Community activist and former prosecutor Tom Zuppa is running for the Ward C city council seat currently held by Richard Boggiano.
We sat down with Zuppa last week and got his take on a host of pressing local issues.
JCT: Tell us about your background.
TZ: I’m a fourth generation Jersey City resident. My family came to this country and then laid down their roots in Jersey City, owned some local businesses in the Greenville neighborhood, and raised the family there. I eventually moved to Greenville to the family home before settling up in Ward C in Journal Square. I’m an attorney by trade. I started my legal career at the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office, where I worked for years. I handled a variety of cases, including in the gang and narcotics unit and also the special investigations unit, which handled higher level investigations and public corruption cases. That was before I moved on to a law firm Chasan Lamparello, where I handle civil litigation cases. And I work as a trial attorney, where I’ve been for about four years.
JCT: Where’d you go to school?
TZ: I did my undergrad at Fordham University in the Bronx. I have a political science degree, and I went to law school at Seton Hall.
JCT: What’s the matter with Rich Boggiano?
TZ: Well, I have a lot of respect for him. He’s been doing it for a long time in terms of being an advocate in the community. It’s not really about Rich as an individual. It’s just the fact that there are a lot of issues or areas of concern that have gone unaddressed and specifically during Councilman Boggiano’s term in office. It’s not about him. It’s about the issues. It’s about making positive change.
JCT: That’s a great segue. If you were to accomplish only three things in your first term, what would you want those three things to be?
TZ: Improving quality of life. And for me that means cleaner streets, increased city services to the point where we’re getting the little things right, or what seems to be the simple things. It’s kind of taking a back-to-basics approach and just accountability so that when citizens have concerns that they raise with their representative or their government and their city, that they get them addressed in a timely manner and things are taken care of. Secondly, a major priority for me would be ending chronic homelessness. I think we’ve had the same issue in Journal Square for years, and not addressing that is a huge problem. And going along with that is the issue of affordability for renters and for homeowners. So, securing housing and services for the most vulnerable population of our neighbors who are without homes and then keeping the neighborhood affordable for everyone else. And also I would say developing, maintaining, and repairing our open green space so that our residents have access to public recreation and amenities. And that’s just to say, we want people who live in the neighborhood to have every reason to stay here and not move elsewhere.
JCT: What do you think the Fulop administration has gotten right?
TZ: The response to the pandemic comes to mind. I think the mayor and his team did an excellent job locking down the city early on, getting out information about wearing masks, and transitioning from where we were last March to where we are where people are feeling comfortable about going out, everyone getting vaccinated, with everyone going out into the community and re-embracing what makes our city vibrant. I think that the administration had a big role in that.
JCT: Is there anything else that you think they’ve done a particularly good job on?
TZ: The mayor has a lot of long-term projects that I think are good for Ward C. The Loew’s renovation, the recent Pathside project with Pompidou has a lot of potential to be great for Journal Square and for Ward C. It’s just I would want to see us getting back to getting the little things right, making sure that city services are always up to par, that there’s accountability.
JCT: What do you think the mayor has gotten wrong or the administration generally?
TZ: Again, I think it’s that I would want to see more dollars invested in Ward C for those basic services. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the mayor’s fault. I think whenever you have a strong advocate for a particular ward or neighborhood, you’re going to see more attention. So the fact that Ward C is getting left behind in terms of quality of life funding, clean streets, and just overall people complaining about the quality of their neighborhood, I think that would be an issue that needs to be addressed. And again, I don’t know if that’s necessarily the mayor’s fault. It may be just that we need a more effective advocate for the neighborhood.
JCT: Anything else?
TZ: I touched on affordability. We want to make sure that there’s a lot of new developments there that obviously plan for a hot market in Journal Square that we want to make sure that there’s affordable options for. So, any way that the administration and the city can push for that and be strongly advocating for having those affordable options would be the biggest thing. Because if you want to live in a great place like Journal Square or Ward C, you should be able to afford to do so, whether you’re coming in new or you’ve been here for a long time.
JCT: Do you think the solution to the affordability problem is an inclusionary zoning ordinance that’s maybe got a 20 percent requirement like Rolando Lavarro suggests? What is it that you think will help affordability?
