Hudson County’s Culture of Corruption

frankhagueMy colleague Paula Franzese has been criticizing New Jersey’s culture of political corruption for some time. Last week’s FBI sweep came as no surprise to those who’d been following her work to reform the system. For about four years I lived in the epicenter of the current scandal, Hudson County, and I thought this blog post from Helene Stapinski captured the political atmosphere there well:

Hudson County, where many of the arrests in New Jersey were made, has a small town feel and mentality. Everybody knows everybody. Lots of people are related to each other. It’s an isolated place, in many ways, so that the politicians who live there really don’t feel connected to the larger world. They feel they operate in a sort of vacuum, where no one will really notice what they do.

But because of Hudson County’s proximity to New York, it’s always been a hot spot, first for industry and now for development, so the potential for making the big bucks exists. There’s the money, without the sophistication. In places like New York City, bribes are made every day as well, but people know how to cover their tracks. Couple the small town ignorance and arrogance of “I can do what I want. Nobody’s watching” with the big town cash possibilities, and you have one of the most politically corrupt places on earth. Welcome to Hudson County.

What really shocked me when I lived there was the way in which these values (or lack thereof) filtered into even the trivial corners of political or social life. At a condo association near where I lived, the books weren’t routinely available. To inspect them, you had to make an appointment, during very restricted hours, and you could only bring a pencil and paper–no electronics such as cameras or laptops. One valiant owner who tried to force release of all the books was hounded and humiliated by the association management, which plastered the building with notices that she was “driving up maintenance” by forcing them to hire a lawyer to fend against her demands.

Elections in Journal Square, Jersey City, were also an adventure. Several local panjandrums attired in suits and sashes were “challengers,” ready to pounce on any confused or ill-credentialed voter who didn’t appear sympathetic to their candidate. (I have no idea how they made these determinations–maybe they had studied peremptory challenges.) In an area where public services where often marginal, shuttles reliably trucked in voters who lacked transportation for at least that day.

I ultimately moved away from Journal Square because, despite early hopes for the area, after a few years there, I could not envision it getting its act together in my lifetime. It’s likely to remain what it is now: a way-station for hard-working immigrants eager to earn their way out of it.

Picture Credit: Wikipedia entry for Frank “I am the law” Hague, Mayor of Jersey City from 1917-1947. He became famous in First Amendment jurisprudence for his efforts to silence labor unions. According to Time Magazine, “He was the last of the great machine bosses and the most absolute of them all. On a salary that never exceeded $8,500 a year during his eight terms as mayor of Jersey City, he came to reckon his personal fortune at more than $2,000,000, his homes at four (in Jersey City, on Manhattan’s Park Avenue, on Miami’s Biscayne Bay and on the Jersey coast at Deal).”

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