In 1971, Fort Lee was a Republican bastion. The Democrats' candidate for mayor could no longer run because his employer planned to relocate him to the Midwest. So the Democrats nominated Burt Ross, a young stockbroker on Wall Street whose parents lived in the growing borough across the Hudson River from Manhattan.
But Ross proved no sacrificial lamb. Instead, he swept into office in a landslide.
In the era of Watergate and following a string of New Jersey politicians getting sent to prison for corruption, Ross proved to be another outlier: an incorruptible politician who refused a half-million-dollar bribe and worked with federal law enforcement to take down a crooked developer and reputed mobsters.
"He's part of the folklore of Bergen County politics," state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, a Democrat from Teaneck and a longtime friend, says. "Here's a guy who turned down a big bribe, got wired, cooperated with law enforcement, took on the really bad guys."
This prominent local figure has now left his home in Englewood for California to be closer to his children, who work in the Los Angeles area.
"When I look at my life, I clearly think of myself as all Bergen County," Ross says. "My parents are buried here. My in-laws are buried here. I was married here. My children were raised here."
Growing up in Teaneck
Ross was born in 1943. His parents, David and Rose, raised him in Teaneck.
David Ross was a businessman who started his own factory that produced steel measuring tapes. Both his parents cared about community service and current affairs, including fighting the House Un-American Activities Committee led by red-baiting U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, Ross says.
"I almost had it in my DNA," he says. "They cared about what was happening in the world."
Ross' father served as the treasurer for the first campaign for Teaneck Mayor Matthew "Matty" Feldman.
Feldman, who would become a longtime influential state senator, spoke at Ross' bar mitzvah at the Jewish Community Center in Teaneck.
"I looked up to Matty," Ross recalls. "I kind of wanted to be mayor of Teaneck like Matty."
Ross attended high school at the George School, a Quaker boarding school in Bucks County, Pa. He served as class president and editor of the school paper and also tried his hand at public advocacy by organizing a boycott of a barber shop that wouldn't serve black customers.
He later attended college at Harvard, where he led the student Democratic club. Ross later got a taste of politics by interning for Congressman Dominick Daniels of Jersey City, and then for U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy.
He went on to earn a law degree at New York University and wound up taking a job as a stockbroker at the brokerage L. F. Rothschild in New York.
Jumping into Politics
In 1971, Ross hosted a fund-raiser for U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh at his parents' place in Fort Lee. Ross waived the $50 buy-in for a local Democratic party operative who couldn't afford it, and that operative wound up recruiting Ross to run for mayor.
The campaign began in earnest. Ross recalls advice he received: "Shut up and listen." So from August through October, he pounded the pavement in Fort Lee and talked with residents. In particular, Ross targeted New York-centric renters in Fort Lee's new high-rises, many of whom – like Ross – were in their 20s. He also appealed to concerns that Fort Lee and its property taxes were growing too fast.
Ross' campaign slogan: "High rises, high taxes, high rents. High time for a change," according to The Bribe, a book by his brother, Philip Ross.
Alan Marcus, the public-relations executive and former chairman of the county's Republican Party who lived in Fort Lee at the time, says of Ross: "He saw an issue and he galvanized it. He's not just a guy who's very funny. He's a guy who's very smart."
Just before the election, The Record ran a front-page investigative piece outlining how Fort Lee's Republican politicos had personally benefited from their public offices.
Turnout for the election was heavy. In the end, Ross had 6,344 votes, while Myril Neiman had 5,009, according to The Bribe.
"It was an amazing campaign," Ross says. "People were excited."
Mayor Burt Ross
As mayor, Ross put in place one of the state's first rent-regulation laws. His childhood friend and town attorney, Armand Pohan, fended off challenges to the law, all the way to the state Supreme Court.
"We were breaking new ground in New Jersey," Pohan says. "The landlords were very resistant to this, and they fought tooth and nail."
Ross ran council meetings with flair, Marcus recalls. Hundreds of residents would show up.
"He's a showman," Marcus says. "He wants to be a standup comic."
Ross' administration built a youth center, laid the ground for the borough's first senior center, built a new station for the police department, which had been operating out of the basement of borough hall, and built an ambulance corps building.
Fort Lee also hired a professional borough administrator. Ross recalls Fort Lee as a corrupt town with a police chief who met with members of the Mafia in his office. Ross' goal: "bringing professionalism to a town that was run like a little fiefdom."
His administration's accomplishments, however, would be overshadowed when developer Arthur Sutton proposed a $250 million regional shopping center to be known as George Washington Plaza.
