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  JERSEY CITY, November 2nd 2004

By STEVE KORNACKI
PoliticsNJ.com

JERSEY CITY, November 2, 7:15 AM - There are 59 numbered parking spaces in the rectangular parking lot behind city hall in Jersey City, and at six o’clock on election night, almost all of them were vacant, including six of the seven spots reserved for the staff of L. Harvey Smith, the acting mayor.

Around front, a news truck for WB-11 sat idling near the curb, while signs on the mostly dark building’s main entrance informed visitors that city hall was closed, except for “official election business.”

It’s nor surprise that Smith and his team apparently were far from the building. The interim mayor has faced a decisively uphill bid to win the job on a full-time basis, undercut by an ugly rift within the city’s African-American community.

Smith, who is an African-American, has been branded a traitor by some of the city’s black leaders, a charge that has its roots in the political battle Smith waged against the late Mayor Glenn Cunningham, who was Jersey City’s first black mayor.

Across the street from city hall, one of Smith’s campaign offices was winding down its operation for the day, with workers and volunteers being instructed to head over to the main headquarters on Martin Luther King Drive, which runs through Ward F, a predominantly African-American area.

The dozen or so workers, mostly African-Americans and Hispanics, inside the office near city hall looked fatigued as the organized papers, folded chairs and packed up equipment. Salsa music bounced off the empty walls and tiled floors, and a large picture of Smith, identified as “Alcalde/Mayor L. Harvey Smith”, greeted anyone entering the office.

According to several volunteers who were cleaning up, the office had been used during the day primarily as a call center-- fielding complaints and queries from Smith supporters. One worker, a young African-American woman, held a yellow legal pad with a list of the problems voters reported at polling places.

Besides several people who were confused by the voting equipment, the main complaints revolved around voter challenges by Lou Manzo’s campaign, many involving Hispanic voters. As a result, the woman said, many Smith voters had to fill out provisional ballots.

The mood of those present seemed more relieved that the day was winding down than optimistic about their man’s chances.

When a young woman walked into the office and inquired where the campaign’s victory party would be held, she was told that it would be at a facility on the Bayonne/Jersey City line--- but on the Bayonne side.

Asked if that seemed like a poor choice for a Jersey City mayoral candidates, the Smith worker shook her head and looked around, as if she was making sure no one was listening.

“That was an oops,” she said. “That wasn’t me, that was the campaign.”

JERSEY CITY, November 2, 4:30 PM - Anyone who’s ever voted has a picture in his or her head of those happy-seeming folks who hold up candidate signs and greet voters on their way to the polls.

You see them outside virtually every polling place, every election, and virtually everyone wonders how they could possibly impact the outcome of a race. And yet they stand there, hour upon hour, barely shielded from the elements, stoically, maybe even bravely, making sure there’s a human face for voters to associate with

They do it because out of a desire- spurred by a belief in a candidate, party or ideology- to do something, anything, more on Election Day than merely showing up and voting themselves. Right?

Well, sometimes. But not in Jersey City.

Politics is about jobs in the state’s second largest city, so it only makes sense that many of the men and women- and almost all of the teenagers- who stand loyally next to candidate signs at polling places here are doing it for the paycheck.

Consider the affable, if a bit unkempt, L. Harvey Smith sign-holder who was camped out shortly after three o’clock this afternoon near a waterfront polling station.

“I don’t vote in Jersey City,” the middle-aged fellow, clad in a pair of jeans and the kind of fluorescent nylon now mainly relegated to attics and give-and-take shops, volunteered. “I don’t even vote know who’s running. I’m only out here for one reason-- ‘cause they’re paying me to.”

Wearing a camouflage cap, the man, who didn’t give his name, said he’d been at his post since seven o’clock in the morning. When he’s relieved of his duties at seven o’clock tonight, he’ll be due $100 from the campaign of Smith, who is the acting mayor. It’s a cash transaction, so at least he hoped they’d pay up.

