humor of Bencivengo’s opening line to the crowd packed into the Nottingham Firehouse – “You’ve had a tall, handsome Irishman as mayor, and now it’s time for a short, ugly Italian,” belied the coming fury on both sides. This turned into as close as a local race gets to a bloodbath. Keep in mind, the mayor’s mano-a-mano occurred within the context of an equally contentious LD 14 spat featuring Bill Baroni going for Inverso’s Senate seat against a candidate whom jittery Democrats propped up as a top of the ticket encumbrance: former ratepayer advocate Seema Singh. Bencivengo targeted Gilmore’s acceptance of campaign funds from the very developers plotting inflated-sized projects for the once bucolic blue collar burgh turned suburb on steroids, in Bencivengo’s view. Gilmore presented himself as attentive to aesthetic detail – buffer zones for the Marketplace, plantings all over town, historic street lights in the Grovesville neighborhood, upkeep of parks like Anchor Thread and use of the old, abandoned textile mill located there for community movies, and renovation of the Dwier Recreation center for young people. They were trading toe to toe and no one doubting it looked like anything more than very competitive ebb and flow, and then it happened. The council, working in conjunction with Bencivengo, secured an order from a judge compelling the mayor to release the town’s financial statement he had sat on in hopes of running out the clock on the campaign season. The statement showed that Hamilton needed a 25% tax increase to close a $10 million deficit. Armed with that intel, Bencivengo stood above a Republican crowd in La Villa on the eve of the election and pleaded with his allies to go to the polls the next day and rid Hamilton once and for all of Gilmore.
When Hamilton voters awoke on Election Day, they were met with Trenton Times reporter Darryl Isherwood’s front-page, above-the-fold story on the condition of their town’s finances with Gilmore at the helm. By evening’s end, Gilmore was finished, a 599-vote loser to the town’s new Mayor-elect, Bencivengo. Gilmore crawled away from politics, and four years later, the Republican Party’s Mercer County star hardly broke a sweat running for re-election as mayor of Hamilton. Then he ran into it finally, a headline worse than that Trenton Times story six-banner that sank Gilmore: “Hamilton Mayor John Bencivengo charged with taking $12K Bribe,” case pending.