A gay candidate running for mayor of Hoboken, N.J., says he and one of his five opponents on the ballot on Tuesday have been victimized by a hate campaign orchestrated by one or more anonymous perpetrators who sought to portray him as a racist and the opponent as a terrorist.
Hoboken police announced on Friday that someone had altered a flyer issued by the campaign of gay City Council member Michael DeFusco, who’s running to become Hoboken’s first out gay mayor, by placing over a photo of fellow Council member Ravi Bhalla the words, “Don’t let TERRORISM take over our Town!”
Hoboken Police Chief Kenneth Ferrante said the act of altering the flyer to link someone to terrorism based on the unstated but implied reference to Bhalla’s race and religion potentially could be prosecuted as a hate crime.
Bhalla is a U.S.-born Indian American and member of the Sikh faith. He is wearing a turban in the photo in the flyer, which the DeFusco campaign had produced a few weeks earlier.
The flyer as originally produced raises the issue that Bhalla could have a conflict of interest as mayor in considering city contracts with a utility company that has been a client of the law firm for which Bhalla has worked as an attorney.
DeFusco told the Washington Blade on Monday that he and his campaign workers were horrified when they discovered the altered flyer was being placed on car windshields and at the doors of homes last Friday night.
According to DeFusco, someone apparently copied the flyer that his campaign sent out two weeks ago in the mail by using Photoshop to change the flyer by adding the words, “Don’t let TERRORISM Take over our Town!” directly above the photo of Bhalla.
The person or persons who did this, DeFusco points out, left in place writing on the upper left side of the flier that says, “Paid for by Team DeFusco for Hoboken.” And much to his dismay, he says, people began to post the altered version of the flyer on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media without making it clear that he and his campaign had nothing to do with the “terrorism” message.
“A disgusting, racist flyer was found on car windshields tonight that altered one of my campaign’s mailers and added a racial epithet aimed at Ravi Bhalla,” DeFusco said in a press release. “I condemn this piece of racist garbage in the strongest possible terms,” he said.
“Hoboken is far better than this, and whoever made this flyer is not only insulting one of my opponents in a despicable way, they are also painting me as a racist, which as the only openly gay elected official in Hudson County and a progressive Democrat simply could not be further from the truth,” he states in the press release.
DeFusco said it was he who called the police to report the distribution of the altered flyer as a possible hate crime.
Hoboken police on Monday released photo images obtained from video security cameras showing two unidentified males as “persons of interest” in their investigation of the flyer incident. Police urged anyone recognizing the two individuals to contact police with information that may lead to their identification.
DeFusco, 35, has been a community activist and marketing executive for a Manhattan-based company, before winning election to the Hoboken City Council in November 2015. He said that while the city government was generally supportive of LGBT rights he played an active role during his two years in office in pushing for strengthening that support, resulting in the creation of an LGBT liaison at the police department and the mayor’s office among other things.
He and Bhalla are among six candidates running on Tuesday’s ballot for mayor. The incumbent mayor, Dawn Zimmer, announced earlier this year she would not seek re-election.
The local media have reported that three of the candidates would set a milestone if elected. DeFusco would become the city’s and county’s first out gay mayor. Bhalla would become the state’s first Sikh mayor. And mayoral hopeful Ronald Bautista, a native of Ecuador, would become the city’s first Latino mayor.
Political observers have said polling data have shown that DeFusco and Bhalla were leading the pack and running a neck-and-neck race.
But DeFusco told the Blade the doctored campaign flyer incident has hurt his campaign due, in part, to what he says have been unfair media reports that haven’t made it clear that the flyer had been altered by someone unrelated to his campaign.
He said he was also dismayed that New Jersey U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D), the state’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Phil Murphy, and others tweeted copies of the altered flyers without pointing out that his campaign wasn’t responsible for the derogatory changes linking Bhalla to terrorism.
“It was unintentional, and I have nothing but respect for them,” he said of Booker and Murphy. “But they all re-tweeted it and unintentionally spread the errant notion that my campaign was behind it.”
As if that were not enough, DeFusco said about one week prior to the appearance of the altered flyer attacking Bhalla another anonymous flyer placed on cars attacked him for his status as an Italian American, portraying him “as the head of a crime family.”
“A lot of people bought into it,” he said of the altered flyer bearing the name of his campaign. “A lot of people don’t know me in this city and don’t know about the core progressive Democratic values that I stand up for of inclusion, of diversity, have told me they believe me to be a racist. And that is heartbreaking. That is terrifying.”
His supporters say those who know him consider him to be a dedicated public official who’s highly qualified to serve as mayor, according to his campaign literature.