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‘Too big for its bridges’

Former Fort Lee mayor talks about Gov. Christie and the Port Authority

 
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Gov. Brendan Byrne confers with Burt Ross in this 1970s photo. Inset, Mr. Ross today.

You can take the boy out of Jersey, but you can’t take Jersey out of the boy.

In this case, the boy is a grown man — Burt Ross, now of Malibu, Calif. Mr. Ross and his wife, Joan, decamped a mere two years ago, following their children west. But he spent his entire life until then in Bergen County, first in Teaneck, then in Fort Lee, and finally in Englewood. “New Jersey is my homeland,” he said.

While he was here, Mr. Ross — whose gravely accent makes it clear that Brooklyn and Bergen are not very far apart — a Harvard-educated lawyer and developer, was very involved in local politics. In 1972, when he was 28, he became mayor of Fort Lee. He was, he reports, the country’s youngest mayor of a moderately large municipality. From that vantage point — distanced enough to afford him a clear view, and close enough, and infused with enough history, to give vivid context — Mr. Ross has been paying close attention to the unfolding scandal beginning to envelop the large frame of Gov. Chris Christie.

“It’s important to preface anything else I say by pointing out that I am not partisan,” he said in a phone interview. “I am a Democrat, but I am not partisan.” As proof, he pointed to his endorsement, about three years ago, of the Republican Kathy Donovan as Bergen County executive, “running against what was a corrupt machine,” he said. (She won.)

Given his lifelong Jersey ties, and the fact that his voice makes it clear to anyone within earshot that when he is in California he is far from home, Mr. Ross feels the hit to the state’s reputation, and as a Jew, he is bothered by the corruption because, quite simply, it is wrong.

“I have an aversion to corruption,” he said. “People can define corruption however they want to, but when the smell reeks to high heaven, that’s when I feel an obligation to speak out.

“I had been so fond of Gov. Christie, to the point where I welcomed his being in the presidential primaries. I felt that having a strong, moderate voice in the Republican party was extremely healthy.

“I don’t know Mr. Christie personally, but upon reflection, based on everything I’ve heard in the last few weeks — and I have followed it religiously — I was wrong.

“Not only do I think he is not presidential quality, I don’t even think he deserves to be governor.

“I think that he and his administration appear to be morally challenged.”

Running down a list of statements Gov. Christie made at his marathon press conference a few weeks ago, Mr. Ross listed several that “do not wash.” Most of them revolved around the governor’s reputation as a micromanager, which clash with the apparently hands-off style he claimed for himself.

Mr. Ross became particularly enraged at something Gov. Christie was reported to have said a few weeks before the press conference. “The governor said that he was all sauced up, because this little town of Fort Lee had three dedicated lanes,” he said.

“Let’s start off with the fact that for a guy who’s supposed to know nothing about what’s going on there, he knows an awful lot.

“And they are not dedicated lanes! Anybody can take those lanes; practically everybody from Edgewater uses them. In fact, 75 percent of the people who use those lanes are not from Fort Lee.

“But assume for a moment that every single person who used those lanes was from Fort Lee. Who cares?

“After all, they still have to get from Fort Lee to Manhattan. What does he propose? That people in Fort Lee jump off the Palisades and swim across the river?”

As a former mayor who presided over a far smaller empire but still had the responsibility of running a government, “It doesn’t wash that this guy, who has no problem coughing up anger, who can be brutal with women, with teachers, with veterans — all of a sudden he doesn’t care at all what someone does, all of a sudden it makes him sad, not mad?” (In the press conference, the governor talked about going through stages of grief, particularly sadness, at having been lied to.)

“If anyone in my administration did what his people did, I wouldn’t be sad,” Mr. Ross said. “I would be ballistic. They’d have to inject me with Valium.

“At one point, he said that he told his staff that they had an hour to tell him if they knew anything — and if they did, to tell his chief of staff.” That struck Mr. Ross as ridiculous. “You say tell me right now. And don’t tell someone else. Tell me.”

The governor left him feeling betrayed.

“I liked the guy because he gave me Jersey straight talk,” he said. “This is not Jersey straight talk. One of the things we don’t like in Jersey is being conned. We don’t buy that crap.”

When he was mayor of Fort Lee, Mr. Ross said, “I had a wonderful relationship with the Port Authority.” But things have changed entirely, he said; “now the Port Authority has gotten too big for its bridges.”

For one thing, there is no transparency, he said. “The port needs to be more transparent. Governor Cuomo has to stop hiding under a rock. He has not exhibited the slightest leadership.

“And they’re charging $13 to go over the bridge, but they won’t even tell you if they are paying the legal fees for the bozos who were in charge of closing the lanes.

“Can you imagine someone being held up for four hours, and then having to pay $13, and then having this money go to pay those bozos? But the Port Authority isn’t saying yes or no.”

There is a fine but clear line between political hardball and dirty politics, Mr. Ross said, and the actions of Gov. Christie’s aides — if not of the governor himself — seem to have crossed that line. He is particularly exercised by the accusations from Mayor Dawn Zimmerman of Hoboken, who said that funds for Sandy relief were held up because she did not support a developer close to Gov. Christie.

“This is worse than Watergate,” Mr. Ross said.

“In Watergate, you had a very low-level guy in the campaign authorize a break-in, simply to steal some paper. No one was hurt. No one was even inconvenienced. Maybe the Democratic party had to hire somebody to fix the lock, or pick up broken glass. And then the higher-ups got involved in a cover-up.

“Here, you have people in fairly high places, connected to the administration or appointees of the governor, who created and supervised the implementation of the dirty tricks. And then they covered it up — but it wasn’t just a cover-up. It was the higher-ups who did it.

“New Jersey politics isn’t all bad,” Mr. Ross concluded.

“We have the Loretta Weinbergs” — the state senator from Teaneck whom he lauded for her perseverance in uncovering the situation, refusing to be intimated, refusing to give up — “the Tom Keans, the Bill Bradleys. We have some magnificent public servants.

“This does a disservice to the state.”

 
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A rabbi hasn’t walked into the bar ... yet

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That seemed to be an opportunity.

Mr. Gellis is a stockbroker by day. He’s used to working in a regulated business — and the alcohol business in New Jersey is highly regulated.

Mr. Gellis grew up in Teaneck; his parents moved the family here from Brooklyn in 1975, back when the town had only one kosher restaurant. His four children attend Yeshivat Noam and the Frisch School, and he serves on the board of both institutions. He also is president of Congregation Keter Torah.

 

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For those people all over the world who have had that experience, the next step is not entirely clear. Do they jump in with both feet and vigorously pursue their new Jewish identities, or do they simply go about their business, choosing to do nothing with this new information? These dilemmas, and more, were the subject of a recent Road Scholar program in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

The topic — “New Mexico’s Conversos and Crypto-Jews” — continues to fascinate both Jews and non-Jews, as evidenced by the religious identity of the attendees. Among those participating in this month’s session — there are 10 such programs held each year — were five residents from our area, including this author.

 

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“Half of Jews (52%), including 60% of Jews by religion and 24% of Jews of no religion, say they know the Hebrew alphabet,” according to last October’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” the famous study released by the Pew Research Center.

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Alarmed by this finding, the World Zionist Organization, the Israeli Education Ministry, and several partner organizations recently launched the Hebrew Language Council of North America to help more Jews become conversant in the language of their literature, lore, and land — as well as the language of their peers in Israel.

 

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