“They’d better,” the man said, his eyes widening. “But if he don’t win-- yeah, man, I wonder if he’d try to get away with it.”

So what’s the application process like for one of these jobs?

“I was out walking around and someone told me they were looking,” the man said, without specifying whether he has a full-time job of his own. “Hey, it’s a quick hundred bucks. The only thing I don’t like about it is you’ve got to stand out here for 12 hour straight.”

As he relayed his story, the sun was beginning to set and the clouds that were in the forecast for the late afternoon started to roll in. He had no gloves and no winter jacket, and noted that he hadn’t even gotten a lunch break or a snack from the Smith campaign. Actually, he said, he kind of felt forgotten.

Then he fished through the a nearby trash barrel, on whose lid he’d mounted one of the Smith signs, and produced a crumpled brown paper bag. He smoothed it out and studied its small, white label.

“I should have gone with Manzo,” he concluded, pronouncing mayoral candidate Lou Manzo’s last name as if it rhymed with Gonzo. “See, he gave out lunches. I’ll tell you, they could have at least given me a cup of coffee.”

JERSEY CITY, November 2, 2:00 PM - The front steps and fence in front of Jerramiah Healy’s home on Ferry Street are only too familiar to political junkies and many Jersey City residents. They featured prominently in perhaps the most infamous document that has been circulated in what has been a down-and-dirty campaign: a controversial image of a bewildered and unclothed Healy that, Healy believes, was distributed by former Mayor Gerald McCann, a convicted felon and a key player in Lou Manzo’s mayoral campaign.

But Healy, a city councilman and former judge, looked nothing but dignified just past one o’clock this afternoon, when, neatly dressed in a dark suit, light blue shirt and red-pattern tie, he emerged from his modest home, strolling up the sidewalk with his wife by his side and his son behind him to cast his ballot.

It was a staged media event, with several photographers and newspaper reporters awaiting the top tier contender’s arrival at the firehouse at the corner of Ferry and Central Avenue.

When Healy reached the facility’s side entrance, he was greeted with a hug and kiss from his daughter Catherine, who was wearing a yellow ribbon identifying her as an official campaign challenger at the polling place.

Turnout is heavy in Jersey City and across the state today. Several of the mayoral campaigns say there have been lines up to two hours long in the Newport/Pavonia section of the city-- where professionals who work in New York City and rarely participate in Jersey City politics have apparently shown up in masses to vote, presumably in the presidential contest.

But at the firehouse that serves as the polling place for this portion of the Heights, voters, most of whom were older, were being processed quickly in the early afternoon. Once Healy signed in, it wasn’t five minutes until he was behind the voting booth’s cloak, registering his preferences.

After a little trouble from the machinery, he stepped out, pronounced himself satisfied, posed a for a few snapshots and then made his way over to a handful of quote-hungry reporters. Between accepting greetings from several voters, Healy outlined his campaign’s GOTV strategy and his recipe for a victory (a big win in his home area, coupled with surprising strength among African American voters).

He cracked a few jokes and appeared relaxed-- neither filled with nervous energy nor muted by any pre-occupying thoughts of the public’s impending judgment.

His campaign party tonight will take place at a restaurant on the city’s West Side. Whether the mood will be celebratory may well depend on how much of an impact those widely-circulated photographs had. Without that burden, Healy might be in better shape politically-- especially since the city’s Democratic organization is squarely in his corner.

Asked by someone what he might say to Manzo if the two speak tonight, Healy recalled that when he lost to Bret Schundler in the 1997 mayoral race he went to Schundler’s headquarters and shook the mayor’s hand.

Would he do the same if he loses to Manzo?

“That’s not out of the question,” Healy replied. “I don’t think I’d shake Jerry McCann’s hand, though. I can tell you that.”