One night in May 1974, Ross' doorbell rang. His unexpected visitor, as described in Philip Ross' book, was a man in a dark blue silk suit with white stripes calling himself Joey D.
Joey D. claimed to represent the George Washington Plaza project and asked Ross to delay a vote on necessary variances by the board of adjustment.
"Look, mayor," Joey D. is quoted as saying in The Bribe, "it's incredibly important that the vote next Wednesday is delayed. I'm not asking you to approve anything, just delay it. I'm telling you, it's a matter of life and death. If the project is knocked down Wednesday, people are gonna go to jail. Lives are gonna be ruined. You don't want to see that happen, do you?"
At one point, Ross saw a pistol inside Joey D.'s jacket.
In exchange for help, Joey D. hinted at financial assistance. "I can see that you've got a real nice place here, mayor, but if you've got any kind of money problems, maybe I can help you out," he said, according to The Bribe.
The next day, Ross called the U.S. attorney's office in Newark.
In recent years, federal prosecutors had taken down politicians from Jersey City to Trenton to Atlantic City, recalls Jonathan L. Goldstein, who was U.S. attorney back then and is now at the law firm Hellring Lindeman Goldstein & Siegal LLP in Newark.
"Every place you look in the state there corruption," Goldstein says.
Most of those cases involved witnesses who had legal troubles, perhaps, and may have been cooperating in exchange for leniency.
"Every witness we had was compromised in some way," Goldstein says. But not Ross. "Suddenly, out of nowhere, Burt Ross appears."
He agreed to work with the FBI, allowing them to wire him up for a meeting at the Forum Diner in Paramus with the Joey D. – Joey Diaco – and Sutton. The topic: a $500,000 bribe in exchange for ushering the development through approvals.
Once a grand jury handed up indictments and the FBI arrested central players in the case, the feds put Ross in hiding in Martha's Vineyard pending the trial. When he returned to Fort Lee, Ross was under constant protection of the U.S. Marshals. At a council meeting after his return, Ross wore a bulletproof vest, as described in The Bribe.
"There certainly a potential for harm, but Burt was fearless," Goldstein says. "For me, Burt Ross has always been the most honest individual, the most courageous, the most direct, and I have had the utmost respect for him."
"It helped a little bit to restore some faith in government," Sen. Weinberg says. "Watergate was a particularly troublesome time."
Ross only served one term as mayor of Fort Lee. After his mayoralty, he took a job heading the state energy office in the administration of Gov. Brendan Byrne. Among his accomplishments, he counts championing legislation to allow right turns at red lights.
After he left state government, Ross retreated from political life, except for an unsuccessful run in a Democratic congressional primary in 1980.
He tried his hands at start-ups, including a travel agency, but eventually he became a full-time commercial real estate broker, investor and property manager. Ross wound up owning office and industrial buildings in such towns as Lyndhurst, South Hackensack, Englewood, Glen Rock, Paramus, Ridgefield, Rutherford and Oakland.
"Ultimately I did not want to give up my family life," Ross says. "There are a lot of sacrifices . You certainly don't do it for the money, and the fame I don't need, so the private life outweighs it for me."
Limited Public Life
Ross did not disappear from public life. Over the years, he weighed in on elections and public issues, penning letters to the editors and calling reporters.
In 2008, he learned he, like thousands of other investors, was a victim of Bernard Madoff's massive Ponzi scheme. He became a strong public voice for the fraudster's victims.
At Madoff's sentencing, Ross told the court: "We urge your honor to commit Madoff to prison for the remainder of his natural life, and when he leaves this earth virtually unmourned, may Satan grow a fourth mouth where Bernard L. Madoff deserves to spend the rest of eternity." Madoff earned 150 years in prison.
Ross, for his part, likes to joke about his legacy involving an attempted bribe and then fraud. "I'm known for turning down money and losing money," he says. "I'd like a third bite of the apple."
His independent streak emerged recently when he bucked the Democratic political establishment and supported a Republican – Kathleen Donovan – to be Bergen County's executive. He cited recent indictments and convictions of county Democratic officials.
"When things are inappropriate or bad, he's willing to stand up even if it's not a comfortable position," Sen. Weinberg says.
Ross, who turns 69 this month, says he'll still visit Bergen County periodically to check up on the two commercial buildings, in Teaneck and Ridgefield, he still owns and manages.
As a resident of Malibu, Calif., Ross plans to maintain a private life. "I certainly don't intend to give up my citizenship," he says. "I'll vote there, but I certainly don't think of myself as having a public life."
After all, it's his private life – his family – that has taken him west.