It has been six months since the distribution of xenophobic fliers reading, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our Town!” in a mismatched red font, featuring a photo of now-Mayor Ravi Bhalla, printed on forged campaign material from then-Mayoral candidate and current Hoboken Councilman Michael DeFusco.
In an instant, these fliers took an already roaring Hoboken election and set it ablaze just days before voters were to cast their ballots.
“This was the most disgusting thing I had ever seen in Hoboken politics,” says Phil Cohen, who now sits as Chairman of the Hoboken Democratic Committee. Cohen received a photo of the fliers from his brother-in-law on the evening of November 3, 2017, and reached out to the Hoboken Police Department and local Hoboken blogger Nancy Pincus, a.k.a Grafix Avenger.
“I was stunned, angry,” says Pincus. “It was four days before the election, everyone was on edge. The race had tightened up. This was a dirty ‘November surprise’.”
Also stunned and angry was Michael DeFusco—by most accounts neck-and-neck with Bhalla for the Mayoral race.
“Whoever illegally altered my flier planned to have me branded a racist by sunrise without a chance for me to say otherwise before the election,” says DeFusco. “With a message of hate pinned wrongly to my name, all of my policy and hard work had been tarnished by the same divisive rhetoric dividing our country —a message that would scream louder than all of my impassioned speeches about the importance of local governance.”
Meanwhile, Ravi Bhalla—the man depicted as representing “Terrorism,” obviously had his own fallout to deal with.
“I had a pit in my stomach. My wife was in tears because this was our daughter’s first experience with racism,” says Bhalla. “My wife and I spend a lot of time teaching our children to be proud of our identity as Sikh-Americans, so to have this term associated with our identity was disturbing beyond what words can describe.”
Sikhism is a religion that originated in the Punjab region of northern India. Sikh men wear turbans, which often leads the ignorant to incorrectly identify them as Muslim. In the days immediately following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, a Sikh gas station owner in Mesa, Arizona named Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed in a hate crime incident. Since then, similar ghastly hate attacks have targeted the Sikh-American community.
The Hoboken fliers came directly on the heels of xenophobic fliers in nearby Edison, New Jersey, where voters were told to “Make Edison Great Again” by preventing Chinese and Indian candidates from assuming a role on the school board—where they might install “cricket fields.” That story was also very much in the the international spotlight.
“It was a learning moment,” says Bhalla, in reference to the fliers, “but we have moved on. My little son and daughter are very proud their Dad is serving as our Mayor.”
“The flier absolutely impacted the election in that it changed the conversation from local issues like potholes and small business to a more polarizing one that echoed the national conversation,” says DeFusco. “It provided invaluable national media coverage for Ravi Bhalla to tell his story while I was simultaneously branded a racist—a truly terribly place to be three days before an election. Having lost by just over 400 votes, it’s clear that the election was incredibly close and though there potentially could’ve been a different outcome had my name not been dragged through the mud, we’ll never know.”
The Hoboken Police Department has been actively investigating this case since the fliers appeared on November 3. Suspects were seen on surveillance video passing out the fliers, however, no one has yet been identified.
“The first thing we did was look for those five individuals in the video,” said Hoboken Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante, in a recent Hoboken City Council Meeting. “Still unbelievable that no one in the Tri-State area knew these people—from law enforcement to homeless shelters; we put it out everywhere.”
In a conversation with hMAG, Ferrante states, “I will easily say Capt. Campbell, Lt. Cruz and their investigators have spent hundreds of hours on this case. That is why our investigators knew the exact route and times of those who disseminated the fliers within 1-2 days of the incident and they need to be commended for that.”
Ferrante has also confirmed that as recently as early April, people have been called in for questioning. “Yes, interviews and questioning continue, [Hoboken Police are] still covering all leads and theories,” says Ferrante. “That will continue until we meet a 100% dead end.”
In a town like Hoboken, everyone has theories. A number of people have presented those theories to the Hoboken Police Department over the past six months.
