My Ringside Seat on a Crooked New Jersey Election
Watching the shenanigans in the still contested New Jersey gubernatorial election, I have to wonder whether there has ever been a truly honest election in state history. From my own experience, I would say probably not and, as I also learned, there are a thousand ways to cheat.
In 1982, through an odd sequence of events, I found myself with a ringside seat on a routinely crooked Newark mayoral election. I had been offered a job as “associate director” of the 1,000-employee Newark Housing and Redevelopment Authority. This being a recession year, and I needing to finish my Ph.D. dissertation, I took it. This was not a career move.
I had two qualifications that endeared me to the Philippine-born woman who ran the show: I lived in Newark public housing growing up, and I aced her borderline illegal IQ test. An elitist whose role model was the then little-known Imelda Marcos, my “Imelda” took me under her wing.
I put “associate director” in quotes because I was actually the shadow associate director. Imelda hired me to intimidate the real associate director, a political enemy that Imelda and her boss – Judge Milton Buck, a Black politico -- could not fire. This was the only time in my life I kept a journal. My notes from day two on the job:
Met late in the day with Imelda. Very candid about self. Style “combative,” learned in trenches. Very smart. Needs to talk about it. Met Judge. Discussed role. Purposely keeping me in dark to confuse opposition, keep them on their toes.
Welcome to Newark, the gateway to Third World living. In a way, my timing was excellent. I arrived in January just in time to witness the mayoral campaign. Ignoring all election laws, Imelda and the Judge threw the whole weight of the Housing Authority behind the incumbent mayor, Ken Gibson, a political ally of the Judge.
Like all the other senior staff, I was expected to pony up. I wrote in my journal, “Am told that it would be useful were I to support Gibson. ‘Not perfect’ according to Imelda, but she believes him to be best for city.” I told Imelda I would oblige, but only if I could see how the political wheels turned. She agreed.
“Not perfect” failed to do Gibson’s mischief justice. A year before my arrival, a federal prosecutor sought to indict Gibson on tax fraud. According to the New York Times, he had allegedly taken money from his 1974 campaign fund and secreted “more than $75,000 in a Swiss bank account.” The Department of Justice would not allow the charges to be brought. Rumor had it that Jimmy Carter himself had quashed the indictment.
Corruption in Newark was diverse and inclusive. In 1970, Gibson beat incumbent mayor Hugh Addonizio, then under indictment for extortion. Addonizio, who gave me my Eagle Scout award, was subsequently convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
By 1982, as Gibson sought his fourth term, politics in Newark had become essentially an all-Black affair. Gibson’s chief opponent was Black City Council president Earl Harris. Italian-Americans still wielded a lot of power, but it was largely behind the scenes. “The Mafia destroyed the agency,” Imelda told me on one occasion. The previous director of the Housing Authority had, in fact, been indicted for extortion. It was apparently something of a tradition.
Imelda saw herself and the Judge as “reformers.” To keep peace with the Italian faction, my reformer bosses refused to integrate the projects in any meaningful way. “I get sense,” I wrote, “that placement in the past, even now, is done primarily through pull.” I quickly discovered that I did not have pull enough to get my mother or grandmother placed in an attractive new senior high rise in the vestigial Italian section of Newark. That building, I was told, was reserved for mothers of mobsters. Imelda was exaggerating -- I think.
Despite my shadowy position, I found myself in the middle of a real squabble with HUD over the agency’s refusal to integrate. “We have several options,” the HUD guy threatened. “We can put the agency in receivership or send the case to the Justice Department.” The Judge laughed him off. This was Newark, and he, like Gibson, had friends in Washington.
Imelda largely ran the agency’s election effort. Sticking around after work each day and on Saturdays to finish my dissertation, I watched as her mostly foreign-born staffers manned the agency’s phones. They were reminding the 10,000 or so people who lived in the projects why it was in their best interest to reelect the mayor.
Imelda’s staff also identified tenants of influence and made sure they got new refrigerators or even new apartments. And Imelda personally strong-armed senior staff, me included, to buy tickets for fundraisers of all sorts. Wanting to see how things worked, I attended the events.
In that I was something of her pet, Imelda also insisted that I register to vote. I told her that I was currently registered in Missouri where I had been living, but that did not discourage her. Although I had no intention of voting, I did go ahead and register just to see how easy it was. It was easy.
On March 31 of that year, about six weeks before the May election, a special Essex County grand jury indicted both Gibson and Harris for arranging a no-show job for an old Italian politico. No one expressed shock or even surprise. This was Newark after all.
About this time I learned that I had been awarded a Fulbright to teach for a year at a French university, starting in September. Now with a graceful exit assured, I could really start having fun with these people.
As the May 11 election approached, Imelda informed the staff, hundreds of us, that we were expected to volunteer a vacation day to help get out the vote on Election Day. Playing along, I was assigned along with old-timers Joe and Sal, to the senior projects in the Italian section. Our job was to go door-to-door and escort the old Italian ladies to the polls, reminding them that if they wanted to keep their apartments, it would pay to vote for Gibson.
We never left the neighborhood coffee shop. These guys had great stories to tell about past elections and all day to tell them. The best stories were about the 1970 election, Addonizio’s last hurrah. Pointing to the polling site across the street, Joe said, “I voted there six times that day. I was dead people. I was old people. I was all kinds of people. And don’t think they weren’t doing the same thing on the other side of town.” I took him at his word and asked him to pass the cannolis.
After my day at the polls, I headed back to the office and spoke to my young Black secretary. She was sporting a Gibson pin as big as her head. “Our man gonna win?” I asked. “Don’t matter who win,” she answered. “Both them n*****s goin’ to jail anyhow.” What she feared most, what everyone feared, is that no candidate would get a majority of the vote. None did, which meant a runoff between Gibson and Harris and another vacation day squandered at the polls.
No longer trusting me to man the polls, Imelda assigned me to deliver fried chicken to the “volunteer” poll workers for the runoff vote. I countered by scheduling a knee operation for that same day. Imelda appreciated the moxie of my gambit.
Despite my absence, Gibson prevailed. A month later Imelda called the senior staff into a conference room in flights of about 12. She told my group, as she told the others, that to retire his campaign debt Mayor Gibson was inviting all of us to a victory breakfast. Knowing what that meant, most of the staffers pulled out their checkbooks. The only thing that surprised them was the amount -- $250 or about $700 by today’s standards.
Imelda went around the room one by one and requested the check. “Is this mandatory?” one fellow asked timidly. “Only if you’re interested in job security,” she smirked.
When she came to me, I dutifully pulled out my checkbook, smiled, and said, “Should I make the check payable in Swiss francs?” The room froze. Then Imelda laughed, and the whole room laughed with her. In New Jersey, everything is funny, especially the elections.
Jack Cashill’s latest book, Barack Obama’s Promised Land: Deplorables Need Not Apply, is now on sale. See www.cashill.com for more information.
Image: Ron Coleman
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