On the Friday night before the Nov. 6 Hoboken Mayoral election, an unknown person went around Hoboken distributing racist flyers characterizing then city councilman and mayoral candidate Ravi Bhalla as a terrorist. In the top corner, a stamp indicated that Mike DeFusco’s campaign allegedly paid for the flyer.
Mike DeFusco was immediately upset, denying that he was a part of the racist flyer distribution, and Ravi Bhalla expressed sadness that somebody would inappropriately characterize him as a terrorist. On the day of the election, Ravi Bhalla received 32.75% of the total vote and Mike DeFusco received 29.60% of the vote. DeFusco later stated on Facebook that he attributed his loss to those racist flyers.
In the City Council meeting one week after the election, DeFusco mentioned his mayoral election loss. “486 votes separated [Bhalla’s] win from where I sit today,” he solemnly said into his microphone.
But in a quick switch of emotion, from sorrow to irritation, DeFusco went on to scorn Bhalla for not publicly acknowledging the derision he had faced after the election — namely because of the flyer distribution. “What I haven’t heard in the news, in the press interviews granted by our new Mayor-elect,” he said, “is that there have been two affected parties by this heinous crime,” one of which being DeFusco and the other being Bhalla.
Most of the news coverage, such as a post-election article in The New York Times, highlighted Hoboken for electing their first Sikh mayor despite the racist flyer distribution, but DeFusco was “aggrieved” by the coverage. “If you think that you’re the only victim here, Mayor-elect,” he said, “I have a sad story, you are not.”
DeFusco said that, because of the flyer incident, he received hateful phone calls and messages, that his sister was falsely attacked for being racist, and that the mayoral election was anything other than free, as if the election occurred in a “third-world country.” He then turned to Bhalla and indignantly said, “If you don’t stand with me, that’s your choice, but it’s morally corrupt.” DeFusco, who expected his opponent to vindicate him in the national press, nearly blamed the Mayor-elect for all the distress he and his family faced.
Bhalla immediately responded to DeFusco, extending regret to him and his family for any pain they’d endured. But he also referenced the unfinished “active police investigation” into the flyers, and that until the investigation was completed, he didn’t want to officially stand with DeFusco. “If there comes a time in which whoever did this is apprehended and you are absolved as a campaign […], I’d be happy to go ahead and, you know, express my remorse.”
His response was spoken like a true attorney, as DeFusco pointed out, protecting himself from the potential backlash if the investigation connected DeFusco’s campaign with the flyer incident, all while still offering sympathy.
But DeFusco appeared dismayed that his colleague didn’t accept his innocence, prompting City Councilperson Ruben Ramos Jr., a supporter of DeFusco’s mayoral race, to interrupt the verbal brawl. “I can’t believe the stuff coming out of your mouth,” Ramos said to Bhalla. “I can’t believe what I’m hearing right now tonight. I’m stunned, and I’m not stunned by anything.”
Ramos remained distraught, offering support to DeFusco and chastising Bhalla for his supposed faults until Bhalla interrupted him and accused him of grandstanding. “At this point, you don’t faze me at all,” Bhalla said to Ramos. “Stop with the grandstanding. You and Michael are the only ones grandstanding; I’m not grandstanding.”
Bhalla turned back to DeFusco and tried to reconcile with the angered councilman, but Council President Jennifer Giattino interjected and overtook the discussion. “You both can speak [over there],” she said, gesturing toward outside of City Hall. And before the councilmen could continue their bickering, Ms. Giattino closed the meeting, ending the debate between the men.
Two weeks passed, and DeFusco continued his political stunt on Facebook. “I’ve known Ravi a long time and it pains me to see him refuse to stand with me during this trying time,” he wrote in one post.
At the first City Council meeting in December, DeFusco proposed a resolution that sparked controversy among the council members. He introduced an ordinance that, if passed, would potentially modify the mayoral election process within Hoboken.
To become Mayor of Hoboken right now, a person must win a plurality of the vote in the election; that is, in an election with more than two people, whoever gets the most votes becomes mayor even if they don’t get over 50 percent of the vote. DeFusco’s ordinance proposed a system to voters that would turn the election process into a two-round system, often referred to as a runoff election process. The first round would contain all the candidates, and the second round — the runoff election — would contain only the top two candidates in the first round.
By turning the election into a two-round system, it would ensure that a candidate must win over 50 percent of the vote to become Mayor of Hoboken.
But it raises some concerns, such as the fact that it would add an extra month to the election process, increasing the cost of elections for candidates and the cost for the city to conduct the runoff election. A runoff election may even have less voter turnout because of voter fatigue, causing the election to be less representative of what Hoboken residents actually want.
Five years ago, in a referendum, a resounding 58 percent of the Hoboken people voted to remove the two-round election process, simplifying Hoboken mayoral elections into one plurality election. This referendum vote arose because Hoboken residents were tired of the backroom political deals that occurred between the election and the runoff election.
But DeFusco’s ordinance reopened this issue, revisiting runoff elections in the final meeting of a lame-duck City Council, and it passed with seven votes. Every person who voted for DeFusco’s ordinance either was a losing candidate in the election or supported a losing candidate. DeFusco rushed a vote at the last meeting of the year, appearing to delegitimize the mayoral election.
Past Mayor Dawn Zimmer vetoed the ordinance, but he reintroduced it at the most recent City Council meeting. Since he’s introduced this ordinance three times now, I expect he’ll gladly keep reintroducing it until he gets what he wants.
DeFusco’s behavior at City Council meetings has been crude, selfish, and unreasonable. His focus on reintroducing runoff elections reveals his personal frustrations with the election, and it’s unfair that he wastes time at City Council meetings rehashing this issue. Bhalla may veto DeFusco’s attempts to introduce runoff elections, but I doubt that DeFusco will ever stop.