“In law enforcement, we are looking for Probable Cause to arrest an individual for a crime, which has to be taken before a judge to get judicial approval before arrest,” says Ferrante. “Then the Prosecution would need to find guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We are talking 100% jury conviction, or a judge 100% certain the person is guilty.”
Ferrante has gone on record with the City Council to say that the avenue for a civil suit remains open, should anyone have theories that they feel can stand up in court.
“In a civil lawsuit, you only have to prove guilt by the preponderance of evidence. Anyone who feels that—it could be a taxpayer—could file that suit,” Ferrante told City Council on April 18. “If somebody feels, how are the cops not solving this? There’s always a civil case.”
“There is no one in this room who wants people in handcuffs on this incident more than me. I swear to that.”
–Hoboken Police Chief Ken Ferrante
Ferrante warns of the potential negative ramifications of that move. “It also can bring counter lawsuits for false allegations or malicious prosecutions, which could end up costing someone some money,” he says. “I state that because some find it easy to say they are certain someone did the act, and why aren’t the police doing anything about it. The reason is because we do not have Probable Cause against any individuals at this time or else arrest warrants would be applied for, but if one feels so certain, they should file suit against the individual or group they feel is behind it.”
Of the investigation, DeFusco had this to say, “I respect the investigation but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t frustrated that petty bike and mail thieves have been arrested faster than five people who tampered with an election.” He also added, “There remains a $10,000 reward that my family raised for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever was responsible. Finding the person(s) responsible is essential to ensure that they don’t interfere in future elections, here or anywhere else.”
Hoboken Moves Forward
In the immediate wake of the fliers, Bhalla received extraordinary support from then-candidate and now Governor Phil Murphy, as well as Senator Cory Booker. He also had interviews in outlets like HuffPost, MSNBC and BBC—to name a few.
— Cory Booker (@CoryBooker) November 4, 2017
Mass media were fixated on Bhalla’s ability to “overcome hate” and win the election.
“I would say that there is no conflict in this country between being a Sikh and being a successful American,” Bhalla told HuffPost.
With the cameras gone, Hoboken soon returned to business as usual.
“It has not had a major impact on my administration,” says Bhalla. “We focused on quality of life issues—making sure Washington Street is paved, the “Con” events are under control, making tough decisions to deliver a 0% tax increase my first year’s budget, and many other things that are important to the residents of the residents of Hoboken.”
DeFusco has seen people come around to realize that he wasn’t involved.
“I was convinced that people would see the truth—that someone made a character assassination in order to sway a close election. Over that weekend, one of my supporters told me I should ‘burn in hell’ and switched her vote without listening to logic. My sister was out for a walk in our town wearing our campaign’s t-shirt when an angry man started shouting ‘racist’ at her in front of my two-year old niece. Our mother was told she was a horrible mother for raising a bigot.”
It should be noted that DeFusco is Hoboken’s first openly gay public official.
“Now that the dust has settled, people understand that the purpose of that flier was to create confusion and distract from core issues and many tell me they regret being fooled.”
That’s not to say the fliers have been forgotten…
We asked Mayor Bhalla why he thought someone would perpetrate a maneuver like that.
“I cannot get into the mind of a deranged person,” he says. “I only hope that any responsible party is apprehended and prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Pincus, whose Grafix Avenger blog showcases her passionate stance on breaking Hoboken political stories, advises the perpetrator(s) to, “Keep checking your rear view mirror, mother**ker.”
When asked what his message would be to those who produced those fliers on his campaign letterhead, DeFusco’s take is only slightly less acerbic.
“Not sure that language is fit to print,” he says. “However, I will say that the experience has made me acutely aware that politics, even as local as Hoboken, is filled with those looking to preserve the status quo and willing to do absolutely anything to win. Despite this, I’m emboldened as ever to bring new energy and new ideas to Hoboken.”
Meanwhile, Chief Ferrante underscores his and his department’s commitment to investigating this crime—a crime with a number of innocent victims, including Hoboken itself.
“There is no one in this room who wants people in handcuffs on this incident more than me,” he recently told the Hoboken City Council. “I swear to that.”