Last fall, Councilor-at-Large Bob Russo, 23 years a member of the Montclair Township Council, including four as mayor, had just about made up his mind that this would be his last term in office. He promised his wife, Christine, that this would be it.

But then, in October, Padmaja Rao, Montclair’s chief financial officer, accused Township Manager Timothy Stafford of discrimination in a lawsuit that quickly sowed discord and strife on the Township Council. The ensuing political warfare has often placed Russo at the center of one skirmish after another, with him openly saying he feels ostracized by his colleagues.

“I have been hardened by my feelings about these things,” he now says.

Seized by a familiar gravitational pull, Russo, 75 years old, said he is weighing one more race for public office, possibly for mayor, a position he held from 2000 to 2004. At least 100 constituents have approached him through emails and texts and in person, he said, imploring him to run for mayor.  

“They’re telling me,” he said, “‘You're the only one we trust, you’re the only one with any brains, you’re the only fair one, you’re the only honest one up there.’” 

With the election 13 months away and amid a particularly tempestuous period in municipal affairs, no one has publicly announced a candidacy for a position on the council. According to figures from the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission, Russo has not received any campaign contributions for a 2024 race, while his fellow councilor-at-large, Peter Yacobellis, had raised nearly $60,000 as of Dec. 31, 2022. 

Yacobellis said he had not made a decision on whether to run for mayor.

“What this comes down to for me,” he said, “is where is my time and talent best spent, and how can I be most effective for positive change in our community and the world. It’s a serious decision because doing it right will take a serious commitment.”

Numbers show that Mayor Sean Spiller has raised nearly $82,000 in campaign money as of the end of 2022. Spiller did not respond to a request for comment.

Former Fourth Ward Councilor Renee Baskerville, who lost the mayoral race in 2020 by 195 votes to Spiller, said that it is too early for her to reach a decision. She has not received any contributions for 2024, according to the commission.

“I am listening to people,” she said, “to try and find out if there are only one or two or a handful of people that are really feeling this I, I, I type of government, like a dictatorship, or if my guess is correct in believing that the masses still believe in and want to have a collaborative government that listens to the people and represents the people and has no room for I. So that's what I have to decide.”

Russo was first elected as a council member in 1992 and served as mayor from 2000 to 2004. Following an eight-year hiatus, he has won three consecutive terms as councilor-at-large.

At his customary seat, just to the left of the mayor, Russo has played the contrarian, balking at several votes, including one last week that granted municipal employees with indemnification against legal action. Council members themselves could benefit from the action. Russo cast the single no vote.

Part gadfly, part town crier, with some of the irascibility of his political hero, Teddy Roosevelt, Russo often delivers winding dissertations that land with him beseeching the council and residents to embrace “good government.” It is not an accident, he says, that he teaches a course called Government Problem Solving as an adjunct professor at Montclair State University.

Rarely does a council meeting go by without him giving a shout-out to his wife watching from a seat in the gallery. “Christine keeps telling me I need to calm down,” he often says. 

Russo grew up on Second Street in the Roseville section of Newark in an attached home adjacent to the small warehouse where his father, Rocco, and grandfather, Robert, an Italian immigrant, stored the inventory for their soda distribution business. Their business slogan was “let us do the lugging.” He can still look back, he said, and see his father shouldering heavy cases of Hoffman Soda, Coca-Cola and 7Up. Russo, while attending evening classes as a graduate student in political science at Rutgers Newark, helped his father in the family business.

Bob Russo as a boy, standing between his grandfather, Robert, and father, Rocco. His younger brother, Richard, is on the right. (COURTESY OF BOB RUSSO)
Bob Russo as a boy, standing between his grandfather, Robert, and father, Rocco. His younger brother, Richard, is on the right. (COURTESY OF BOB RUSSO)

For a time he lived in Bloomfield, where he chaired the local Democratic Party for five years. He absorbed political defeat there, losing an election for Essex County freeholder.

After moving to Montclair in 1988, he and dozens of his neighbors came to a Planning Board meeting in protest over the planned chopping down of three cherry trees on the grounds of an apartment building to make space for a parking lot. An older woman’s request to speak was rejected by the board’s chairman, who ruled that anything she had to offer would be hearsay, Russo recalled.

“‘How do you feel today,’” Russo remembers the chairman saying to the women. “She said, ‘I felt pretty good up to now, but if you're cutting my cherry trees down, not so good.’”

The woman, Russo said, took her seat, became ill and suffered a stroke at the meeting. She died later at a hospital. Watching that unfold, he said, further ingrained in him the importance of open and responsive government, sensitive to the needs of each person, and helped spur him to run for office.

Asked if the motivation to keep serving was embedded in him, Russo said, “Yes. Yes.”

“It’s some sort of a force,” he said, before quoting Jerry Brown, the former governor of California. “Do you know what he used to say? ‘Life is like an ice cube on a hot stove. It flows with its own melting.’”