Adventures in Shell Corporations, or How to Rebuild a Political Party




A FRIEND OF MINE found a picture of me as a hairy young leftist. I’m standing with a fellow agitator on the steps of an abandoned school in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1984, awaiting the arrival of President Ronald Reagan, a man who we opposed on just about every issue you could imagine. And we were holding a poster board placard that read: Republicans for Mondale.

That picture is one of my few surviving documents from a successful populist revolt in a down-on-its-luck city. A whole flophouse full of strange bedfellows rose up against an arrogant political machine and scored an unlikely victory.

If you look hard enough at that picture, you can see in it a question that has repeated itself this year in the Republican Party after Donald Trump’s rise: “What the hell do we do now?”

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If Americans outside of New Jersey had ever heard of Hoboken at all, they knew it as the setting for On the Waterfront, Elia Kazan’s classic tale of waterfront corruption. Or maybe they knew it as the punch line of a joke in an old Bugs Bunny cartoon: “Hoboken? I’m dyin’!”

And by the 1980s, it was. The port, which just a few decades earlier had been among the most active in the country, employing thousands, had in the 1960s and ’70s turned into a sad backwater. Profound changes in international trade, the rise of containerized shipping on the East Coast, and the expansion of the interstate highway system made the warehouses empty and the rusting railheads obsolete.

With the old industry gone, those old-time Hobokenites had a lot of free time to sit on their front stoops, stewing and smoking. They couldn’t see into the far-off corridors of power in Washington and the state capital of Trenton, or get a clear view of the massive global and national economic and political shifts that were to blame in large part for their declining fortunes. But they could find scapegoats without looking any farther than the sidewalks.

Two completely different waves of immigration had washed up on what the locals used to call “Bare-Assed Beach” on the banks of the Hudson River. One was college-educated, largely white, so-called urban pioneers — Yuppies, as they were called back in those days. The other group spoke Spanish. One of them was about to get blamed for everything.

When a series of fires broke out, some of them suspicious, all of them with the side-effect of emptying buildings of tenants so that old tenement apartments could be turned into luxury condominiums, then-Mayor Steve Cappiello, a coarse, crude, old-time Hudson County pol who was strongly supported by real estate developers, darkly suggested that, well, you know Latin Americans, they have a propensity for arson.

Economic decline. Immigration. The threat of terrorizing. Seemingly random fires. All used — perhaps exploited — by opportunistic politicians who stood to benefit from them. Sound familiar? It should.

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By 1984, a growing number of Hobokenites, old-timers and new, were starting to get angry at the political machine. But it didn’t seem that there was much that could be done about it. Elections in Hoboken were nonpartisan, yet the levers of government were almost entirely controlled by the local Democratic organization. To the extent that there was a Republican Party in Hoboken, it was a wholly owned subsidiary of the Democratic Party. It basically did as it was told.

As Angelo Valente, then a fresh-scrubbed 22-year-old Reagan Republican, put it in what may have been a model of understatement, “there was void of leadership in the party.” And it wasn’t just leadership that had slipped into the void. In wards where there were hundreds, if not thousands, of registered Democrats — many of them actually living, breathing, and eligible to vote — there were often 30 or fewer registered Republicans. Getting elected as one seemed to be such a heavy lift that no sane person would try it.

Of course, no one, at least as far as I can recall, ever accused Tommy Vezzetti of being sane.

I don’t know that there was one particular event that tipped the scales for him, one critical moment that triggered in him a political epiphany. All I know is that way too early one Saturday morning, I looked out the window of my first floor railroad apartment to see the strangest man I’ve ever seen bellowing on the sidewalk like an Old Testament prophet, at anyone who would listen that he was running for mayor and that he was going to lead a rabble to City Hall and wrench power out of the hands of the machine.

That was my first introduction to Tommy Vezzetti. 

Try as I might, I can’t stretch the meaning of words like eccentric, colorful, or flamboyant taut enough to cover the force of nature that was Vezzetti. An autodidact and a voracious reader of political science and philosophy — he hadn’t had time to attend college — Vezzetti looked like a madman, his secondhand store plaid pants going at his thrift-store striped jacket as if it were a member of a rival street gang.

He had a shock of wild salt-and-pepper hair and an equally wild mustache that seemed to have a fully realized inner life of its own. From his father, whom he often described as “a bootlegger,” he had inherited an old pension joint, a once-upon-a-time speakeasy that doubled under his watch as a kind of unofficial soup kitchen for the down and out. He was known to sometimes throw a blanket and a pillow on the bar after closing time and sack out there.

Imagine if you can, Bernie Sanders channeling Professor Irwin Corey and you can begin to get a glimpse of Tommy Vezzetti.

He had a passion that could be felt in the middle of maelstrom, yes, but for many, an almost inexplicable aura that convinced you despite his cartoonishness, there was something undeniably genuine and honest about him.

It didn’t take long for him to attract attention. That’s probably no surprise. But what was surprising, at least back then, was that he also began to pick up a following, and a loyal one from all spectrums of Hoboken society, people who despite their differences came to believe that in the end this thrift-store harlequin appeared to be for real. He appeared to be motivated by a very real sense of justice and fair play, possessed a kind of common sense that served as a ballast to all the rest of the elements of his character — even as he stalked the streets, sometimes still wearing his pajamas and often in mismatched shoes, toting his possessions in brown paper bags, and howling at the machine through a bullhorn.

