Over the last two years, Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro has emerged as one of the Fulop administration’s loudest critics, having waged pitched battles on issues from inclusionary zoning to police funding. This comes after years on the inside as a member of “Team Fulop” and as city council president.
Lavarro is now being mentioned as a potential challenger to Mayor Fulop in this fall’s citywide elections.
I set up a Zoom meeting with Lavarro to find out how this metamorphosis took place. I wanted to know how one goes from being the mayor’s chief enforcer on the city council to his chief antagonist.
But I first wanted to get his back-story.
A lifelong resident of Greenville, Lavarro came here at age seven. His parents, both from the Philippines and both physicians, were like many immigrants. “They wanted me to assimilate,” Lavarro said. Afraid that he’d develop an accent if he learned Tagalog, Lavarro’s parents spoke only English at home. At a time when, according to Lavarro, “people were known by where they went to grammar school and high school, ” he attended St. Paul’s Elementary School and then St. Peter’s Prep. He went on to get a BS in marketing from NYU Stern School of Business.
After graduating, Lavarro spent ten years working for nonprofits that helped immigrants transition to life in the U.S. For a time he worked with Filipino veterans who had lost their military pensions. He lobbied congressmen in New Jersey on their behalf. Thereafter, he entered the realm of politics.
He was an aide to then-councilwoman Mary Donnelly and worked briefly for State Senator Bob Gordon when Gordon was still in the state assembly. He spent three years combatting substance abuse in Greenville with a group connected to the Philippine American Friendship Community. For seven years, Lavarro worked for New Jersey City University.
Lavarro credits Barack Obama’s inauguration speech, which called on Americans to get involved in their communities, with inspiring him to run for office.
“He was just elected to President of the United States, his message of transformational change, that’s what really motivated me to engage in politics, ” Lavarro explained.
So, in 2009, he ran for city council as part of Assemblyman Lou Manzo’s slate. Lavarro lost the race in a run-off to Michael Sotolano, then part of the “Healy machine.” But another bite at the politics apple was not far off.
It was the infamous 2009 “Operation Bid Rig” scandal that gave Lavarro the break he needed.
Three council seats opened up, and he ran with the late Viola Richardson for one of the two open council-at-large seats. From a field of 17, he and Richardson emerged victorious. “We stunned a lot of folks, including myself, when we won that election” Lavarro recalls.
In 2012, then-councilman Steve Fulop asked Lavarro if he’d join his slate for his run for mayor against Jerramiah Healy.
“When I was first courted to be part of the ticket, I didn’t know Steve Fulop from a can of paint. I knew people who knew him, and I trusted some of those folks who suggested to me that he was the real deal and that he was a reformer.”
When he hesitated, Fulop became impatient, according to Lavarro. “He asked me at one point. ‘What’s it going to take care for you to make a decision?,’ and I said, ‘I need to know what you stand for. I ran for a reason, right?’”
Lavarro says he wanted make sure he and Fulop were on the same page. Recalling his motivation for entering politics, Lavarro explains, “I talked a lot about the tale of two cities because I was looking to represent Greenville. I talked about the inequities, the lack of jobs from development and economic opportunity. I talked about public safety a lot during that campaign.”
While Fulop’s background on Wall Street gave Lavarro pause, Fulop finally convinced him. “He ultimately shared the white papers. The now famous white papers that were disseminated and shared with the public.” A white paper is a report that informs readers concisely about a complex issue. “And when I read those white papers, I mean, those were like the, the newest things. I was pretty aligned with a lot of the things that were going on there. And so I decided to join the ticket at that point.”
Fulop and his slate went on to win the election, taking office in July 2013. Because he was the only member of the slate with council experience, Fulop asked Lavarro to become council president. Lavarro would hold the title until 2019.
Fulop was quick to make it clear that although Lavarro was nominally independent as city council president, when push came to shove, he was expected to dutifully comply with the mayor’s wishes. The issue that brought this into stark relief was Berry Lane Park.
It was 2014, and Fulop decided that he wanted to divert funding from a number of small parks around the city to Berry Lane Park.
“I just thought it was the wrong approach to take money away from other parks and doing improvements and enhancements in every neighborhood in the community and putting it into one park,” Lavarro said.
Lavarro surmised that the mayor’s gubernatorial ambitions were behind it. “I thought he wants to put all of this money into one big park; it doesn’t make very good headlines when you’re running for governor to say you took care of a bunch of little small pocket parks, but it does make a difference if you can talk about a huge multi-acre park that you literally refer to as ‘Jersey City’s Central Park.’ It’s a good project and initiative. But he was trying to accelerate it so he could have it for his gubernatorial run and point to that.”
Lavarro was not alone in his doubts about the project. According to Lavarro, several of his fellow councilmembers were frustrated at not being consulted by the administration. With support from these colleagues, Lavarro arranged to have the vote for the park’s funding tabled to provide time to negotiate a solution. But on the day this was to happen, Lavarro got a call from the mayor.
