The Seven Worst Elected Officials in the Tri-State Region, 2014 Edition


This week the Voice took part in a national project with 50 other alternative press journalists that named the country’s worst elected officials. The list named 53 politicians from 23 states — including the District of Columbia — who fit into one of five categories: hatemongers, sleazeballs, blowhards, users and boozers, and horn dogs. It was a fun project that introduced us to a number of shady public leaders about whom we may not otherwise have known.

But we decided to bring this idea home and examine the pols who rule over our own backyards here in the Tri-State area. We came up with the seven worst elected officials (although one no longer holds office) in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There were many to choose from, and plenty others have done their best to crack this list, but for our purposes, there could only be seven. There’s always next year.


Blowhard/Sleazeball: New Jersey Governor Chris Christie

For years Chris Christie specialized in pretending to be a reasonable guy: Plain-spoken. Direct. Conservative, but not the kind of conservative who believes the Earth is 6,000 years old and evolution is a lie dreamed up by Satan. He’s also made a show of being good-humored about all the cracks about his weight, even going on Letterman and pulling a doughnut out of his pocket to snack on midway through the interview.

In truth, though, Christie is a grade-A dickhead, a relentless bully who yells, whines, pouts and threatens to get his way. No slight is too small for him to take personally: there are endless videos of Christie hollering at reporters, other politicians and ordinary citizens who dare question him. And instead of trying to lengthen his teeny-tiny fuse, Christie is downright proud of his nasty temper: an aide follows him around with a camera, videotaping those magic governor-to-citizen interactions and putting them on YouTube. He’s famous for taking his revenge over the tiniest things. An assemblyman who made a mildly critical comment against Christie on the radio got a personal nasty note from the governor. A Rutgers professor who also served on a state commission and didn’t vote the way Christie wanted had $169,000 in state funding cut from his program. Oh, yeah, and he may have ordered access to the George Washington Bridge closed because he was mad that the mayor of Fort Lee didn’t want to endorse him in his reelection bid. You may have heard about that.

Christie also isn’t much of a moderate: for the past five years, he’s personally seen to it that zero dollars in state money goes to family planning clinics, the kind of dick move that’s usually only reserved for the reddest of red states.

His nastiness may finally be catching up with him, though: in late June, The New York Times reported that Christie and his staff may have bullied the Port Authority into spending millions to repair the Pulaski Skyway, a bridge the agency doesn’t even oversee. Christie’s office is reportedly being investigated by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office and the SEC over that one. The New Jersey legislature and U.S. attorney are already investigating Christie and his staff over the G.W. bridge controversy. In one final bit of jerkishness, Christie spent millions of dollars in state money to order an “internal review” into Bridgegate, one which cleared him of all wrongdoing. Shocker.
— Anna Merlan

The bad behavior continues on the next page.


Sleazeball: Congressman Michael Grimm (R), 11th District, New York

At first glance, U.S. Rep. Michael Grimm of Staten Island looks like classic blowhard material: he made headlines earlier this year for threatening NY1 reporter Michael Scotto. Specifically, he told Scotto he’d throw him off of the “fucking balcony” on which they stood after the State of the Union address in D.C., and, as a follow-up, promised to “break you in half. Like a boy.” Grimm was bright enough to make these clear and audible threats right in front of an NY1 camera. The next day he apologized to Scotto — kind of — saying, “I’m a human being, and sometimes your emotions get the better of you.”

But the reason why Grimm got so “emotional” is what pushes him squarely into sleazeball territory: the Congressman blew up when Scotto had the gall to ask about allegations that Grimm committed campaign finance fraud during his 2010 campaign. The Department of Justice and the FBI have been investigating Grimm’s fundraising activities since August of 2012. The same month Grimm threatened to put Scotto on the wrong side of the balcony, his ex-girlfriend was arrested by the FBI; she’s accused of using straw donors to donate well over the legal limit of $10,000 to Grimm’s campaign.
Grimm hasn’t yet been charged with campaign finance fraud. But he’s facing 257 years (that’s not a typo) in prison for tax evasion, perjury and fraud. That’s because Grimm, a former FBI agent, left the agency in 2006 and, prior to becoming a shady politician, allegedly became a shady business owner: the tax evasion charges are related to an Upper East Side restaurant he owned, with the unfortunate name of Healthalicious. According to its reviews, it’s not even a very good restaurant.

Alleged fraud, perjury and two-bit bullying: all the hallmarks of a real sleazebag.
— Anna Merlan

The bad behavior continues on the next page.