TZ: I think having a set-aside like 20 percent or 25 percent would help that, and then you plan for the future so that developers, whether they’re small or large, specifically the smaller developers, are aware up front that there’s going to be an affordability requirement so that they plan accordingly, and they don’t have to backtrack.
JCT: Do you think that developers should be able to buy out the requirement or build elsewhere or put in community benefits to circumvent the requirement that they build affordable units in that actual project?
TZ: I don’t agree with the building elsewhere. I think we need affordability in Journal Square and in Ward C. So, I’m definitely not for that. Ward C needs a lot of public amenities, and whether it’s going to have to come from new development so that we’re having a conversation about resources and retail space being put in, I think it needs to be a conversation that you don’t just say outright ‘no’ to community benefits. But the preference has to be on affordable housing except if there’s a real need for that public amenity or something that will benefit everyone in the community.
JCT: What do you think the city could do about homelessness that it’s not doing?
TZ: The services being provided right now, it’s a good start. The fact that the city’s doing outreach is a good thing—providing showers and a sense of belonging in the community to the homeless population. And there are a lot of organizations doing great work, too. You have Garden State Episcopal that are providing services. So, I think it’s about looking from the top down and saying, okay, let’s connect what the city’s doing with what these other great organizations are doing. And then I think the key point would be connecting services that the nonprofits are doing, that the city’s doing, with securing housing. And it needs to be permanent housing.
JCT: What do you think your challenges are running as an independent against Team Fulop?
TZ: Obviously when you’re challenging an incumbent who has that name recognition and millions of dollars behind him, there’s always a challenge. But I feel confident in being an independent because that’s what Ward C needs. I think Councilman Boggiano was successful early on being that independent voice. I think Ward C desires that independent voice, needs an independent voice, and I feel more confident in the fact that I can say I’m only beholden to each resident as opposed to being part of a larger ticket.
JCT: Is there anything you want to add to what you’ve just told me—about anything?
TZ: I would just say that I’m very involved in the community, and my community work drives the campaign and not the other way around. I guess I could have addressed this in my background as well but, yeah, I’m running because I want to be an effective, independent voice. I feel that Ward C has been left behind on those issues of quality of life.
And, again, it’s not about running against Councilman Boggiano or anyone else. It’s about addressing these issues. And my entire role in running is just to get things done. That’s what I’ve done my entire career as a community leader, an activist, as a lawyer, as a prosecutor. It’s about finding an issue, addressing an issue, and bringing everyone together to do that. That’s what we do with the block-by-block community initiative, which I started to start addressing those quality-of-life issues.
JCT: Your background in law enforcement as a former prosecutor is somewhat unique among candidates. Give me your take on the current crime situation in Jersey City. How do you perceive it right now, and what do you think needs to be done differently, if anything?
TZ: I think being a former prosecutor gives me an incredible benefit in this race because, you know, I always had to do what was right. It was about doing the just thing as a prosecutor and advocating for people, whether it was for the citizens that have been victims of crime, families who have been victims of crime. And I also know what we need. So, in terms of policing, we need more training on conflict resolution. We need mental health training and social services built into our policing structure. And we need real robust community policing where the police in a neighborhood not only reflect the community they’re serving but they know the community and the community [knows them] and builds that trust. I think if you can start seeing that citywide, it’ll help a lot of the concerns we’re having.
JCT: One last question; how are you financing your campaign, and would you take developer money?
TZ: I’ve had tremendous support from people in the community, from friends I’ve built over the years and people in my network, whether legal community or otherwise, who have been supportive of the idea of having a new day for Ward C, which is the point of my campaign that brings positive energy and positive change. I think it’s always important to have the support or have a good relationship with the business community. But, I’ll never have an interest other than fighting for the residents of Ward C. So, I’ll always take a look at whatever business relationship, whatever contributions come in. We’re always going to look through with a fine tooth comb over whether it’s something that would present a conflict because being that independent voice is the most important thing.
JCT: So you wouldn’t rule out taking a developer’s contribution necessarily?
TZ: It’s not my preference to take any developer contribution for people with active projects in Ward C because we never want any resident to think that their interest is being overtaken by anyone else’s interest. I guess that’s the best way I can say that.