“He started screaming and cursing at me over the phone,” Lavarro remembers.
“And I went to his office to go talk to him, and he proceeded to ream me out in front of everyone in his office, suggesting what was I trying to do by tabling something, and who do I think I am. And he was indignant to the idea that I was actually going to do my job as a councilman and council president. And he literally walked out of that room and his office and started to go around from council office to council office, whoever was there, like an hour before the council meeting and telling them that they were going to vote for this and saying that, ‘I don’t know what kind of things this guy has been filling in your head, but you’re going to go vote for this. Whatever this guys is saying, it’s a lie.’”
Lavarro got his way at the next council meeting. The ordinance shifting money to Berry Lane Park was tabled. “I later communicated with them [the mayor’s staff] and then sent them a message essentially saying that we’d like to talk about this and kind of discuss these matters with him. And I reached out my hand to kind of say let’s see if we can work things out.”
Lavarro heard nothing from the mayor but did get a call from the city clerk asking him to call a special meeting to vote on the tabled ordinance. Lavarro suggested again that they talk about it before any further meetings. According to Lavarro, the mayor then went behind his back and pressured five other council members to call the meeting over Lavarro’s objection. The mayor got his way when the ordinance passed 7–1.
Afterward, Lavarro talked to the late Michael Yun. “He said, ‘You really upset the mayor on this, you really showed him … , You showed him what you’re made of, but let’s let this go at this point.’”
Soon thereafter Lavarro’s city car was taken away from him.
Fulop’s “emissaries” later approached Lavarro. “They said, ‘What are we going to do here? You’re the council president, he’s the mayor. You have your personal ambitions, he has his. How do we make this work?’”
“And I said my only personal ambition—I remember having the conversation like it was clear as day—I’m only here to do good things. I came here to change Jersey City.”
As Lavarro recounts his response, he chokes back tears.
When it came to policy, however, Lavarro remained on board with the mayor. At least until Lavarro attended a meeting of “Jersey City Together” in 2016.
Upon taking office, Fulop halted the nearly completed property “reval” begun under his predecessor, Jerramiah Healy. Unsurprisingly, the firm that had done the work and not been fully paid sued the city. Lavarro, along with the rest of the mayor’s slate on the city council, authorized the city to spend money litigating a case that the city would go on to lose. The judge held that the city had acted in bad faith in cancelling the contract. Ultimately, the suit cost the city close to $4 million in legal fees and damages. Some say the bill came to more.
Compounding the fallout, many critics pointed out that the case prolonged property tax disparities that allowed Downtown property owners to pay much less than their fair share in taxes while poorer neighborhoods paid far too much.
It was during the Jersey City Together meeting that Lavarro says he first came to appreciate this fundamental inequity in taxation.
Asked how he now feels about approving the money to move ahead with the mayor’s lawsuit, Lavarro said, “I do regret it.” He would like people to know that, by 2016, he was pushing back on some administration policies. “If folks were to look throughout my history, there were things that I expressed my opposition to, some of it, most of it, not very public.”
After losing in the trial court, the administration asked the city council to fund an appeal. Lavarro says he disagreed with idea.
“We had a closed session. It became very clear to me that we were losing these lawsuits decisively. And if you go into the records of that closed session, it’s all documented. I’m probably literally the only person literally on the city council who questioned what was going on there.”
Nonetheless, Lavarro voted to approve the appeal.
“The truth of the matter is I made a mistake because I voted for the contract again. I offered some amendments at the council floor on the vote of it, trying to say let me see if I could do some amendments to put some accountability into this. But it was frankly, in hindsight, meaningless— those kinds of amendments and so forth. The more appropriate action for me at that time should have been just to vote against the contract.”
Lavarro acknowledges that, despite his present posture as administration critic, he supported the administration on most issues during his time as council president.
“We ran together with a platform, and we were supposed to be enacting that platform, right… and that was those white papers. If you look at the record … on tax abatements, you’ll find that I have the most ‘no’ votes among the council Fulop folks, with the exception of Yun and Boggiano, who voted ‘no’ on a number of those things.”
Lavarro also recalls many votes where he went along despite his misgivings. “I remember the Greenville Yards. That was with the Port Authority wanting to establish a waste transfer station in the Greenville section. I was very torn about that. The community was up in arms about it.” Under pressure, Lavarro voted in favor of it only to have the rug pulled out from under him when the mayor backed out of the deal at the last minute.
“I look back on that vote, and I was just distraught with myself and angry with myself about it because my gut was telling me that this was not a good vote.”
I asked Lavarro if there were specific issues that led him to the conclusion that he and the mayor were on opposing sides. Lavarro points to 2018 and 2019. It came down to property. “I said we should not be selling public assets away, and they were going to look to sell them for more luxury developments and more real estate developers. And I began to say, I think that this is all just more of the same: Fulop selling them for his donors and to benefit the privileged and the politically connected.”
