FLUSHING PUPIE: Wading Through New Jersey’s Political Sewer, With The Plunger In Our Hands | EDITORIAL

FLUSHING PUPIE: Wading Through New Jersey’s Political Sewer, With The Plunger In Our Hands | EDITORIAL

by Christopher Halleron

(ABOVE: photo by Christine von Royce, taken in June 2019 at the OLG Funfest)

Walk into any movie studio and pitch this story: a real estate developer who serves on the regional sewer authority becomes a self-styled political power broker and ends up in Federal Court for buying votes. The main character is from New Jersey and—get this—he goes by the name of ‘Pupie.’

They’d tell you it was too cliché… and they’d probably be right.

Yet when knuckle-dragging buffoon of a bagman Matt Calicchio pleaded guilty in May to a Voter Bribery scheme, everyone in Hoboken knew how the script would play out.

Calicchio spilled the beans on Frank Raia, a 67-year old real estate developer who evolved over decades to become a genuine force on the local scene. And, for reasons still unknown to most contemporary Hoboken residents, he chooses to go by the name of ‘Pupie.’

Raia’s resulting trial featured a handful of wisecracking Joe Pesci wannabes sharing stories of Pupie’s “captains”—people “loyal to Frank” who were bringing, “ballots back to the clubhouse” and cutting checks to “workers.” Regarding the votes on those ballots, “I told the voters if they worked they would be paid and if they didn’t work they would be paid—let’s cut to the chase here my friend,” said one coloful witness. Meanwhile, a suspiciously high 95% of those “workers” received Vote-By-Mail (VBM) ballots.

“I never bought a vote in my life,” exclaimed Pupie. Upon further questioning on the topic of directing his captains to pay for votes, Pupie tried to play the role of hapless family man. “How can I instruct them on what to do when I don’t even instruct my own wife?”

With ham-fisted lines like that, you could tell Scorsese wasn’t directing this production. In the end Pupie was found guilty of putting the ho’ in Hoboken politics—pimping votes on VBM ballots for $50 a pop.

The verdict came as a surprise to no one.

Frank ‘Pupie’ Raia started out in the garment and hospitality industries, before becoming a real estate developer—legendary for his aggressive negotiating skills. Filling a sudden vacancy, Pupie served as a Councilman in 1988 after the death of Hoboken Mayor Tom Vezzetti. He ran for freeholder in 1993. He also served on the school board—an elected position—from 2003 to 2009. In 2005, he lost a Mayoral bid. When he ran again in 2009, he boasted how he wouldn’t accept any contributions. Despite spending $300,000 of his own money, he lost. In 2013, he was on the ballot as an At-Large Council candidate. He lost that election, too.

Pupie’s job, however, wasn’t necessarily to win elections—it was to shape them.

In the fiercely factional small pond of Hoboken politics, rather than galvanize their own votes, candidates would often find it more effective to undermine the chances of their opponent. That’s where Pupie would step in, and throw his support—and the votes that went with it—in whatever direction made the most sense for those involved.

Meanwhile, the ‘Pupie Brand’ has been ubiquitous in Hoboken. He sponsors Little League teams, his name hangs on the recently constructed annex of a local charter school, or can even be found on the tents at church fundraising events (as recently as this June, days before the trial—see lead photo).

Speaking of tents, as a testament to Raia’s stature in Hoboken, Frank would rent out the City’s scenic waterfront Sinatra Park each year for his birthday party. It was a free event, with free food, free booze and live music.

As one might expect, the event would see a massive turnout year after year. Among the freeloaders looking for a cheap night out, you’d see the entire spectrum of Hudson County politicos. From the most loyal “Old Guard” foot soldier to the self-proclaimed “progressive,” the Animal Farm of the Hoboken political scene would show up at Pupie’s tent and, one way or another, find a way to feed from his trough.

According to Calicchio’s testimony, Raia’s role was pretty clear in the 2013 Mayoral election. “Tim [Occhipinti] entered to make sure [then-Assemblyman Ruben] Ramos didn’t win … Whoever received the most votes wins since there were not runoffs: the Old Hoboken vote would be split [with a third ticket].” That ticket was backed by Raia, and former Mayor Dawn Zimmer‘s slate took the election.

In 2015, Raia ran against Councilman Michael Russo in a contest that Russo claimed was hatched by Zimmer. Upon Raia’s announcing his candidacy, Russo told Hudson County View, “Dawn Zimmer made her comment last week about a surprise candidate in the Third Ward, so I think it’s very telling that the Mayor hooked up with a developer to run… and very telling that he would hook up with her.”

Raia initially said that was, “bullcrap,” but eventually withdrew from that race, citing, “health concerns.”

