On Monday, we sat down with Ward F Councilman Jermaine Robinson for a wide-ranging discussion covering everything from developer Peter Mocco to an infamous Zoom meeting on the future of Liberty State Park.
JCT: Tell us about where you grew up, your schooling, your work.
JR: I’m a lifelong Ward F resident. I started out in the Jersey City public schools. I attended P.S. 14 and P.S. 15. In the fourth grade I was transferred to St. Patrick’s Elementary, and I graduated high school at St. Anthony’s in 1993.
JCT: The famous St. Anthony’s, is that what we’re talking about?
JR: The world’s famous St. Anthony’s with coach Bob Hurley.
JCT: Did you play basketball, or are you not tall enough for that?
JR: I played basketball for four years. I also played baseball, my favorite sport for four years as well. But when you go to the world-famous school, and you take up basketball … I was a backup point guard at St. Anthony’s in my senior year. I was on the varsity team; I backed up for my senior year. I attended the University of Kansas as a manager from the connections that I’ve made with the basketball program at St. Anthony’s.
JCT: The manager on the basketball team there?
JR: Yes, at University of Kansas.
JCT: And did you graduate?
JR: No, I did not graduate. I did one year at the University of Kansas. I had my daughter, which made me come home. I attended the University of Maryland for one year. But being a father at such a young age, I had to go back to the working world.
JCT: I see. So have you been working since then?
JR: I’ve been working ever since then.
JCT: And what was your field?
JR: After college, I started working at the DeFeo dealership. I worked my way up from a porter to a tow truck driver. After that I went to school at night for computers. I became an IT person. After working for Nextel for a few years, I went to real estate school at night, and I left the profession to focus full time on real estate.
JCT: And that probably brought you through to your career as a councilman, I would assume?
JR: So, real estate first brought me into my career as a business owner. I got into businesses. My father was a barber, and we purchased our first building in 1999, where we created the Real Deal Barbershop on Ocean and Wilkinson here in Ward F. And I was a bartender part time as well [as] being a realtor. And when the group decided to sell the bar, they came to me as a realtor, but I ended up purchasing the building and the business.
JCT: So, let’s fast forward. What are you doing when you first run for council? Are you still in real estate? Is that your job at that point?
JR: My job was in real estate, and I also had the Light Rail café, and I was a mentor and a baseball coach as well.
JCT: How did you come to run for council?
JR: I started attending all of the council meetings when Viola Richardson was still the Ward F councilperson. She saw me attending, and she came up to me after a council meeting one day, and she said, ‘What are you doing here?’ And I said, ‘They’ve left us out long enough.” And she said, ‘No, young man, you left yourself out.’ And I started helping the councilwoman, and I always just stayed involved. I would go to the council meetings. I would go to community meetings, any meetings that were talking about the growth of the city. And in 2013, Team Healey asked me to run for City Council against Mayor Fulop.
JCT: And when you said, ‘They left us out,’ what were you referring to?
JR: I really wanted to be a part of what was going on in the city, and I wanted to know what was happening. And I wanted to know why the city ran the way it ran … how Ward F was able to get or not get what we thought was the right things for us.
JCT: Being left out, do you mean ward F was being left out? Was that what you’re thinking?
JR: You always see things from the outside looking in. So, it always looked like Ward F was what they call ‘the forgotten ward.’ And me being a lifelong Ward F resident and knowing that I wanted to live in Ward F for the rest of my life, I wanted a way to figure out how I can play my part to make it better.
JCT: So, you run with Team Healy.
JR: Yes. I ran with Team Healy in 2013 against Diane Coleman. Well, let me not say against Diane Coleman, I ran for the betterment of the ward.
JCT: And then what happened?
JR: Diane Coleman wins, and the first phone call I make is to Diane Coleman because I was already working with Viola Richardson. And I told Diane, I know I lost. It was close, but I still lost, but I did still want to be a part of the growth of Ward F. I asked her, what was it that I could do to help to continue to make Ward F grow. And she suggested I become a committee person. So, I ran for committee person, and I won the seat for District 13. She asked me to start attending meetings with her. So, I would go to community meetings. I would go to development meetings. I would still go to council meetings, and I just stayed active.
JCT: So, at some point, right, Mayor Fulop asked you to join his team. Isn’t that right?
JR: So, actually it was Diane Coleman because I was so close with her, and I didn’t really have a great relationship with the mayor. I knew him from running against him, but my relationship was with Diane Coleman. And I believe that when Diane was running for county registrar, she referred my name to the City Council and also to the mayor to take her place.
