Matt Katz, New Jersey Public Radio
A pot of federal Sandy funds that Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer famously alleged to be part of an illegal Gov. Christie shakedown scheme will come to the city after all.
At an event Monday in Little Ferry, notable for Zimmer's absence from the stage and Christie's refusal to take questions, U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shawn Donovan announced that teams representing Hoboken and the Meadowlands won a federal Sandy redevelopment contest known as Rebuild By Design. That means $230 million for a comprehensive flood prevention program in Hoboken, which was devastated by Sandy, and it represents a victory for Zimmer, who had aggressively lobbied for the project.
Zimmer's accusations gave her widespread notoriety -- a fact that was immediately evident when I spent a few hours with her last month at a street festival in Hoboken. Several pointed toward her, and some approached. And when they did, they didn't thank her saving the local hospital, or getting Hoboken on sound financial footing -- which she cites as two of her top accomplishments.
Instead, they thanked her for going after the governor.
"I do appreciate your investigations with the state -- hey, it's big, it's important, you gotta stand up for things," Jerry Calligi said.
Zimmer says she gets this a lot. She claims no one has come up to her in person to criticize her for what she did on Jan. 18: Appearing on MSNBC to allege that Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno told her she needed to approve a Rockefeller Group development proposal if she wanted more Sandy funds. This message, Guadagno allegedly said, came from Christie himself.
Three days later, Zimmer recounted to CNN a 2013 meeting with Christie's Sandy's czar, Marc Ferzan, when she sought his support for her Rebuild By Design proposal. "He said, 'Well, mayor, you need to let me know how much development you're willing to do,'" Zimmer said at the time. "That pressure is there. And the writing is on the wall. And that's part of my thinking in coming forward. That threat is there."
By this point Christie had already hired a top-flight law firm to investigate another political retaliation allegation about the George Washington Bridge lane closures. Now the tax-funded lawyers' work turned to Zimmer's allegations. Most of the resulting so-called Mastro Report focused on Hoboken, not the bridge scandal. It concluded that Zimmer was lying and quoted top Christie officials describing her as unhinged and distracted, incompetent as a mayor, "in over her head" when it comes to economic development -- and obsessed with pestering Christie officials with a rotating list of crazy flood prevention ideas.
She calls herself a fiscal conservative, but Christie officials described her as a hippie. One Christie cabinet member is quoted in the Mastro Report calling Zimmer part of the anti-development "Birkenstock crowd."
Zimmer counters accusations about her incompetence by pointing to how she has turned Hoboken's fiscal situation around. Credit agencies have dramatically improved Hoboken's bond ratings under her watch.
"I'm not surprised they're not saying nice things about me," she said. "But at the end of the day I do what's best for my city. I'm the mayor of Hoboken, and it’s my job to advocate for the city of Hoboken, and I’m not going to stop doing that."
Until refusing to endorse him for reelection last year, Christie and Zimmer were allies. Zimmer had supported some of Christie's biggest proposals, even though she’s a Democrat.
And one face-off she had against public employee unions even echoes the Christie playbook. Her restructuring plan for the police department threatened jobs, and brought protests. When the unions trotted out the inflatable rat to City Hall, the way she handled it was Christie-like.
"I remember looking out and saying well the rat can be here of course, but the rat ended up not being able to find any legal parking – and did have to drive around a bit," she said, laughing.
Critics say Zimmer is, in fact, too much like Christie.
Carmelo Garcia is a Democratic assemblyman who doubles as the top official at the Hoboken Housing Authority. Garcia has clashed with Zimmer over her refusal to support his plan to rehabilitate and storm-proof low-income housing. He says Zimmer is punishing him for not bending to her efforts to give contracts to political allies. In a lawsuit he filed against her last year, one of Garcia's allegations was that the mayor didn't want poor and minority people in town.
Garcia called it "ethnic cleansing," although he now says it's more akin to "urban demographic displacement."
Whatever you call it, the war between what is known as old Hoboken and Zimmer's new Hoboken is vicious – taking place on social media and at government meetings, with rampant accusations of racism.
"She's tough, and they can be very ruthless and vindictive," Garcia said of Zimmer and her political team. "And indeed, make it clear that their intent is malicious. They're out to hurt you."
Federal investigators are now sorting out her allegations against Christie. She says she never wanted to pick a fight with the one-time leading contender for the Republican nomination for president. She just wanted money to protect Hoboken from the next Sandy.
Yesterday, that's exactly what she got.