A quick glance at Raia’s New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) contribution report shows the former sewer commissioner fertilized a fair amount of Garden State politics. Hoboken Board of Education races, Hoboken Council campaigns, Weehawken campaigns, Union City, Hudson County, Bergen County, Middlesex County, Monmouth County, State Assembly campaigns—and that’s just the stuff he reported. There are prominent names from the past and present, Democrat and Republican. There’s even a nice little slice cut off for Governor Phil Murphy‘s 2017 election campaign.

To date, Hoboken Councilmen Mike DeFusco and Ruben Ramos have made overtures to redirect funds they’ve received from Pupie, as the race to run from Raia is underway. DeFusco‘s former campaign manager was also implicated in the trial, while Ramos continues to be scrutinized for entangling alliances with Frank.

Hoboken Mayor Ravi Bhalla said last week, “Given the revelations exposed by the trial that additional criminal activity took place in 2015 and other election cycles, further investigation into voter fraud by law enforcement will help ensure that voter fraud is rooted out of Hoboken once and for all.” Yet in 2016, then-Councilman Bhalla referred to Raia as “an asset to the City of Hoboken” in a meeting where Pupie was replaced on the sewer authority board by local activist Kurt Gardiner.

Frankly, there’s a lot of righteous indignation going around Hoboken right now, and it’s as comical as it is insulting—because again, this verdict was a surprise to no one. Whether you were Born N’ Raised or you just unpacked the U-Haul, if you had your ear to the ground on Hoboken politics for a second, then you knew what Frank ‘Pupie’ Raia was doing.

Bottom line: There are trace amounts of Pupie on a lot of people, and they’re all trying pretty hard to scrub it off.

That said, successful politicians are pragmatic, not idealistic. In the 2015 Hudson County General Election, out of 311,500 registered voters, less than 50,000 showed up to vote countywide. That’s a voter turnout of less than 16%. Take those numbers and break them down into municipalities. Take those numbers and break them down into individual wards. You’re seeing people win and lose elections by less than 200 votes.

That’s the kind of environment where guys like Pupie become kingmakers.

When you look at it that way, you almost can’t even blame the politicians who sought his VBMs—taking them as a sort of political PED for a game where no one else is showing up to play. Without a reliable voter base, these people essentially did what they had to do.

In that same vein, it’s almost hard to blame Pupie himself. Someone has to have a say in a how things are run, right? In what’s tantamount to a political vacuum, Pupie stepped in to fill the void. The fact that he did it so effectively for so long is the head-scratcher. The fact that he, or anyone for that matter, was actually convicted for cooking votes in Hudson County, New Jersey is sadly the only true shock of this entire episode.

New Jerseyans like to laugh off political corruption. Like Floridians with alligators in their sewers, we wear it as a badge, shrug, and say, “Meh, whaddaya gonna do?” We’ve become desensitized to such unmistakable impropriety that it becomes accepted as the norm. We helplessly circle the bowl and go with the flow—right down the drain.

Of course there IS an answer. Because in local elections, that’s where your vote would have the most impact. Why else would people be trying to buy it? Why else would someone spend $300,000 to lose an election, and keep on doing it?

Everybody likes to rail against the system. Ironically, there are systems in place that are designed to let you rail against the system—to the point that the system can be replaced entirely. In a representative democracy—the system we have here in Hudson County, New Jersey, USA—participation is essential. If you don’t exercise democracy it atrophies, and gangrene sets in.

Sure, they got Pupie. After decades of basically overt political corruption, he was tried and convicted. That doesn’t mean political corruption in Hudson County is going away. There’s a younger, shinier Pupie waiting in the wings to take his place, and in this political climate, politicians would almost be idiots not to seek that help. Meanwhile, those politicians will become emboldened by their success and continue these tactics as they writhe up the ladders of leadership.

Mayor Ravi Bhalla, Senator Bob Menendez, Senator Cory Booker, Hudson County Democratic Organization Chair Amy DeGise on the Hoboken Waterfront – InsiderNJ photo

Ask any sewer worker and they’ll tell you, if you want to mitigate the toxicity of effluent, you need to dilute it. You need to treat it, water it down and neutralize it with untainted flow so that it has a minimal negative impact on the ecosystem. For the sake of our political ecosystem, we as citizens need to get out and vote. We need to elect our leaders in as clean a manner as possible—even here in New Jersey—in the hopes of spawning a less toxic environment in the halls of power.

Think that’s naïve? You may be right—and you’d have historically abysmal voter turnout numbers to back that up. Nevertheless, political participation is on an upswing in the wake of recent elections. The 2018 Midterm Elections, New Jersey saw the highest voter participation rate in over 20 years.

Keep that surge going, and find ways to engage more voters in local elections. Otherwise we’ll just keep doing it Pupie’s way…

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 10.04.20 AMChristopher M. Halleron is the Publisher/Editor of hMAG.
As a columnist and journalist, he has covered various aspects of life here in the ‘greater Hoboken area’ and beyond for the past two decades.

His opinions are his own.

Authored by: hMAG