 

JERSEY CITY, November 2, 12:00 PM - It’s not tough to tell it’s Election Day on John F. Kennedy Boulevard in Jersey City.

The meandering and pothole-riddled stretch of pavement runs the length of Hudson County, extending along the western side of Jersey City all the way from the Bayonne border in the south through the Heights, whose northern tip abuts Union City.

More than a few corners are occupied by teenagers holding signs for and wearing clothing bearing the name of their preferred candidate-- the candidate whose campaign gave them a stipend for their service. At least to judge by the sign-holders, loyalties seem to shift with the demographics of the city.

In the Heights, where you’ll see old-style Italian and Irish eateries sharing city blocks Spanish grocery stores, there’s no shortage of Jerry Healy displays; in funky Journal Square, where there’s a pronounced Indian influence, not to mention a sketchier element of folk who congregate in the concrete plaza near the PATH station, there are scores of Steve Lipski backers; in the heavily African American Greenville section, there’s evidence of support for Willie Flood. And, it seems, almost anywhere where there are city workers, there are signs for L. Harvey Smith, the acting mayor.

Not too far from the Bayonne line on the West Side, sighting of signs for Assemblyman Lou Manzo grow more frequent. At the intersection of JFK Boulevard and Danforth Avenue rests his Ward A campaign headquarters.

Actually rests is probably not the right word, since at 11:00 the converted storefront, nestled between a window replacement company and a tile and marble shop and smack across the street from Bruno’s Continental Auto Sales, is alive with all of the noises and faced you’d associate with a big city Election Day turnout operation.

Volunteers and paid workers, many wearing white t-shirts emblazoned in red print with Manzo’s name and Jersey City First slogan, are making phone calls, comparing voters lists, and relaying stories from area polling places. A handful of heavyset men with Manzo t-shirts puff cigarettes and fraternize on the sidewalk outside.

Inside, there’s stacks of unopened soda cans- mostly Coca-Cola- that are for distribution to the campaign’s poll workers-- who, in this part of the city, number well over 100.

Overseeing the action inside is Valerie Montone, a 19-year veteran of Jersey City politics who’s wearing a black tank-top and a pendant with the image of the Twin Towers. So far, she says, turnout has been very high, although she’s not sure whether the mayoral race or the presidential contest is causing it. It took her fifteen minutes to assemble a stack of absentee ballots, she notes, but twenty minutes to stand in line at a polling place and vote herself.

Her field workers have reported a few problems- some elderly voters aren’t used to the county’s new lever-less voting machines, and a few votes were apparently thrown out in one precinct- but nothing too major.

“No ones out with bats or bricks or anything,” she says.

Manzo is actually from Ward C, but Montone has known the four-time mayoral candidate and former county freeholder for many years. Many believe he’s the man to beat today, and Montone, her cell phone ringing, says she’s confident her old friend will pull through.

“His life is Jersey City. He sleeps, breathes, eats and lives for Jersey City. Who else could be more responsible to do the right thing?’

 

JERSEY CITY, November 2, 9:30 AM - “So this is the garage,” Steve Lipski, a Jersey City councilman, says, gesturing towards two comfy-looking pilot’s seats.

It’s shortly after 8:00 and Lipski, wearing a blue shirt and red tie, is taking a respite from shaking hands with commuters outside the Journal Square PATH station and offering a guided tour of the 34-by-10 blue RV that he’s been living out of since announcing his candidacy for mayor of Jersey City in mid-September.

For a candidate who has offered himself as the reform choice in the 11-way race, the rented camper is Lipski’s way of staying close to the people he wants to serve.

“I picked up on the concept from Cory Booker who had done it a few years back in Newark and I was impressed by his concept of going into every district and every ward and living amongst the people and getting to know them,” he explains, warming his hands as he sits at a foldout table just inches from a microwave oven.

“The concept says ‘winner’ all over it,” Lipski says, “because nobody chooses to spend $20,000 and live in a RV for seven-and-a-half weeks if they’re not serious about the job. So I think it has an aura of winner written all over it.”