There was substance to his campaign. He vowed to pass an anti-warehousing ordinance that would prevent landlords from forcing tenants out of apartments and keep them vacant until the rents went up enough to suit them. He demanded that developers set aside 20 percent of their units for low and moderate-income tenants, and he promised to strengthen rent control in Hoboken. All these were smart reforms. But he couldn’t push them as an independent; he needed a vehicle in which to make his assault on power.

That’s when Angelo Valente and a politically eclectic group of activists — all Vezzetti backers — hit on an outlandish scheme. If the Hoboken GOP wasn’t using their party, then maybe the party elders wouldn’t mind if Vezzetti and his cohorts borrowed it for a while?

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They say that politics makes strange bedfellows. Never were there stranger ones.

What may well have been the oddest assortment of fellow travelers ever assembled for a political campaign in the United States — people who would not otherwise have been in the same political zip code let alone the same political bed — fanned out across all six of Hoboken’s voting districts (in a nod to propriety, they skipped a cemetery in neighboring Jersey City often referred to by longtime Hobokenites as the “Seventh Ward”), registering newly minted — some would say counterfeit — Republicans to vote, and more importantly, reregistering disgruntled Democrats and independents as Republicans, all in the name of taking down the Democratic machine.

There were a handful of more traditional spit-and-polish Republicans like Valente among them. But there were also confirmed, old-fashioned liberals, lifelong Democrats, and even a smattering of middle-aged left-wing activists who saw themselves as revolutionaries — former members of the Students for a Democratic Society bent on reliving their glory days, not on the campus of Columbia or out in Madison, Wisconsin, but right there on the back streets of a waterfront town.

I look back with a measure of pride on the fact that the only time this old lefty was ever elected to anything, I was elected as a Republican County Committeeman in Hoboken in 1984.

Like urban squatters occupying a vacant tenement, we took over the party. And we forced the statewide Republican party, grudgingly perhaps, to lend us a measure of support that we certainly would not otherwise have gotten. In June of the following year, seven months after the patron saint of American conservatism, Ronald Reagan, was resoundingly reelected our howling, slightly leftist populist harlequin, Tommy Vezzetti — a guy who would later be dubbed by the New York Daily News “The Wackiest Mayor in America” — strode straight into City Hall. That day, at least, his shoes matched.

The problem with Jefferson’s famous quote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants” is that it makes the whole revolution thing seem a lot more exciting and interesting than it really is. What keeps a revolutionary movement alive, or at least sustains it long enough to achieve some of its goals, is a lot less romantic than the revolution itself. It’s hard, slow work, grinding, and it demands attention to details arcane enough to make your eyes bleed just reading them. It’s a lot of drudgery.

People lose interest. They move on.

Vezzetti never did. Sometimes quietly, often not, he achieved most of his major policy objectives. He occasionally slept on a bench in City Hall, just like it was his dad’s flophouse. And he remained a popular — even beloved — figure in Hoboken, right up until the day he his heart finally gave out in 1988.

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Maybe it’s that I’m getting older, and don’t have enough to keep me busy anymore, but I’ve been spending a lot of time over the past 18 months or so, as the brutish, nationalistic populism of Donald Trump — the absolute antithesis of the inclusive populism that Vezzetti represented — infected and ultimately consumed the national Republican Party.

There were some parallels between the subversive takeover of the local GOP we engineered three decades ago, and Trump’s absurd ascent. In both cases, people who were hardly traditional Republicans flocked to the party not out of any sense of loyalty to the party itself, but in support of an utterly outlandish candidate.

The difference is that Vezzetti and his supporters appealed to the better angels of our nature. Trump appealed to our worst instincts. Like a teenage car thief with a bottle of Mad Dog and a bunch of his buddies, he and his angry supporters took the party on a hate-filled joy ride and drove it right off the pier. What do they care? It wasn’t their party anyway, not really. And when Americans eventually decide they’ve had enough, they’ll still be around, a loud obnoxious mob on the far fringes of the United States’s political landscape, blaming their defeat on a “rigged system” and on the perfidiousness of an imaginary “party elite” that wasn’t strong enough to stop them in the first place. But they won’t pretend to be Republicans anymore.

There’s also reason to suspect that as the post-mortems now start to roll in on the election of 2016, it will become increasingly clear that the brand has been damaged and will likely remain so for years to come.

People much more politically savvy than I am have already seen signs that old-line conservatives have started to view the Trumped Republican Party as radioactive, and it’s easy to imagine that they too will flee the smoldering wreckage of the once-Grand Old Party, leaving behind nothing but a vacant shell.

The thing is, with a little bit of imagination, a bit of drive, that shell can be reclaimed. Think of it as political gentrification. What if those old-time liberal Republicans exiled from the party during its long drift rightward and those Democrats disenchanted with the strain of corporatism that defined the party under Clinton, joined with independents and squatted in that shell?

If nothing else, as Norman Ornstein, the noted political scientist, author, and resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute put it when I broached the subject with him in an email, a post-Trump renovation of the Republican Party would “allow a lot of cathartic mischief-making.” But in the long run, he warned, it wouldn’t “be likely to work or to change anything.”

The old man inside of me recognizes that he’s probably right. But I think Tommy Vezzetti would beg to differ. In fact, I think I’m going to grab a piece of poster board and some Magic Markers, and whip up a sign that says, “Republicans for Elizabeth Warren 2020.” Anybody want to join me?

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Seamus McGraw is the author of The End of Country: Dispatches from the Frack Zone, and Betting the Farm on a Drought: Stories from the Front Line of Climate Change.


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