A Man of Influence

He’s a throwback to the days of the state’s Democratic machine. On the eve of his 80th birthday, John Gregorio shows no signs of easing the grip he’s held on Union County politics for 40 years.

Last year, when police arrested 45-year-old John T. Gregorio Jr. and charged him with kidnapping two men he accused of harassing his teenage daughter, driving them around for several hours at knifepoint and threatening their lives, reporters sought comment from Gregorio’s father, John T. Gregorio Sr., who happens to be the mayor of Linden. Instead of taking junior to task for dragging the family into a legal mess that might not play so well with his constituents, the mayor had only praise for his only son. “I should have given him a medal,” Gregorio told reporters. “He did what any father would do.”

The tough-guy approach is vintage Gregorio, the longtime boss of a city known for both its heavy industry and its hardball politics. Gregorio, who turns 80 next month, has held sway over Linden, and a good chunk of Union County’s Democratic party, almost continuously since he was first elected mayor in 1967. Since then he’s been re-elected nine times, his tenure disrupted only by a single criminal conviction in 1982 (more on that later). In a city where Democrats represent 85 percent of registered voters, this year’s race will likely be decided in next month’s primary. Gregorio is running—no big surprise  here—unopposed. “I enjoy it,” Gregorio says of his role as mayor. “I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have to come to work.”

The influential Web site politicsnj.com has called Gregorio “one of the few remaining old-time local political bosses in the state—and one of the most controversial.” But Gregorio’s supporters say that Linden could not have a more dedicated booster. In the arena of urban development, the mayor’s recent accomplishments are tangible: Shops and restaurants have been built at the city airport, the high school football field received an extensive makeover, and plans call for the doubling in size of the city library. Needy city residents sometimes have their utility bills paid by the John T. Gregorio Humanitarian Association, which raises about $10,000 a year, mostly through a $250-per-person golf outing attended by about 100 friends and associates of the mayor. “The town has a low tax rate and incredible services,” says Democratic state senator Raymond Lesniak of Elizabeth, a longtime friend of Gregorio.

Municipal Treasurer Alexis Zack says that the municipal portion of Linden’s tax bill actually dropped slightly in 2005, saving the average homeowner about $37. “He is very aggressive in trying to bring in new business and increase ratables,” Zack says of the mayor. “If it wasn’t for his leadership and constant attention, we wouldn’t be in the state we are in.” That state is a budget surplus that topped $40 million at the end of 2005, Zack says, with more municipal tax reductions likely at the end of this year.

But not everyone sings the praises of the oft embattled mayor. Former mayor Paul Werkmeister, who once ran against Gregorio, points to the city’s debt, which has more than doubled in the past fifteen years, to about $42 million. “The city could be more efficient,” he says.

Although Linden’s “weak-mayor” form of government gives Gregorio little direct power over the city council, his political influence allows him to all but handpick candidates, who understand that the mayor’s support is vital to their campaign and who, upon election, rarely vote against Gregorio’s wishes. “John Gregorio is a master politician,” says independent councilman Richard Gerbounka, a longtime rival. “He knows how to tie people to himself and buy loyalty with taxpayer money.”

To understand Gerbounka’s point, consider this: At least two current council members were hired to work within the Union County government after being elected to the council. “They cannot be independent thinkers,” Gerbounka says. Gregorio certainly is not the first New Jersey officeholder to be accused of nepotism in recent years—can you say John Bennett?—but he just might be the only one to enthusiastically promote the practice. “I’m in favor of nepotism,” he declares. “If there are two people for a job and one I know is a good friend, I will hire him.”

Gregorio makes $114,000 a year, one of the largest mayoral salaries in New Jersey and $3,000 more than that of J. Christian Bollwage, his counterpart in neighboring Elizabeth, a city with three times as many residents as Linden. But Gregorio defends his salary, saying that he also does the work of a business administrator, a position that does not appear on the city payroll. Union County Democratic chairwoman Charlotte DeFilippo knows that Gregorio’s governing style is, well, unorthodox. But she considers him a straight talker who puts voters and family first. “Those are traits that used to be respected,” she says.