He’s been up since 4:00 this morning and is convinced he’s out-hustled his foes throughout the race, campaigning, he says, “with toothpicks in my eyes.”

The response to the RV has been terrific he says-- but not universally so. This is Jersey City, after all.

“At the beginning I was parking it in different wards and sleeping,” Lipski says, “But then some people in the street were telling me that Jerry McCann (the ex-mayor and backer of candidate Lou Manzo) had a bounty on it, so I went down to an RV park and I paid $40 a night.”

There’ve been other indignities.

“It’s gotten pelted with about a dozen eggs,” he notes, before reconsidering and correcting himself. “No, it’s been about two dozen eggs. I got hit by six or ten eggs two weeks ago. We believe it was Manzo’s people because two of his operatives drove by like within 20 seconds.”

The founder of a charter school and a failed 1997 mayoral candidate, Lipski is either a hopeless longshot or a dark-horse with legs in today’s vote. The most recent published poll placed him in fifth place-- last of the top tier candidates.

But he paints an upbeat picture of his prospects, running through each ward and ethnic group in the city and assessing his standing with each. He notes that Bret Schundler won a special mayoral election in 1992 with just 17 percent of the vote. Today is a also a special election, and Lipski, who has Schundler’s tacit backing, thinks 11,000 votes could win it. The other four top candidates have significant liabilities, Lipski says, so there’s an opening for someone else.

And if not?

“I’m definitely giving serious consideration to running again in May.”

HOBOKEN, November 2, 6:15 AM - All the talk about record voter turnout, increased participation by young people, and long lines at polling places might have been prescient, to judge by the scene at the Callabro Primary School on Park Avenue in Hoboken early this morning.

Since New Jersey polls began opening at 6:00 A.M. a few years back, there hasn’t been much for poll workers to do but twiddle their thumbs and make small talk in the wee hours of the day.

But just a few minutes after the Callabro school’s doors opened this morning, the cafeteria, where two precincts vote, was buzzing with activity. Workers did their best to verify each voter’s identity as quickly as possible, but by 6:30, the line to check-in was already a dozen bodies long.

Most of those in line appeared to be under 30 years old, which isn’t entirely surprising given Hoboken’s status as a yuppie town. But members of the under-30 set are notoriously apathetic when it comes to voting; the faces in the Callabro cafeteria, by and large, were not the faces you would expect to see if the occasion were, say, a state legislative election.

Tom Weinberger, 24, is what political pros call a “one-in-four”-- a voter who participates only in presidential elections, sitting out the state and local races that are sandwiched between the quadrennial national contests. Weinberger registered his preferences at about 6:15 this morning, the first time he’d voted since moving to Hoboken.

“There was no hype to any of those,” he said of the recent elections that he’s ignored. “Now I feel like this is newsworthy. I feel like I’m part of history.”

Because of one-in-fours like Weinberger, turnout crests in presidential years, often complicating the results of the lower-profile down-ballot races-- races that mean a lot more to the financial bottom-lines of local and county party organizations than the presidential one.

A registered Democrat, Weinberger was motivated to vote by his desire to unseat President Bush, but the Hudson County ballot he filled out was littered with many unfamiliar names-- candidates for the U.S. House, sheriff, and county surrogate.

Of course, the ballot is designed with voters like this in mind. Democrats rule in Hudson County, making sure all of their candidates are lined up in a neat, easy-to-find column.

“I actually did look at all of the people, but I didn‘t know any of them,” Weinberger said after emerging from one of the two voting machines in the cafeteria. “I just went all the way down (in the Democratic row) because they were all under Kerry. They were all Democrats. I didn’t know anything about them. I could have liked one of the Republicans better, but I just didn’t know or hear anything about any of them.”

Steve Kornacki can be reached at kornackinj@aol.com 

 

 

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