08/25/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Taking the Wheels Off the Machine

Do the New Jersey Arrests Mark the End of an Era of Patronage Politics?

Only 22 days in and the career of one of New Jersey's "rising hopefuls" came to a sudden end.

Hoboken's Democratic mayor, Peter Cammarano, was among more than 40 people rounded up on Thursday by FBI agents. Those arrested now face charges related to their alleged involvement in a convoluted money laundering and property development scheme.

In custody alongside Cammarano are Assemblyman Daniel Van Pelt, Secaucus Mayor Denis Elwell, Ridgefield Mayor Anthony Suarez, Jersey City Council President Mariano Vega and Jersey City Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini.

Most of the indicted are Democrats, and according to the Newark Star-Ledger, more elected officials may fall.

While Cammarano remains innocent until proven otherwise, the charges confirm suspicions that he was deeply engaged with a party machine that treated back-slapping cronyism and influence pedaling as status quo.

Hoboken's Walk of Shame
The actions he's accused of would be more shocking to locals were it not for the state's history of crooked politics, which has landed more than 130 Jersey officials in jail since 2001, and conditioned us in Hoboken to accept corruption as a natural feature of the landscape.

Rising Up from the Dust

But this could soon change. Cammarano's future as mayor of Hoboken remains murky at best. Wiretap conversations detailed in the U.S. District Attorney's complaint against the young mayor reveal a recklessly arrogant leader, willing to do favors for those who pay his price and "grind into powder" those who don't.

Prominent local politicians have called for his immediate resignation as Hoboken locals are doing what they can to show the mayor the door.

It's a stunning reversal of fortune for Cammarano. The young hopeful had aligned his political fate with the state's entrenched Party bosses, thinking that their "sponsorship" and connections would pave a clear path to electoral victory. But Cammarano's arrest, and the widespread corruption it reportedly involves, may prove the end of machine politics in Hoboken, and across the state.

New Jersey's progressive movement should see Cammarano's downfall as an opportunity. It's our chance to pry the state's Democratic Party from the patronage system that has resisted reform for too long, and to stop advancing the ambitions of those, like Cammarano, who put "business as usual" before accountability.

Our Call to Action

Progressives believe that healthy democracy is built upon principals of access, transparency and equality. Machine politics are the opposite hoarding power through privilege, secrecy and cronyism.

Progressive democracy requires constant vigilance against corruption, and a government that is made accountable through widespread civic participation. For progressives, "all people are created equal" is not just a fact -- it is our call to action. In New Jersey that means more organizing around strong political issues, and less falling into line behind strong political bosses.

Seasoned New Jersey politicos may scoff at that. But in June Cammarano narrowly defeated reformist rival Dawn Zimmer in Hoboken's race for mayor. A recount of questionable absentee ballots gave him the edge over her majority earned in the voting booths.

Zimmer's campaign took no money from special interests. Her success -- even in a losing effort -- proved that the machine's hold on New Jersey politics is increasingly tenuous.

Cammarano's fall may be its final undoing.