Sleazeball/Blowhard: Ex-Connecticut Governor John G. Rowland (R)
It’s surprisingly hard to find a truly shady politician still in office in Connecticut — unlike their counterparts in New York and New Jersey, once Connecticut pols get indicted, they tend to resign from their posts pretty quickly, or else escorted out the door in silver bracelets.

Ex-governor John Rowland is no exception: In 2004 he went from the Governor’s Mansion to prison after pleading guilty to corruption charges. Rowland accepted more than $107,000 in gifts and vacations from people hoping to do business in the state, and served 10 months in federal prison and another four on house arrest. Which is why it’s so astounding that Rowland is facing fraud charges again, a decade later, for yet more political skullduggery.

After his release, Rowland became a conservative morning radio shock jock on WTIC, bloviating about faith and humility while berating politicians he didn’t care for. When one state senator especially displeased him, he gave out the man’s cell phone number and urged his listeners to call him. His fans called him “the Guv.”

Rowland was especially fond of bashing the opponents of Congressional candidate Lisa Wilson-Foley. What he didn’t mention was that he was working for her: Brian Foley, Wilson-Foley’s husband, gave Rowland $35,000 to serve as a consultant.

It’s not clear why the Wilson-Foleys were so desperate to have a disgraced former politician working on her campaign. But the couple clearly knew that wouldn’t look so good in the papers. So they tried, ham-fistedly, to launder the money, paying Rowland through Brian Foley’s nursing home company, Apple Rehab. The feds have said they believe Rowland tried to persuade another congressional candidate in 2009 to go along with the same scheme; that candidate, who hasn’t been publicly identified, had the good sense to refuse.

It was a comically bad plan, and the not-so-cagey trio were almost immediately caught. Both Foleys have pleaded guilty to conspiring to violate campaign finance laws. They’re facing up to a year in prison apiece. Rowland resigned his radio post on April 4, citing “personal problems,” and was indicted on April 10. He faces up to 40 years in prison for conspiracy, making false statements to the Federal Election Commission, and causing illegal campaign contributions. Silver lining: morning radio has gotten, blessedly, just a little quieter.
— Anna Merlan

The bad behavior continues on the next page.


Horndog: State Representative Ernest Hewett, CT (D)

Connecticut State Rep. Ernest Hewett of New London is either incredibly creepy or incredibly bad at choosing his words. Hewett has served at nearly every level of local and state government for years, including acting as mayor from 2000 to 2001. But he distinguished himself for just one thing: a February 20, 2013 incident where it sure sounded like he was inviting a 17-year-old girl to take a look at his penis.

Hewett was serving on an appropriations committee hearing at the Connecticut Science Center, when the 17-year-old student took the stage and told the committee that the center had helped her overcome her fear of snakes. The story was meant to tug lawmaker’s heartstrings and encourage them to find some money to keep the center open. Hewett evidently felt a different sort of stirring.

“If you’re bashful, I got a snake sitting under my desk here,” he told the girl. He guffawed. So did the rest of the appropriations committee.

The rest of the world was not so amused: Hewett’s remarks were splayed across every newspaper in the tri-state area. When he tried to apologize, he only made matters worse, by telling the Hartford Courant that not only is he totally not a pervert, he refuses to even have female interns.

“I’ve had female interns in the past that sit in my office all day,” he told the newspaper, for some reason. “I thought it was totally weird and I didn’t want another. As a matter of fact, I went four, maybe six years without having an intern at all because of stuff like that. I have a male intern, the last two I’ve had were male … That way, that keeps me good and everybody else good.” 

It was an odd story, and had the effect of making Hewett sound much, much worse than before. Nonetheless, the representative has made it a year and a half without generating any more creepy headlines. His inclusion on this list remains provisional.
— Anna Merlan

The bad behavior continues on the next page.


Sleazeball: Darlene Mealy, New York City Councilwoman, 41st District

For many residents of Brownsville, Brooklyn, the parks say it all. At Betsy Head Park, the neighborhood’s biggest park, the field is dilapidated, rock-hard and dusty, littered with weeds and pocked by divots. Yet just a mile and a half west, just past the border of the 41st District and into 42nd District, Linden Park, the biggest park in neighboring East New York, boasts pristine artificial grass, a regulation football field, a new set of metal bleachers and three freshly painted basketball courts with nets and fiberglass backboards. For locals, the contrasting parks are a manifestation of a broader concern: that the progress sweeping all across the city has barely touched Brownsville.

