Three slates are competing for control of local government in Hackensack in a contest that’ll see incumbents pitted against one another with an additional challenge from the left.
Mayor John Labrosse is seeking re-election with three of the city’s council incumbents, Deputy Mayor Kathleen Canestrino and Council members Leonardo Battaglia and Stephanie Von Rudenborg. Retired teacher Gerard Carroll joins the “Labrosse Team” in place of councilman David Sims.
Sims is running his own slate, the “Coalition for Clean Government,” after being dropped from by Labrosse after the councilman brought his daughter into city hall following a positive COVID-19 test.
Carlos Merina, Fred Miller, Venus Nelson and Modesto Romero are running alongside Sims.
New Jersey Citizen Action director of development Leila Amirhamzeh heads the “For Hackensack’s Future” Slate. She’s joined by Bergen County NAACP economic development chair Randy Glover, Hackensack Chamber of Commerce member Andee Post, educator Caseen Gaines and business owner Mary Lopez.
Development has emerged as the key issue in this year’s contest, with Amirhamzeh and Sims’ teams each attacking Labrosse over payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) programs they charge have pushed rents up and residents out while providing little benefit to the city.
“Development is not all bad. It just needs to be done in a fair way,” said Nelson. “It needs to be done strategically and in a way that doesn’t compromise green space or people who want to stay in Hackensack but can’t afford to because of the development and the new rents.”
As part of a $1 billion housing push, the city is forecasting 3,500 new apartments in its downtown by year’s end. The new buildings, the Labrosse team says, have made Hackensack a destination town.
“We also want to be a community that when people say ‘i’m looking for a place to move,’ Hackensack comes to mind,” said Labrosse campaign spokesperson Wendy Martinez. “In years past, definitely before this administration, that was not the case. You did not think of Hackensack. So, people are now talking about Hackensack. Businesses are coming in. We have more restaurants than ever before, and after work hours, you see people on the street, which is really nice.”
The buildings have brought in roughly $1.4 million in tax revenue for the current year’s budget, she said.
But the administration’s rivals say the benefits fall far short of what was promised.
“They put out some literature that this was going to bring in a billion dollars over the course of 10 years or something like that,” For Hackensack’s Future campaign manager Jason DeAlessi said, adding later, “what they’re telling the voters that they’re doing and what’s actually happening is night and day, and we see that those development issues have really cheated the schools, in particular, out of money, as well as other services, the DPW, the library.”
The Sims team’s opposition puts it in something of an interesting position. The councilman backed the developments before his break with Labrosse, something mailers sent by Amirhamzeh’s campaign point out to voters.
The mayor’s campaign is looking to other issues, touting $900,000 in tax cuts in this year’s budget and lauding redevelopment on Hackensack’s Main Street while arguing the new developments, made on previously untaxed land, haven’t pushed residents out of the city.
“The buildings that have gone up around the city, these have gone up in vacant properties, in abandoned properties, in some city properties that went up for sale,” Martinez said. “The town was getting no revenue whatsoever.”
At this point in the campaign, each team has turned their attention to getting out the vote, though the specter of COVID-19 is still changing some plans.
House and lawn parties normally held in the runup to an election aren’t happening, Martinez said, leaving door-knocking, phone banking and mail pieces the main avenues of reaching voters.
In that arena — the one involving things that cost money — Labrosse has the advantage. His slate’s joint committee reported having a $53,287 war chest in 11-day pre-election filings submitted to the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission.
Amirhamzeh’s team has reported raising $5,125, but filed reports that indicate their spending won’t exceed $15‚800 and do not show cash on hand.
Sims’ joint committee reported a war chest of $9,232 in their 11-day pre-election reports. The councilman’s slate outraised the Labrosse team over the period, bringing in $25,750 to the mayor’s $16,000.
The For Hackensack’s Future slate might have another weapon in their arsenal: They want to do away with “The Sack,” an oft-lambasted nickname for the city’s downtown favored by Labrosse for its historical value. The nickname was used in years past but had fallen out of favor when the Mainstreet Business Alliance began pushing it earlier this year.
“It’s time for a change. The sack has got to go and it’s a new day. That’s illustrative. Residents didn’t pick that slogan,” DeAlessi said, adding it was “not priority number one.”