By Peter McDermott
One fact sums up the turnaround that the once gritty Jersey City has experienced in recent years, according to its first citizen.
"Ten years ago, we did not have a decent hotel. Now we have five, and within a year we'll have a sixth, the Hilton, and they're all doing very well," said Mayor Jerramiah Healy.
The reason for the interest is plain enough or would be if you looked at the New York City area on a map: Jersey City has easy access to Midtown and Downtown Manhattan.
"You can access our city from any of four PATH stops and four ferry stops," Healy said. "We have a light rail that connects our entire city.
"We don't have a corporate tax. We don't have an income tax. We don't have a payroll tax. Most of our city is covered by an urban enterprise zone that means instead of the usual 7 percent sales tax, it's 3 1/2 percent here if you're buying goods," said Healy, who has been mayor since 2004.
"Some people -- private enterprise people -- had the vision, the wherewithal and the courage to see the assets we have here in Jersey City, mainly mass transportation and our location, the gateway to the cultural, commercial, financial center of the world -- New York City," he said.
"We were an old blue-collar industrial, manufacturing, transportation hub with railroads and buses. We even had barges and the like coming in here," Healy added. "We've always been a magnet for immigrants, working class, the poor people coming in here."
Healy's parents were in more than one of those categories. They both arrived from Ireland at the onset of the Great Depression. His father, who was from Kilgarvan, Co. Kerry, had been an early Garda recruit. His mother traveled to America as a 14-year-old on her own from Drumlish, Co. Longford, with a letter of introduction. "She was a housekeeper and nursemaid for a wonderful family. All she did was speak of them in glowing terms," said the mayor, who was one of her five children. "He was a Dr. Cobham, also of Irish descent.
"My dad got menial jobs when he came over here. He was also pretty talented musically. He played about six different instruments. He was on the radio playing the violin, the accordion and the banjo during the Depression. He got some pretty decent money at the time," the 59-year-old Healy said. "He opened a whole series of bars, one at a time, here in Jersey City, Union City and North Bergen. He was pretty successful."
But then, around about the time the future mayor was born, the former Irish policeman lost much of his money on a new venture - a boat that took people up and down the Hudson.
After graduation from Xavier High School in Manhattan, Jerramiah Healy went to Villanova University. He then graduated from Seton Hall University School of Law.
His biography on Jersey City's website says that he supported himself working as an ironworker, but when interviewed he mentioned another college job. "I always worked in the cafeteria so I could be around food," he said, laughing. "I had a prodigious appetite."
When asked about political influences when he was young, the lifelong Jersey City resident joked he was never young. "I'd a lot on my plate," he said of his responsibilities in early adulthood.
He and his wife Maureen have two sons and two daughters (one of his children has followed the mayor into the legal profession, another is a teacher and two are in the fire department).
Healy's career trajectory was a familiar one - prosecutor, lawyer in the private sphere, city councilman, judge, defeated candidate for mayor and then success in a field of 11 to replace Mayor Glenn Cunningham who'd died suddenly in office.
Nobody will, it seems certain, ever match the reign of Jersey City's 30th mayor, Frank Hague, who ruled the city with an iron fist between 1917 and 1947. Hague's administration was a byword for corruption, but those days have not disappeared. Healy's Deputy Mayor Leona Beldini was convicted earlier this year as part of Operation Bid Rig, the FBI/IRS investigation into political corruption in New Jersey.
"What's happening in New Jersey is no different from what's happening in New York or anywhere in the country," Healy said. "It's just that sometimes we get the rap some more than other places."
He himself was found guilty of obstruction of justice in 2007 after an altercation outside his sister's bar in Bradley Beach and his subsequent appeal efforts failed. However, even his critics in the press said that that controversy didn't affect his role as mayor, and he won his second reelection campaign with ease in 2009.
Healy, who is a member of the Mayors Against Illegal Guns Coalition, has made safer streets his number one issue, followed by the city's budget, and then the education of its schoolchildren.
But he spends much of his time getting the word about his hometown. "It's a great place to visit and shop and a great place to do business in and a great place to live."
And there are those hotel rooms. People who come to New York from different parts of the country or from Canada find that they can stay in Jersey City, Healy said, at "half the price."
[PHOTO: Mayor Jerramiah Healy pictured with President Barack Obama.]