Anthony R. Cucci, whose term as mayor of Jersey City was rife with the bitterness of local politics and colored with sidelights both tragic and comic, died on Thursday in Jersey City. He was 92.
His death was confirmed by a nephew, Robert Pollara.
Mr. Cucci, a Jersey City guy through and through — he and both his parents were born and reared there — had been a teacher and a Democratic city councilman before he was elected mayor in 1985. In a runoff, he defeated the incumbent, Gerald McCann, whose failure to address the rising rents that were displacing many longtime residents had alienated black and Hispanic voters.
The campaign was rough and, at times, ugly, with each side accusing the other of puncturing tires and breaking windows, among other acts of intimidation. On the day of the runoff, Mr. McCann, also a Democrat, posted plainclothes police officers at polling places in black and Hispanic wards. After his victory, Mr. Cucci took the oath of office at a minute after midnight instead of at noon because he was fearful Mr. McCann would use the time to fill three vacant positions on the Board of Education.
When the new mayor’s aides arrived at City Hall, they discovered the locksplugged with glue and the rugs and desk in the mayor’s office befouled with urine.
Mr. McCann won his job back four years later in the midst of advancing gentrification in the city. (He did not complete that term; he was removed from office and jailed for two years for financial improprieties that had occurred between his two stints as mayor.)
Mr. Cucci, who oversaw a continuing development of the city’s waterfront, went ahead with a long-delayed property tax revaluation, resulting in higher assessments in many neighborhoods. At the same time, with the city’s schools long in decline, Mr. Cucci spent much of his term fighting off an attempt by the state to take over the system. (In October 1989 the school system became the first in New Jersey to fall under state governance.)
Early in his tenure, Mr. Cucci threatened, somewhat seriously, to foreclose on the Statue of Liberty over an unpaid water bill. Jersey City, which provides water to Liberty Island, claimed it was owed nearly $1 million by the National Park Service, which administers the statue, because of a leaky pipe that had gone unrepaired by the federal government. The park service claimed that Jersey City’s meter was faulty.
“Selling the Statue of Liberty, that’s like selling your grandmother,” Mr. Cucci said, acknowledging that he wasn’t really going to initiate foreclosure proceedings. He added, however: “I’m not taking this as a joke. This is big money and we need it.”
The dispute was eventually resolved.
Grimmer events followed. In February 1988, the city’s chief of police, John Fritz, committed suicide, shooting himself while in his office. And in December of that year, Mr. Cucci and his wife, Anna, visited Cuzco, Peru, which had a sister-city relationship with Jersey City. Anna Cucci was killed in a rail accident as they traveled to the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu; the apparent act of sabotage also killed the wife of the mayor of Cuzco. Mr. Cucci and several others were injured.
“I suffered a great, great loss,” Mr. Cucci said on his return to Jersey City. “But I still have my job to complete. And if I know Annie, she would want me to get back out there and do it.”
A few days later he announced his campaign for re-election.
Anthony Richard Cucci was born on Aug. 8, 1922, the son of Mary Priori and Anthony Cucci, an electrical contractor. After high school he joined the Marines, and during World War II he fought at Iwo Jima and was awarded a Purple Heart.
He graduated from Seton Hall University and worked as a teacher in both New Jersey and New York before running for City Council. After his mayoral defeat, he returned for a time to the Council and also served on the Board of Education.
Mr. Cucci is survived by a brother, A. Joseph Cucci, known as A. J., and a sister, Anna Pollara.
A few months after Mr. Cucci became mayor, he received an unexpected accolade: the Fashion Foundation of America placed him on its list — along with President Ronald Reagan, Prince Charles, the actor Jason Robards and then-baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth, among others — of the world’s best-dressed men.
The foundation turned out to be the creation of one public relations man, Charles Richman, who had been churning out the list, to occasional hoopla, for several decades. He explained his choice of Mr. Cucci by calling him “a nice-looking man who is interested in making neckties with an imprint of Jersey City and the Statue of Liberty.”
Mr. Cucci, who confessed to wearing polyester blend slacks and to occasionally wearing unmatched socks, was nonplused, and a little concerned that his constituents would find this suspicious.
“This is Jersey City,” he said. “I have not ruled out the possibility that this honor is a political smear tactic.”