Somehow, the décor seems out of character for the sole occupant of this 673-square-foot condo at Red Bank Manor, a shady cluster of two-story red-brick buildings off Spring Street.
For starters, its painted beige, a neutral color. And with its understated furnishings and framed prints of Grecian urns hanging on the beige walls, the place seems way too sedate to be the home of John Curley, the firebrand politician whose manner is often as jabbing as it is courteous.
But something catches your eye soon after you enter the apartment, and its more in line with the public Curley persona. There, on the floor, is a rather large exercise machine that announces itself like a six-foot-long exclamation mark. It straddles the opening between the living room and Curleys home office.
And just like that, the connection between the man and the place is clear. This is the where Curley trains for his trademark door-to-door campaigns against an administration that he denounces as an examplar of machine politics. It’s a device on which the driven Curley challenges himself.
But as he settles into a plush armchair on an October evening, Curley launches into a story not about Mayor Ed McKenna but another foe. He recounts a telephone row he had earlier that week with an official from a local nonprofit over Curleys stance on how much money such entities should pay the borough in lieu of property taxes.
He said, John, I have to tell you, Im disappointed in you, Curley says. And I said, Well, Im disappointed in you. Curley says he told the executive that the borough is also a nonprofit, and that nonprofit organizationsof which Red Bank has the highest concentration in Monmouth Countyarent contributing their fair share to offset the services they get from the town.
Curleys point in telling the story is clearly to demonstrate that hes nobodys boy. But putting aside the merits of your position, redbankgreen asks Curley, arent you concerned that a confrontation like that will alienate someone with whom youll have to deal with on a regular basis if youre elected mayor?
Not at all, says Curley. I think there has to be that healthy balance, an understanding, of where the leaders are coming from, the municipal leaders and the leaders of the nonprofits. And weve had a very good interrelationship. But when youre explaining to people why their taxes are high, [the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes issue] is a major reason.
Besides, Curley says of the argument with the executive, Im not going to hold that on any personal level.
Of course, the bigger question might be whether the executive, and the large organization he heads, hold it on a personal level against Curley. After all, as well-respected, tax-exempt entities, they would seem to have the upper hand.
Still, the moment is pure Curley, a self-styled iconoclast who sees himself as speaking truth to power, sticking it to the man, and yet remaining confident that his combative style will bring about a new and better way of doing business at 90 Monmouth Street.
Come January, should the voters put him in the boroughs top elected position, Curley says hell shake up the status quo. He pledges to clean house administratively, with a particular focus on the hats worn by borough administrator/fire marshal/construction official Stanley Sickels; revamp the budget-development process; and appoint zoning and planning board members who he says wont be so ready to bend to the wishes of developers.
Its a pretty ornery agenda for a guy who grew up in drowsy Shrewsbury, New Jersey.
Curleys father was a homebuilder in Shrewsbury, and from him, Curley learned an early lesson in political necessity (though critics would call it expediency).
I grew up in a household where my Dad very early on was a Democrat, and my mother was a Republican, says Curley. But my father became a Republican as his business developed, because Shrewsbury was predominantly Republican, and if you wanted to function in business, you really had to be a registered Republican.
Not that the son followed the father across the political aisleor not immediately, at least. Curley competed for the Democratic Party nomination to run for a seat on the Shrewsbury Borough Council when he was 21 years old, but lost the nomination by six votes, he says.
That bid for office came between two seminal events in Curleys life. His father had died when Curley was 19; his mother died not long after that primary election. Their deaths, coming so close together, initiated a difficult period, Curley says.
I was left, in essence, homeless, he says, and lived in turn with each of his siblings and their spouses before renting a place in Monmouth Beach with a bunch of guys he played softball with. To earn money, he pumped gas at the Hess station on Shrewsbury Avenue and did landscaping work, but struggled to support himself.
It was tough, he says. Very hand to mouth. The concern of where the next meal is coming fromthats a different perspective. And Im not saying I was born in a log cabin or anything like that. But it was a real tough time. I remember eating a cupcake for dinner. I didnt have any money.
Curley also struggled with, and still has, Type 1 diabetes, which he keeps under control with frequent, self-administered blood tests insulin injections. But it hasnt always been under control. Hes gone temporarily blind in both eyes, though surgeries have stabilized his vision. The disease also caused him problems with his feet, forcing him from what used to be competitive sports to reliance on his exercise equipment to stay fit.
For many years, Curley admits, he lacked direction. He took courses at Brookdale Community, Kean and Monmouth colleges, but couldnt manage to wrap up a degree. At 29, he got married and moved to the Molly Pitcher Village apartments on Madison Avenue in Red Bank. But the marriage fell apart, and he was divorced five years later.
Urged on by an influential friend, Curley finally completed his college coursework in his late 30s, with a degree in political science, one of his passions. Today, he relaxes by reading political history and biographies, and enjoys documentaries on similar topics. He also has a girlfriend, Jane Palaia, niece of state Senator Joe Palaia of Ocean Township, with whom he travels to baseball stadiums in major cities and stage shows in Manhattan.
But along the way, Curley racked up a rather piecemeal resume, with frequent job changes across industries, a desultory path that the Democrats have turned into fodder in the current campaign. For the past dozen years, Curley has worked for older brother, Jim, at his Lakewood car dealership, cultivating clients who buy cars and trucks by the fleet.
