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PROFILE: PASQUALE MENNA

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Pat Menna is showing off the first floor of his home, a spacious Dutch Colonial he shares with his five-year-old white Labrador retriever, Bella. It’s on a corner lot in one of Red Bank’s more upmarket neighborhoods, and in contrast to the white exterior trimmed in black, the interior is painted in bold, contemporary colors, yet decorated with Roman and other antiquities.

“I don’t have too many vices, but I love iconography,” the Byzantine tradition of religious images painted on wood and highlighted in gold leaf, says Menna. “Being 100-percent Italian, I have an immense emotional attachment to the place of my birth. I like to be surrounded by things that remind me of my childhood.”

As for the lipsticky color in the stairwell he says, “the red highlights, I think, the icons, which need a dark color to bring them out.”

Just off to the side of where we’ll be talking, however, in what appears to be a solarium, Bella has added her own splash of color to the oatmeal-colored carpeting by puking on it. And somehow, the fastidious and formal Menna either hasn’t noticed this, or is pretending not to.

Whatever. Menna has other things on his mind. He’s just come in from a day of campaigning door-to-door with his running mates, incumbent Councilman Arthur Murphy III and contender Michael DuPont. He’s got a dinner engagement in a couple of hours at the home of Matawan Mayor Mary Aufseeser, and is hoping to prepare a dish of asparagus wrapped in prosciutto and herbs baked in mozzarella. And here’s redbankgreen, asking a bunch of questions, which Menna graciously and unhurriedly indulges. (He’ll end up late for dinner, and will opt instead to bring a bottle of Champagne.)

We talk, for starters, about Menna’s busy schedule, something that gadfly Stephen Fitzpatrick brought up at a recent council meeting. Menna’s work on the council, Menna said that night with a sly smile, takes up “about 80 hours a week.” He’s the municipal prosecutor in Deal, where he handles cases twice a month. He’s the municipal prosecutor in Eatontown, which takes up his Thursday mornings. Fridays are given over to Asbury Park, where he’s the code prosecutor. Once a month he appears at the unified planning and zoning board in Keyport, where he’s the attorney to the board. And twice a month he’s at the Matawan Borough Council as borough attorney, a job he says takes up “a lot of hours a month.” He’s the prosecutor also in Oceanport.

Well, did Fitzpatrick have a point, we ask? Wouldn’t Menna’s becoming mayor, even with the subtraction of his council duties, be too much to serve the town well?

“If you don’t like to work, it’s a lot,” Menna says with a laugh.

“If I had to make a choice, I would certainly choose to spend whatever time has to be spent for Red Bank,” he says. “But it’s a non-issue. It really is. Ed McKenna’s predecessor [Mike Arnone] spent every Wednesday morning from 9 to 11 in Borough Hall. If you had to talk to him, that’s when you talked to him. Ed has turned it into a round-the-clock function, and nobody has been busier than him. Ed was the borough attorney for Tinton Falls. He’s been special counsel to a number of state agencies. He’s on the State Planning Commission. He’s on every single damn board and organization. And he was still the most effective mayor in terms of spending time as mayor. I think I’ve got the same energy he does.”

And just like that, we’re onto the topic on which Menna’s candidacy for mayor will live or die: the McKenna years. Menna and the Democrats pledge to continue building on what McKenna started 16 years ago. John Curley and his Republican slate say that’s the problem.

Unsurprisingly, McKenna is Menna’s model for more than just his time-management abilities.

“The McKenna years have been enormously positive for the Borough of Red Bank,” says Menna, who has been a part of the administration since the start. “They took a decaying municipality that was slip-sliding away into oblivion and turned it into an enormous Mecca for positive vibrancy, not only for the region but for the whole state. If it wasn’t for Ed’s vision, and the rehabilitation and recycling of properties in the downtown area, which is not even completed yet, that would not have happened.”

Moreover, he says, this was achieved while shifting a large portion of the local tax burden from homeowners to commercial interests, which now carry 43 percent of the load, up from 22 percent a decade ago. And that doesn’t include the expected revenue from the new Hovnanian headquarters and PRC office projects, Menna says.

Menna’s unavoidable invocation of McKenna, though, tends to underscore the criticism that he dwelt in the Big Man’s shadow without leaving many of his own footprints.

“Pat is sort of the master of compromise,” says Assemblywoman and former council member Jennifer Beck, a Republican who says she’s genuinely fond of Menna. “But I don’t know if he’ll be a leader who has a vision, as opposed to someone who just manages. Whereas John [Curley] will be someone who lays out a plan and advocates for his plan. And that plan will be based on what he’s heard going door to door.”

Menna is low-key, high intellect. He’s also deeply religious. Nearly every Sunday For the past 25 or so years, he’s driven to Newark, where he participates in the noon Mass—the Archbishop’s Mass, a long, formal ceremony—at the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the largest Gothic church in America, where he does readings. During the week he goes to St. Anthony of Padua here in Red Bank “when I feel the need.” He also serves as chaplain to the Fire Department.

Yet, like a true altar boy, as opposed to the stereotype, Menna is not above an occasional jarring vulgarism. He says, for example, that when Curley first ran for council, in 2002, “he was so far up Ed McKenna’s ass, it was like he was living in it.” He’s also had the foulmouthed moviemaker Kevin Smith as a guest in his home.

More often, though, Menna cultivates his more refined impulses. He entertains often, travels, and enjoys opera and symphonies. Like Curley, he reads historical and biographical works. Unlike Curley, he’s writing one of his own, a “revanchist” nonfiction work about events in southern Italian between 1860 and 1870, which he says “will cause, hopefully, a stir.” He’s got 800 pages of manuscript done and a publisher lined up. “If I don’t win for mayor, it should probably be out in six months or a year,” says Menna.

