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The undocumented immigrant who became Mayor of Jersey City

By David Wildstein, February 16 2018 2:36 am

Since undocumented immigrants are big news these days, here’s one about Jersey City politics and a high-profile dreamer.

Thomas Gangemi was born in Italy and came to the United States at age ten.  He built a produce business, lost it in the depression, and built it up again.  Drawn to Jersey City politics, he created the Calabria Democratic Club, named after the city he was born.  Gangemi was a loyal supporter of Mayor Frank Hague, which got him his job with the Jersey City Department of Public Works.  He was elected Hudson County Supervisor (the post has since been replaced by a County Executive) in 1960.

Gangemi ran for mayor in 1961 on a slate backed by John V. Kenny, a former mayor and the Hudson Democratic leader.  The incumbent, Charles Witkowski, finished third in the May election, and Gangemi won the runoff against Bernard Berry, who had replaced Kenny and then lost to Witkowski four years later.

In 1963, Gangemi applied for a passport to travel to Italy and claimed to have been naturalized as a child.  The State Department rejected his application, saying he was not an American citizen.  That forced Gangemi to resign.

(Seven of the nine members of the Jersey City Council graciously stepped up and offered to become the new mayor.  The two who didn’t get the consideration where Evelyn Holender, a Republican and the only woman on the council, and Fred Martin, who in 1963 became the first black to win a Jersey City Council seat.  The job went Whelan.)

Some gave Gangemi the benefit of the doubt, believing either the documentation was lost, or his parents led him to believe something that was not true.  He applied for citizenship and was naturalized the following year.

He ran again for mayor in 1965.  The City Clerk refused to certify his petitions because he had been a U.S. citizen for less than a year, but a judge found some flexibility in the law and Gangemi got on the ballot.  He was beaten by Whelan.

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One thought on “The undocumented immigrant who became Mayor of Jersey City

  1. I love these historical stories, and missed them from the old PNJ.

    I this one, I like the line about the judge finding some flexibility in the law, indicating that maybe the Lautenberg decision wasn’t made in a tight a vacuum as it seemed.

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