He also remembers objecting to the process that created the West Side Special Improvement District. It “left out a lot of business to owners, particularly local small mom and pop and particularly a lot of the immigrant-owned businesses with which I have a deep-seated connection.”
The final straw for Lavarro came with the June 2019 expose on Fulop by Bloomberg News. Upon reading it, Lavarro said he finally made a connection between Fulop’s delay of the reval and Dixon Advisory Services, one of Jersey City’s largest property owners.
“I always thought that perhaps he suspended it for political reasons because it’s not a popular thing to do with certain segments of voter populations. But when that Bloomberg story came out… it actually set off a light bulb in my head that actually made a thousand percent more sense because from all of the information and all of the other past dealings I’ve seen with this administration.”
“It’s never just about the policy or just about whose benefiting. It’s not talking about the actual policy and how it impacts the people of Jersey City, rather it’s about this administration: Fulop’s agenda to benefit himself politically, personally, and those who are politically connected, the financial benefit that developer and others were seeing as a result of the suspension of the reevaluation, the millions of millions and millions of dollars that they’re all saving.”
While Lavarro says he had public misgivings about certain issues, he admits that he went along with a number of administration initiatives he now criticizes. “If folks were to look at my voting record, they would see that I was having issues and concerns with things like the Katyn Memorial Statue and the Jersey City Museum. I had concerns about the financial things there. And I asked questions about that stuff. My votes were supportive of it, and frankly, I think they were mistakes at the time that I made those votes. Ultimately, with the statue I got to reverse that vote, but the museum I think probably I should have not taken that vote because now we see no transparency or accountability with the funding for that and how money is going to be spent on that going forward.”
In a fateful decision, Lavarro decided to write to U.S. Attorney Craig Carpenito and urge him to look into the Bloomberg article’s “alarming” allegations regarding the mayor and Dixon. “It is my hope that your office will do an extensive investigation,” Lavarro wrote.
“I knew that when I made that letter and offered that letter to the U.S. Attorney, that was going to be the end of the relationship no matter what, whether I’m running for future office or not.”
Lavarro proudly owns some of his work as a former Team Fulop member. “I ended up finding myself on the tax abatement policy committee, and we rewrote the policy on tax abatements. I will take credit and responsibility for writing into those policies an emphasis on affordable housing.”
But ultimately Lavarro found that tax incentives alone weren’t enough to encourage the construction of affordable housing.
“You’re not going to get them to voluntarily build affordable housing. It doesn’t make sense for them financially. So you’re going to have to impose it and require it in order to make it happen. And that’s why the inclusionary zoning ordinance was such an important piece for me.”
When asked to name three ordinances he’d pass today if given the opportunity, Lavarro didn’t skip a beat citing “a super strong inclusionary zoning ordinance,” allocating more money to schools, and “taking a good look at how we allocate our resources to the police department.”
Has the administration done anything right, I asked. “Sick leave” he responded. “It was a model for the state of New Jersey…it’s becoming a model for the nation as well…I was a big proponent of that,” he said.
Lavarro is also a fan of the massive Bayfront development on the West Side. “I was as the council president and as a councilman, without a doubt, hands down the most vocal proponent on the city council for that.”
And he applauds the mayor’s “vision zero” traffic deaths campaign as well as his emphasis on sustainability and mobility. “But,” he said, “the process on those issues and the way he’s dealt with them has been abysmal….He’s not very good with process. In fact, he does everything he can to make sure that he gets a headline out of it before the council or other stakeholders are at the table [or before] the public more importantly has an opportunity to be at the table on those matters.”
I asked Lavarro if he credited the mayor with the city’s growth and new-found visibility. “We talked about all of this development and the opportunity that development and increased ratables and increased revenues for the city…gives us…to bridge the gap in addressing the tale of two cities… but the reality is that those dollars and those resources haven’t materialized.”
Lavarro rattled off a number of investments the city was unable to find the money for including aid to the schools and tenant support. “For long-time residents, for middle-income and lower-working families, which is a large part of the city at this point, they have not realized in large part the benefits of Jersey City’s development and growth.”
Lavarro’s demotion from council president was followed by a health scare. Early in the pandemic, Lavarro came down with COVID. I asked him about his experience as well as his current health. “I haven’t had any longterm impacts or effects.” Lavarro stops to collect himself. “I was terrified, frankly at the time and I’m thankful that I got through that. That was a scary time for me, my family.”
Will Lavarro run for mayor? “I’m definitely strongly considering it. And you know, first of all, I don’t think this mayor should go unchallenged. I think while folks think there’s an aura of invincibility to him, I also think that his decisions and choices…I think they’re bad for Jersey City at this point.”