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N.J. mayor, 32, gets lesson on corruption

HOBOKEN, N.J. — Even in the state of The Sopranos and On the Waterfront, where corruption seems institutionalized, the arrest of a neophyte mayor in office a mere three weeks stands out.

Voters might wonder how Hoboken Mayor Peter Cammarano, no grizzled politician but a 32-year-old lawyer with a promising political career, could be accused of taking $25,000 in bribes after watching so many politicians follow the same road to jail.

Authorities said that what he told a government witness wearing a wire — a purported real-estate developer whom Cammarano assured he would treat "like a friend" — not only led to his arrest but also added a new chapter to New Jersey's culture of corruption.

Stanley Renshon, a psychoanalyst and City University of New York political science professor, says it's really not that surprising.

"Politics has a lot of temptation because it has to do with power. People are attracted to the power. Ambition is like a loose cannon — it can be dangerous," Renshon said.

New Jersey, the setting for the HBO mob drama The Sopranos and the 1954 Marlon Brando classic On the Waterfront, about crookedness on the docks, has long been known for government corruption. But over the last five years, hundreds of government officials from both major parties have been charged with crimes involving betrayal of public trust: taking bribes, getting no-show jobs to boost state pension benefits or lavishly spending public money on themselves.

Thursday's arrests snared 44, including three mayors, two state assemblymen, five rabbis and many other public officials. It also brought fresh attention to this 1-square-mile city known as Frank Sinatra's hometown, one of the nation's earliest settlements and more recently a nightlife mecca for the young and hip.

Cammarano insisted he was innocent Friday, calling the charges "completely baseless," and he said he will remain in office.

He became mayor only three weeks before his arrest, after a bitterly contested mayoral election that forced a runoff, which he won by only 161 votes.

The FBI said Cammarano was so confident about his supporters, pre-election, that he joked he could secure most of the vote of those born and raised in Hoboken even if he were "uh, indicted."

He is the second of the city's last three mayors to face criminal charges. Former Mayor Anthony Russo was sentenced in 2005 to 30 months in prison for accepting bribes in exchange for city contracts between 1994 and 2001, nearly his entire time as mayor.

On Saturday morning, about 50 people protested outside Cammarano's home with signs that said "Shame on You" and "Resign."

Carla Banduci, a Hoboken orthodontist who passed the rally as she returned from a brisk walk with her husband, Brian Benson, said Cammarano's arrest was "disappointing, to say the least."

"The world was his, and now it's gone overnight," Banduci said.