JCT: And what year is this? This just remind me?
JR: In January of 2017, I was appointed by the City Council.
JCT: To fill her term?
JR: To fill the last year of her term.
JCT: And you were elected which year?
JR: I was elected January 2018 to December 31st, 2021.
JCT: What do you think the three most pressing issues are for Jersey City today? If you were to prioritize them and work on three and only three, what would they be?
JR: Number one is affordability. We want Jersey City to remain affordable for the residents that are here. The second thing of course is what everyone else says to me, every time that I’m out in the streets, that we need something for the youth to do. And the third of course is crime. And I think that goes straight from the second point of having something for the youth to do.
JCT: What do you think is causing this situation where we’ve got so many kids that are struggling and turning to violence and petty crime? What’s behind that?
JR: We need more positive outlets for the children. That’s why I fight so hard for recreation. That’s why I fight so hard for minority businesses, because we need more positive outcomes, and we need more investment on this side of the city, from the city and the developers, the churches, the teachers, the pastors, because this is not just a ‘I or we’ thing when we talk about the crime and the youth, this is ‘us and our’ thing. The way we’re going to tackle it is all of us coming together to make sure that we lend out a helping hand.
JCT: Now, let me ask you this. What are your proudest accomplishments on the council?
JR: I have so many.
JCT: Give me three.
JR: So, my proudest to date has to be our response to Covid. And when I say that, I mean, because half my first term was spent in Covid. We needed a plan to keep the residents safe. So, the proudest moment for me was rapid testing when it first came out and mobile testing. The first two vaccination centers in the city were both in Ward F. And that’s at the Bethune Center and at Ferris High School. And also the financial responsibility that we had for the renters and homeowners as well as the business owners to make sure that we keep residents safe but in their houses as well.
JCT: Is there anything else that you’re particularly proud of?
JR: Affordability. In my first four years in office, we’ve created an historic number of affordable units. I’m so proud to say that we’ve got over 3,000 units approved and over half of those — 1,500 plus — being affordable according to the federal guidelines. I’m most proud of Whitlock Mills, a project that sat dormant for about 16 years. But because I sit on the Affordable Housing Trust Fund, when I first got in office, I made sure that that was one of my priorities to make sure that was open and ready and affordable to all the constituents. We created over 270 affordable units.
JCT: Anything else that you want to tell people about that you’re super proud of?
JR: The creation of new parks. We got Fairmount Avenue Park, which was a dangerous cut-through. It was about four or five streets going into one street on Fairmount Avenue off Summit. We also have the old Fulton Avenue park that we just created. We just put $2.5 million into the Mary McLeod Bethune Park, which we just did the ribbon cutting for the other day. We also finished the largest city-owned park, and I’m so glad that I had a part to play in the creation of the skate park and also the pavilion as well as the restrooms that were so sorely needed there.
JCT: Let me give you a chance now to respond to some of what your critics say. Do you think it was a mistake for the council not to have an open and transparent debate about what people are calling the ‘Water Tax’?
JR: One hundred percent. I think it was a mistake. We were trying to take the burden off of the regular residents and give more of a burden to the abated building, but it really was a mistake. It was nothing that we voted on. So, let’s just make that clear. We didn’t vote to have it, but it did come from the MUA. And it’s a mistake when you don’t reach out to the community on anything that affects the residents
JCT: But do you understand that criticism that once you connected the trash pickup to water consumption rather than the value of the property, via property taxes, it became less progressive or the tax burden shifted a little bit towards people who had less valuable properties? You understand that criticism, right?
JR: I totally understand it. After the tax came out, my office became inundated with emails and calls and the call that stood out to me more than anything was someone with a leak in their property had to pay a higher trash pickup bill because they had a water leak.
JCT: Now, let me ask you about a few other things that people have levelled at you. There was an infamous meeting about Liberty State Park back in July 2020 with Bruce Alston and Arnold Stovell. People were pretty upset about that meeting. Any regret about how that meeting went down?
JR: There are no regrets on my behalf because I don’t speak for Arnold or Bruce. I wanted a community meeting. I wanted the community meeting that would touch on all the bases and actually touch on what the south side of the city wanted or needed because, of course, we always feel like we’re left out. But that was their meeting and it wasn’t mine.