There are a variety of complicated converging factors for this. But City Councilwoman Darlene Mealy, who has represented the 41st District since 2006, has certainly not helped the cause. A New York Daily News analysis showed that Mealy has been among the least active members of the body. From 2011 to 2012, she missed 24 percent of council meetings, more than any other member. Over that stretch she introduced just three bills, fewer than all but three other members. The statistics only furthered the perception of Mealy’s passivity on the council despite her district’s great needs. In 2008, she voted in favor of Mayor Bloomberg’s proposal to extend term limits not even two weeks after standing on the steps of city hall to protest the bill alongside a group of city officials. “Imagine if President Bush said he wanted four more years,” she had said on those steps. She explained to the New York Times that the vote was intended to “build my relationship with the speaker and the mayor … I think my district will benefit from my changing my position.” Over the next four years, Mealy secured from Speaker Quinn around $18 million in discretionary funding.
— Albert Samaha

The bad behavior continues on the next page.


Sleazeball: Malcolm Smith, State Senator, 14th District

Malcolm Smith was once a man of big political victories. After winning a seat in the New York State Senate, he rose to become the Democrats’ minority leader, then majority leader, the first African American to hold that title. He pushed through impressive initiatives addressing toxic waste and health care in his Queens district, and he created a task force that introduced reforms following the NYPD’s shooting of Sean Bell.

These days, though, Smith’s political victories are of a smaller scale. They primarily involve avoiding prison time. Smith was arrested in 2013 and charged with bribery. Prosecutors allege that he paid Republican officials tens of thousands of dollars to back his run for mayor on the GOP ticket. The trial, which began in June, did not look good. Hours of recorded conversations, taped by an undercover FBI agent posing as a developer in 2012, captured Smith explaining his game plan: he would run for mayor as a Republican, in order to bypass the crowded Democratic primary; if that didn’t work, he would regain his title as Democratic leader of the Senate. “Sometimes it takes cash, sometimes it takes checks, sometimes it takes a job,” the undercover agent told him in one exchange. “Right, right, right,” Smith replied. The jury heard hours and hours of this kind of talk.

So it wasn’t looking good for Smith, who claimed that he was entrapped. His term in office would end at the end of the year and the trial seemed to eliminate any chance for a reelection campaign this summer. But then Smith caught a break. Prosecutors were slow to turn over 70 hours worth of tapes. More than 20 hours of those conversations were in Yiddish and it would take weeks to translate them. The judge ruled a mistrial and scheduled Smith’s new trial for January. The legal troubles have stalled just in time for campaign season. He can safely proclaim his innocence through election day. Lucky him — re-election would make him eligible for this list next year, as well.
— Albert Samaha

The bad behavior continues on the next page.


Sleazeball: Congressman Tim Bishop (D), 1st District, New York

Tim Bishop’s trademark scandal is classic New York. It’s got a hedge-fund manager, a bar mitzvah, political favors and improper campaign solicitations — it even has a scenic Southhampton setting. The whole thing started when Eric Semler, president of TCS Capital Management, decided to celebrate his son’s official entrée into manhood with a massive fireworks display. Problems arose when the company Semler hired to arrange the show failed to secure the necessary permits in time.

Luckily, Rep. Bishop was just a phone call away, ready to swoop in and save the day — provided Mr. Semler and his wife both donated to the his campaign fund. After tapping a local official for the approvals, Bishop emailed a mutual friend bragging, “call me the friggin’ mailman — we are all set with Eric Semler.” Five minutes later, the friend, who also happened to be the finance chair for Bishop’s campaign emailed Semler, saying “so I guess you and your wife really want to donate $5K each to Tim Bishop, right?”

Semler said he did, and good thing too, because Bishop’s work wasn’t done. He would intervene on Semler’s behalf again, this time to make sure that the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service would sign off the pyrotechnic extravaganza scheduled to take place at Semler’s home, which happens to be adjacent to nesting grounds for the endangered Piping Plover.

(Semler later complained to Fireworks By Grucci, the distributor that supplied the fireworks, about the expense he incurred as a result of their mistake — perhaps unaware the company’s executive vice president and chief financial officer is Republican Felix Grucci, the house member whom Bishop unseated in 2002.)

According to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Bishop may have broken a slew of laws including accepting illegal gratuities; soliciting a campaign contributions linked to an official action; seeking or accepting compensation for providing representational services; receiving compensation for exerting improper influence; performing an official action for personal gain; dispensing special favors; and making false statements . He also may have violated at least two campaign finance laws, not to mention the House rule requiring all members to conduct themselves “at all times in a manner that reflects creditably on the House,” according to CREW. At last check, investigations by the Office of Congressional Ethics U.S. Attorney’s Office, and the FBI were ongoing.
— Tessa Stuart

See also: The 53 Worst Politicians in America