One month before Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo crossed party lines to endorse Republican Gov. Chris Christie for reelection in June of 2013, he presented an award to another prominent New Jersey GOP leader, Port Authority board chair David Samson.
The occasion was the county’s annual Jewish Heritage Celebration, where DiVincenzo recognized “the influence and positive impact that Jewish people have had, and continue to have, on the economy and culture of Essex County.”
After DiVincenzo presented him with a Star of Essex Award and hailed him for his dedication to public service, Samson said, “Growing up, I recognized that there were many different cultures represented in my high school and on sports teams, but it wasn’t until I attended college that I realized there were some cultural differences among us. I want to thank the county executive for pointing out these differences, recognizing and respecting them, and honoring them for their contributions to our community.”
The spotlight on Samson is less friendly these days, as the 71-year-old attorney has, as The New York Times put it, “emerged as a pivotal figure in efforts to contain the scandal around the throttling of access lanes at the George Washington Bridge as political punishment.”
In fact, the scrutiny surrounding “Bridgegate” includes a number of Jews in supporting roles, both inside and decidedly outside Christie’s inner circle.
A U.S. Senate committee wants to know what oversight Samson and the Board of Commissioners of the Port Authority exercised regarding the September lane closures.
David Wildstein, the Port Authority executive who ordered the shutdown of the lanes, resigned from his job as the controversy grew.
And Dawn Zimmer, the first Jewish mayor of Hoboken, has accused Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno of trying to make Superstorm Sandy recovery funds contingent on Zimmer’s backing a real-estate project favored by the administration.
Samson was born in Newark and grew up in Hillside. Robert Folkenflik, professor emeritus at University of California, Irvine, who knew Samson as a child in Hillside and later as a fraternity brother at Zeta Beta Tau on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus, said he did not remember him “as being especially Jewish.”
“I don’t have much memory of him after our freshman year,” Folkenflik told NJ Jewish News from his home in Laguna Beach, Calif. “But he was not a big campus guy. He was not a politician. But he was a very good-natured guy.”
Samson was a founding member of Wolff & Samson, a West Orange-based law firm, and served as chair of the New Jersey Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force. He served as NJ attorney general from 2002 to 2003 and was elected Port Authority chair on Feb. 3, 2011, after being nominated by Christie.
According to a 2007 news release, Samson was a recipient of the Tree of Life humanitarian award presented by the Jewish National Fund to Jewish and non-Jewish leaders for their “outstanding community involvement, their dedication to the cause of American-Israeli friendship, and their devotion to peace and the security of human life.”
Samson, who was one of 18 people to be issued a subpoena by a state legislative panel investigating the closures, has hired former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff to represent him. Chertoff, an Elizabeth native, is the son of a rabbi and had strong ties to his Jewish community when he was U.S. attorney in New Jersey in the 1990s.
Accused and accuser
Before the scandal broke, Wildstein, 53, the former mayor of Livingston, was best known as a fellow student of Christie’s at Livingston High School, as well as a hard-nosed political junkie.
For more than 10 years, Wildstein wrote a political insider’s blog under the pen name Wally Edge. A prominent Jewish Republican who requested anonymity told NJJN that Wildstein “was always interested in the Jewish community and was always pumping me for information about it.”
According to a 1983 JTA report, “after graduating high school, Wildstein started to get involved in Jewish political causes. He served as executive director of the New Jersey Legislature’s Legislative Caucus on Israel.”
Christie has said that he and Wildstein were neither friends nor acquaintances in high school, although he knew who Wildstein was. The two worked together on a campaign for Republican Gov. Tom Kean, and Christie named Wildstein to the Port Authority as director of interstate capital projects in 2010.
Patricia Sebold, vice president of the Essex County Board of Freeholders, knew Wildstein in the 1980s, when she was chair of Livingston’s Democratic Party and he was a Republican on the town council.
“I have been involved for many years and I have never ever seen him involved in any Jewish activities,” said Sebold, a current member of the board of trustees at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
Zimmer became acting mayor of Hoboken in 2009, when the sitting mayor was arrested in a corruption probe that also targeted rabbis in the Syrian Jewish communities of Deal and Brooklyn. The 45-year-old Democrat was elected mayor in November of that year.
Born a Unitarian, she converted to Judaism and is an active member of United Synagogue of Hoboken.
A 2010 piece in the Hudson Reporter said Zimmer and her husband, Stan Grossbard, agreed when they were dating to raise their children Jewish but that Zimmer felt uncomfortable converting just for marriage.
However, a few years after their two sons (now 12 and 13) were born, Zimmer and Grossbard, who runs a family diamond-and-jewelry business, took an introduction to Judaism course at the Hoboken synagogue. The family now sets aside Friday nights for family time. They are also frequent donors to the synagogue.
“We have tried hard to have the synagogue be an oasis for her from the tension and conflict that characterizes politics in general and sometimes characterizes politics in Hoboken,” said the synagogue’s rabbi, Robert Scheinberg. “We are proud that is a role we play in the mayor’s life,” he told NJJN. “She is a very valued part of our community.”
Asked about his response to accusations by Christie allies that she is lying, the rabbi said, “It is painful to see someone’s credibility attacked, and all the more so when it is someone who is an important part of our community. I have tremendous admiration for her in her dedication to public service and as a leader.”
Samson and Wildstein were not available for comment. Zimmer has declined interviews while the FBI reviews her allegations.
This article includes reporting by JTA.