He says he enjoys the work, and the freedom that being in a family-owned business affords him. I have flexibility, and thats why Im able to pursue this passion of helping people on the local level, he says. It really is a most wonderful hobby thats almost turned into a full-time job.
Curley got involved in local politics about seven years ago, he says. I wanted to become more active in town, and of course the McKenna administration was entrenched, says Curley. So I switched over (from the Republican Party), started to go to Democratic Club meetings, and was asked if I wanted to become Democratic Club President. In short order, Curley found himself as a McKenna appointee to the zoning board.
Yes, Ed McKenna, the longtime mayor whom Curley today refers to as Boss Hogg.
What was the relationship like back then? We were on good terms, but never close, says Curley. I always felt that Ed was threatened by me, because I could get up and address a crowd. And Ed isnt the type of guy that likes any type of competition, even if its entertainment.
Curley says he began to sour on the administration during his time on the zoning board. It was, yes, yes, yes right on around the table, and it was too simplified, too orchestrated, he says. And I knew who was getting the telephone calls, and who from, and told this was a go deal or this was a no deal. He does not allege outright corruption, though.
In spite of his misgivings and chilly relationship with the mayor, Curley managed to get onto the 2002 ticket with McKenna and fellow council candidate Alan Soden because of pressure from some elderly women in the Democratic Club who were Curley fans. But Curley says that McKenna, who ran unopposed, put Curleys name on the ballot opposite that of incumbent Republican Jennifer Beck, because, Curley contends, McKenna believed Beck was unstoppable in her bid for a second term.
So you were the sacrificial lamb, we asked? Absolutely, says Curley.
For that race, Curley did one of his by-now trademark door-to-door campaignswithout his running mates, who he says refused to go out. I wish I could have found a good line of vacuum cleaners to sell, because I could have supplemented my living, Curley jokes. When it was over, he narrowly outpolled Soden and Becks running mate, Michael Tolan.
[McKenna, who has engaged Curley in loud, public battles of late, agrees that he believed Soden was the stronger council candidate because of his prominence in town, but calls the allegation that Curley was a sacrificial lamb not true. He also contends Curley submarined Soden in the last 10 days of the campaign by telling voters they should choose him over Soden. Moreover, McKenna claims to have heard reports that Curleys done the same thing in the current campaign, telling voters they could pick him even if they reject his running mates, Grace Cangemi and David Pallister.]
On the council, Curley found himself aligning frequently with Beck. And as time went by, he began to sense what he calls stinky politics, having to do with campaign contributions. McKennas influence also chafed. Nobody could sneeze without Ed McKennas approval, says Curley.
The final break came, says Curley, near the end of Curleys first year on the council during a League of Municipalities convention in Atlantic City. In a small restaurant, Curley says, a drunken McKenna staggered in and profanely assailed Curley without provocation. Curley says that he turned to one of his dining companions and said This will be Ed McKennas final term as mayor.
[Again, McKenna has a different recollection. He says Curley was intoxicated at the dinner, attended by the council and members of the planning and zoning boards, and went on a rant about everything he thought was wrong in Red Bank until McKenna told him to shut up and let us eat our dinner.
He was acting like a horses ass, says McKenna. He can say whatever he wants, but there were plenty of witnesses.]
Curley won re-election last year, this time, though after having switched back to the GOP.
The animosity has only grown since then. McKennawhos known Curley since Christian Brothers Academy, where they graduated several years apartsays Curley routinely traffics in blatant misinformation and has clashed with people on every body on which hes served, including the zoning board, RiverCenter, the Historic Preservation Committee and the Finance Committee, all of which McKenna has ousted Curley from.
That last one was done on solid reasoning, says Councilman R.J. Bifani. The Democrat says he has scoured four years of borough records for evidence that Curley, as Finance Committee chairman, made suggestions for improving the department or saving the town money, and hasnt found any.
Bifani says Curley is a guy whod rather knock on your door and tell you how bad everything is than go out and try to make it better. Hell find (a phony issue), go pot-stir it, and save the day. And who can keep up that?
Curley, though, says that as a Republican in a Democrat-controlled town, hes denied critical information about the workings of the administration. The big issues, he says, are decided before they even make it to the agenda.
I never followed their little syllabus, that youve got to go through the committees, says Curley. Because the committees are really nebulous, impotent bodies. Theyre worthless. This thing with the finance committee? I would mention something and have absolutely no input into the budget.
Jennifer Beck, who was elected to the state Assembly a year ago, agrees with Curley that McKenna excludes and publicly belittles anyone who disagrees with him. She sees Curley as the champion of the taxpayers that he holds himself out to be. She says it would be impossible for Curley not to know what the public is really thinking with all the shoe-leather canvassing of the town he does, even between elections.
When push comes to shove, not only does he know the residents hearts and minds, says Beck, but hell go to the mat for them.
Curley even has his own cheerleading squad of sorts, a group of senior women who wear t-shirts emblazoned with his name to public events. The shirts were Doris Franks idea. She also lives at Red Bank Manor, but has known Curley since before he moved in.
People might think hes a hothead, because hes kind of rambunctious, says Franks. Ive been counseling him on that; I dont want to see that finger going!” But she disputes the characterization of Curley as a rabblerouser who stirs up trouble for its own sake.
John is as honest as they come, she says. There isnt anything false about him. What you see is what youre going to get.
Curley says the same about himself, of course, and makes no apologies for his in-your-face style.
I have a kind of Puritanical view of things, he says. I still believe that there is a basic right and wrong.