Mennachart

Menna was born in the village of Monte Falcone in the Campobasso province of Italy, a place of mountaintop villages built to withstand invasions. When Menna was nine, he emigrated with his family to Montreal, where his mother had relatives (and where young Pasquale quickly picked up French). Two years later, in 1965, the Mennas moved to Red Bank to be near his father’s family, and set up house on Bridge Avenue.

Menna went to the old River Street School (now the site of the River Street Commons) and Red Bank High School. He spoke no English when he arrived, but soon learned it, and today is “sort of aghast” when he hears people badmouthing the Red Bank school system. Even though 40 years have passed, and his teachers have been succeeded by new ones, “they’re still dedicated,” he says. “I think sometimes the difference [in academic achievement] is in parental assistance. Parents can’t say, ‘this is the school’s job, to teach the kids.’ The parents have an equal if not greater responsibility to be part of their child’s education. They have to teach them more than they learn in school.”

His parents, who are both still alive and healthy, were “hardworking laborers” who inculcated in him good study practices, Menna says. They had him read newspapers and magazines in English, Italian and French, habits that stay with him to this day. In fact, he says, “I go through a fit if I don’t get my French magazine once a week, or my Italian newspaper.” Paris Match, perhaps? Pfft. “Too stoic,” he says. “I read Point de Vue. If it doesn’t get here on Monday, then I’ve had a bad day.”

And yes, he learned to cook from his mother, who still makes her own pasta at her home in Little Silver.

After classes, when he was in high school, Menna worked downtown at the now-gone Colonial National Bank as a “coin boy,” running a coin-sorting machine. “I balanced the books every afternoon as the coin boy,” he says. At George Washington University in Washington, D.C., he majored in international affairs, and graduated in three years.

After earning his law degree, he joined the Asbury Park firm headed Thomas Shebell (later a judge), and then spent three years at Mutual Benefit Life Insurance Co. in Newark, a company that failed under a raft of bad real estate investments long after Menna’s departure.

Back in Red Bank, Menna formed a new firm with Frank Pallone and two other partners, but Pallone left after just two weeks to run for Congress, sticking his partners with a lot of useless stationery. A few years later, after Menna had gotten involved in Red Bank government, to avoid a conflict of interest over the firm’s work with large Red Bank property owner Ted Sourlis, he left to form his own firm.

Menna had run for the borough council in 1982, losing by 132 votes, and ran again the following year, posting a narrower loss. Active in the Red Bank Tenants Association, he was also instrumental in drawing up the blueprint for what ultimately became Lunch Break, which started out in the basement of St. Thomas Episcopal Church, on the West Side—one of the few Episcopalian churches that are African-American, he notes.

Menna tells redbankgreen that he feels a strong affinity for the African-American community in Red Bank because “I think we have suffered the same discrimination, at a different level.

“The African-Americans suffered it more intensely, and ours was shorter in duration, but the same forces that discriminated against them discriminated against us,” he says.

As an example, he cites deed restrictions, once commonplace even in Red Bank, that forbade property buyers from selling their properties to African-Americans or people of Italian descent.

“That’s why I don’t understand how young people who are Italian-Americans can even have a hint of prejudice. Because they have to understand that history—that we suffered from the same prejudice, and therefore we should be united and should be in the forefront of that battle.”

He ran again for council in 1988, this time with Ed McKenna, who’d been elected to a one-year, unexpired term in 1987, and they both won. Two years later, McKenna was elected to the mayoral post vacated by Michael Arnone, who moved on to the state Assembly.

“We’ve been travelers on the same road,” Menna says of his partnership with McKenna. In 1988, “we had a ten-point platform, and today, we’ve accomplished nine of the ten points,” he says. The remaining one, “which has been dogging McKenna for years, is to solve the alleged parking issue. So we have drifted on that issue.”

It’s also perhaps the most prominent matter on which the two have parted. McKenna favored the construction of a parking garage financed by the borough on the site of the White Street lot, and Menna has twice opposed it. The first time, he was the swing vote.

Curley, who often criticizes Menna for moving in lock-step with McKenna, on this issue criticizes him for not doing so; he says Menna’s vote on the garage shows that his Menna goes whichever way the wind blows. But Menna says his actions on the issue underscore his fundamental view of governance at the local level.

“I really, honestly believe this, that in any public policy debate, an elected official has an affirmative obligation to listen to all sides. Pros and cons,” he says. “I don’t think it’s the policy of an elected official to dictate to the public, but to listen to what the public has to say and then to make an informed decision as best you can. That’s exactly what I did there. And some people still criticize me – one or two retailers downtown still blame me for their alleged parking problem. But I really feel that was the right thing to do, to listen to the consensus of the electorate and then make an informed decision.”

Menna is also critical of the borough’s efforts to funnel motorists to the underutilized East Side lots as “absolutely ghastly,” with poor or non-existent signage and insufficient lighting.

Well, we ask, you’ve been on the council for 16 years, why haven’t those problems been fixed?

“Because you have to be mayor,” says Menna.

Why do you have to be mayor?

“There’s a lot of difference between being one of six members of the council and being the chief executive who can tell the administrator, ‘This is what I want done. Get it done.’ And there would be certain consequences if it’s not done.”

Winning the election, Menna says, “would in my opinion enable me to continue a number of ideas and programs” that he and McKenna have initiated.

And on Tuesday night, Menna will find out whether he’ll ascend to the next level, or get bounced from government, and sent back to his revanchist manuscript.

“Vox populi, vox deo,” he says, quoting the Latin expression that greeted visitors to Rome’s Parthenon. Translation: the voice of the people is the voice of god.

“Of course, they didn’t mean it then,” Menna says of the Romans. “It all depended on who had the sharpest dagger.”

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