HOBOKEN, New Jersey – Even in the state of “The Sopranos” and “On the Waterfront,” where corruption seems institutionalized, the arrest of a neophyte mayor in office a mere three weeks stands out.
Voters might wonder how Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, no grizzled politician but a 32-year-old lawyer with a promising political career, could be accused of taking $25,000 in bribes after watching so many politicians follow the same road to jail.
Authorities said that what he told a government witness wearing a wire – a purported real-estate developer whom Cammarano assured he would treat “like a friend” – not only led to his arrest but also added a new chapter to New Jersey’s culture of corruption.
Stanley Renshon, a psychoanalyst and City University of New York political science professor, says it’s really not that surprising.
“Politics has a lot of temptation because it has to do with power. People are attracted to the power. Ambition is like a loose cannon – it can be dangerous,” Renshon said.
New Jersey, the setting for the HBO mob drama “The Sopranos” and the 1954 Marlon Brando classic “On the Waterfront,” filmed in Hoboken about crookedness on the docks, has long been known for government corruption. But over the last five years, hundreds of government officials from both major parties have been charged with crimes involving betrayal of public trust: taking bribes, getting no-show jobs to boost state pension benefits or lavishly spending public money on themselves.
Thursday’s arrests snared 43, including three mayors, two state assemblymen, five rabbis and many other public officials. It also brought fresh attention to this 1-square-mile (2.6-square-kilometre) city known as Frank Sinatra’s hometown, one of the nation’s earliest settlements and more recently a nightlife mecca for the young and hip.
Cammarano insisted he was innocent Friday, calling the charges “completely baseless,” and he said he will remain in office.
He became mayor only three weeks before his arrest after a bitterly contested mayoral election that forced a runoff, which he won by only 161 votes.
The FBI said Cammarano was so confident about his supporters pre-election that he was caught joking he could secure most of the vote of those born and raised in Hoboken even if he were “uh, indicted.”
He is the second of the city’s last three mayors to face criminal charges. Former Mayor Anthony Russo was sentenced in 2005 to 30 months in prison for accepting bribes in exchange for city contracts between 1994 and 2001, nearly his entire time as mayor.
Cammarano’s arrest comes at a tough time for Hoboken. A tripling in property values over the last decade and financial industry layoffs have hit the city hard, flooding the real-estate market with homes for sale or rent.
Blessed with a sweeping view of Manhattan, it is a historic city. Settled by the Dutch in the 1600s, the first working steam locomotive in America was tested there in the early 1800s. It was also the site of the first brewery in America, the first ice cream cone, the first zipper and the first ferry service. One of the first organized baseball games was played there in 1845.
Prominent present-day locals include New Jersey Gov. Jon S. Corzine and New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
The FBI’s corruption probe came to Hoboken just as the then-mayoral candidate was desperate for cash to compete in the May runoff election.
The FBI says in a criminal complaint filed in federal court in Newark that Cammarano wanted to please its informant, who posed as a developer looking to build a high-rise.
The agency quotes Cammarano as an encouraging, if not enthusiastic, recipient of the informant’s cash offers in return for help getting property easements to build in Hoboken.
According to the federal complaint against Cammarano, he repeatedly gushes to the FBI’s fake developer that he can speed necessary construction permits.
Cammarano: “I promise you … you’re gonna be, you’re gonna be treated like a friend. I’ll be there.”
Developer: “So, if you sponsor it, boom?”
At the time, Cammarano wasn’t even in office. But already, according to the complaint, he had broken the world up into three categories:
“There’s the people who were with us, and that’s you guys. There’s the people who climbed on board in the runoff. They can get in line. And then there are the people who were against us the whole way. They get ground … they get ground into powder.”
On Saturday morning, about 50 people protested outside the mayor’s home with signs that said “Shame on You” and “Resign.”
Carla Banduci, a Hoboken orthodontist who passed the rally as she returned from a brisk walk with her husband, Brian Benson, said Cammarano’s arrest was “disappointing, to say the least.”
“The world was his, and now it’s gone overnight,” Banduci said.
Associated Press writer Beth DeFalco reported from Trenton, New Jersey.