Q & A

For Peter Cocoziello of Oldwick, chairman of the New Jersey Italian American Heritage Foundation.

What’s the history behind the New Jersey Italian American Heritage Foundation?
A commission was created so we could have programs that could go to schools to pass along some information regarding Italian American heritage. The idea’s not to have this whole culture lost. So once the commission was established, of course, you need to raise money to make things happen, and that’s how the foundation was created.

What impact do Mafia movies and shows like The Sopranos have on how we view ourselves?
I think there’s an overall negative impact because you’re stereotyping a very, very small group of people. In New Jersey there are approximately 1.7 million people of Italian descent. So when you look at the total population in the state, you recognize a lot of them have Italian backgrounds.

Why does that stigma exist when Italian-Americans have accomplished so much?
Part of the problem is you only hear one side of it, and that’s certainly why we got involved. You think about all the architecture, the beautiful buildings that were created [by Italians]. You think about the food products, you think about the designer clothing…they’ve contributed so much to the world, and certainly in the sciences and medical and legal professions. And what we want to do is just be able to convey that positive side of it.

You chair the committee on government reform with the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce. What makes New Jersey’s ethical climate different from that of other states?
Part of the issue here in New Jersey is that there is a lot of government. There are 566 municipalities. There are over 1,000 taxing bodies. It’s very important that all of us understand…about the different forms of government in each community.

What are some of the recommendations you have made?
Government needs to be more transparent. The whole idea about inspector general and campaign reform, those are just a few of the initiatives, but I think they’re vitally important. Pay to play—more transparency so you can see more. You want to be able to understand transactions. You want to make sure there are no conflicts of interest.

Why are you so critical of how we’re teaching kids about our state?
I would bet that if you randomly brought kids into the studio, 25 or 30 of them, and started asking them about the state of New Jersey, which is basically Civics 101, they wouldn’t be able to answer these questions.

What should we, as citizens, be doing to get more engaged?
Whenever you look at being a citizen of New Jersey, or a citizen of America, respectfully, it’s a privilege and not a right. I think all of us have the responsibility, as you become a little bit older…that you’re working with people, you’re making government, as we had talked about, a little bit more transparent. Many people just sit back and say, ‘Ah, he’ll take care of it. He’s looking on it for me.’ And I think ultimately we need to start to look at it and understand the responsibility we have for this great privilege.

Steve Adubato is an Emmy-winning anchor for Thirteen/WNET and host of One-on-One With Steve Adubato on the Comcast Network.

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