Born in Staten Island, Gregorio grew up there as the son of a florist, working in his father’s shop until he moved to Linden—an aunt lived there at the time—in 1950. Taking his family trade with him, he opened House of Flowers with his wife, Marie, who still runs the shop. After getting involved in the local Democratic Club, Gregorio won a seat on the city council in 1964. Two years later, he was elected mayor. “I was never out there looking for it; they came to me,” he says of his supporters.

Over the next sixteen years, Gregorio established a base of support among local Democrats and a governing strategy of competent services, low taxes, and reliable employees. In 1973 Gregorio won a seat in the General Assembly, and five years later he ascended to the state Senate. “My popularity was with the ordinary citizen—the guy with the lunchbox under his arm, not the in-power people,” Gregorio says. “We fixed the potholes and picked up the trash.”

In time, though, Gregorio became one of the more powerful of the in-power people. In the state Legislature he served as chairman of the Senate Labor, Industry, and Professions Committee. By 1982, Gregorio was considered one of the state’s most powerful Democrats.

Then it all fell apart.

That year Gregorio was convicted of conspiracy for hiding his interest in two Linden go-go bars run by his son, John Jr. In a testament to his popularity in Linden, in the same year, Gregorio won re-election as mayor while still under indictment. The following year, under the terms of his sentence, he was placed on probation, fined $10,000, and forced to vacate both the mayor’s office and his Senate seat. “It was probably the most embarrassing thing I ever went through,” he says today.

For the next seven years, unable to vote or hold public office, Gregorio kept a low profile, but behind the scenes, Gregorio was orchestrating his return to public office. At Gregorio’s request, Lesniak approached Governor Thomas Kean about granting a pardon. Lesniak figured the timing was right—Kean was leaving office and there was no doubt, at least in Lesniak’s mind, that the voters of Linden would be only too happy to return Gregorio to the mayor’s office. In January 1990, on his last day in office, Kean, a Republican, granted Gregorio his pardon.

As it turned out, Lesniak was right. Six months later, Gregorio beat Werkmeister in the Democratic primary for mayor. That fall he coasted to a most unorthodox re-election. And although he’s won every mayoral race since, typically by a 2-to-1 margin, controversy continues to find him. In 2001 a grand jury was investigating a proposed garbage transfer station on Linden’s waterfront that Gregorio had pushed through the city council without disclosing that one of the station’s investors was his son-in-law, Domenick Pucillo.

By 2002, the state Division of Criminal Justice was preparing an indictment against Gregorio and his son-in-law. But division director Peter Harvey, who would later become the state attorney general, dropped the case, saying he didn’t consider it winnable.

For months afterward, according to the Star-Ledger, lead investigator John Musarra tried to persuade his superiors to reopen the case, declaring in a memo to his supervisor in the special prosecutions unit that letting Gregorio off would only reinforce his “stranglehold” on Linden. Gregorio contends that no charges were ever brought because no crime occurred. “They finally said there is nothing here,” he says.

The state Local Finance Board, however, did find fault with Gregorio’s ethics, fining him $2,000 for helping his son-in-law win approvals for the project, which, it turns out, was never built.

On a typical day Gregorio arrives at his large, paneled, third-floor office in City Hall by 10 am. He’s on the phone constantly, checking up on department heads, city programs, and political friends. Plaques and awards hang from the walls, as does a chart of city projects proposed, in the works, and completed. An entire wall is devoted to photos of him with a host of smiling friends and relatives, from his seven grandchildren to the actor Robert Duvall and the former boxer Gerry Cooney. There’s a 1967 photo of him coaching a little league baseball team and renderings of the John T. Gregorio Recreation and Senior Center and the proposed John T. Gregorio Towers, a seven-story apartment building for seniors that’s scheduled to break ground in September.

One recent morning, the mayor tracks responses to an oil leak in the nearby Arthur Kill and officiates at a pair of weddings. Later that night, he stops by a Linden High School basketball game. “His door is always open,” says his secretary, Linda Scaldino, who has worked for the mayor for seven years.

His critics contend that Gregorio’s influence will only grow the longer he continues as mayor. Gregorio, who’s heard it all before, scoffs at such talk. If the voters don’t want him to stick around, he says, they can always vote him out.

Joe Strupp is a regular contributor to New Jersey Monthly.

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