They said the meeting was supposed to include themselves and of the Friends of Liberty State Park as well. And I remember being on the meeting and raising my hands and saying, ‘Hey, there’s Sam Pesin, the Friends of Liberty State Park on the meeting. And they basically told me that they reached ou,t and he didn’t talk. I don’t have a regret on it, but I don’t think that was the best community meeting that we were putting forth. And I know from that next time that I have a community meeting, I will totally be in charge of the community meeting. So, it doesn’t look like someone else had control.
JCT: One of the arguments that they were making, and I’d love to get your take on it, was that people of color had been excluded from the process, the planning of Liberty State Park and the decision making. Did you agree with that, and if so, why?
JR: When I think about it, I just want to try to get to the bottom line. What did the state say? My fight was for the people of the community to have a voice, number one, and the active recreation that I was pushing for because of the youth over here in Ward F being what we felt was left behind. Also, the contamination that was there. I mean, a big thing that came up that I didn’t really realize until I started doing research was the contamination of what is in the 200 or 250 acres of closed-off land.
JCT: But they were handing out flyers that said white silence equals white violence, and it became pretty heated. I’m just curious if you agreed with those tactics. It became suddenly racialized. And I think people were surprised by that. And I think hurt by that, if I can express the views of the views of people on the other side. They felt like they were being called racists and insensitive to the concerns of people of color. I was just curious if you agreed with that take on it, which was coming from Stovell and Alston.
JR: Absolutely not. That’s never the way I speak. I definitely don’t agree with what flyers went out. My mission was to have a voice for the south side of the city. I was elected to make sure that the entire Ward F had a voice, and we wanted the south side to have a voice in that. It definitely wasn’t a flyer that I would approve of.
JCT: Here’s something that was that I got to ask you about. I’m sure it sticks out in your mind, still sticks out in my mind. At a council meeting, you and Councilman-at-Large Rolando Lavarro had a famous exchange. Lavarro said, ‘Jermaine Robinson said to me that he wanted to be just like Peter Mocco.’ Do you want to respond to that or would you just like to leave that alone?
JR: I mean Aaron, I look up to a lot of people in the world. Peter Mocco may be one of them because of my real estate background. The real reason that he might’ve said that is because Peter Mocco used to be, I guess, the youngest mayor in Hudson County’s history. So, when you talk about Peter Mocco, I don’t see an evil point of Peter Mocco. I see a mayor who, after his office, went on to be a successful businessman. I’m a successful businessman before city council. It would be an honor of mine to be a mayor in Jersey City to lead the city. And after I leave the city, then I would love to go back into private practice and do my business, whether it’s real estate or business, or restaurants, or barber shops. I think it was taken out of context.
JCT: In terms of the Morris Canal Manor project, do you think that you might have handled that project any differently? What are you thinking about that project now that it’s been sent back to the planning board?
JR: I’m really proud of that project, because right now I see a clear path ahead for the delivery of Jersey City’s first recreation center and the minority business incubator. What I got from the judge’s decision was that they actually ruled out all of Morris Canal’s claims: one, that the Planning Board did not send out proper notice and [two] saying the spot zoning was illegal. Both of them were thrown out by the judge. What the judge did say is that you have to connect the master plan because the judge actually looked very favorably on Jersey City’s first recreation center and the minority business incubator as givebacks. And we just need to go back to the Planning Department. I’m going to go back to my City Council colleagues and talk to them about the need for having Jersey City’s first active recreation center that is owned by the city.
JCT: Is there anything that you want to add to this discussion that I haven’t touched on or that you wanted to get across before?
JR: At the end of the day, Aaron, my job is to put in the work, and that’s what people elected me for. I was really proud of our response to Covid and our work involving diversity and inclusion on our police force. The Jackson Hill complex … the $200 million investment that the city made there. SciTech Scity, the future of our community and our school system, the record number of affordable housing, our new library that we’re slated to put in, making parks, making sure that I put as much work in as possible. I’m not a big person on social media. I am not a big person on ribbon cuttings. But if you looking for a council person that puts in the work that makes sure that the job is done, then I’m the person that … you want to keep in office to finish what we started.
I forgot something that I’m really proud of: the Via, I don’t know if you ever seen the purple vans that’s outside. We don’t have a bus right now that goes from the south side of the city to Newport Mall. We lost the Garfield Avenue bus line maybe, eight years ago. And when the last bus, the Six, was leaving the community, we went down to Trenton to figure out a way to keep the bus lines here. And when we wasn’t able to keep the bus lines, we all sat in a room and created Via where the south side of the city can commute to anywhere in the city for just $2 from steps from your door. Via has been really near to my heart. And I’m really proud that I did that, making sure the travel needs of the south side is met.