Mayoral candidate Antonio Gambino answers a question during a Chamber of Commerce event Sept. 17, 2013. (Photo by Mark Wetherbee, Jr.)

Gambino challenges the status quo

Hamilton Township residents may know Antonio Gambino.

They may know him for his dedicated attendance of municipal government meetings—he says he has only missed a handful of council meetings the last 15 years, and only because he was sick.

Or they may know him as “The Knight,” the man who ran as an independent for mayor in 1999, and has run for township school board in years past.

But, above all, they probably know him for his willingness to speak his mind. Former councilman Vinnie Capodanno first met Gambino at a township council meeting in 2000, and immediately took a liking to Gambino’s no-holds-barred style.

“He used to really challenge me and the council,” said Capodanno, who currently serves as Gambino’s campaign manager. “He always would ask tough questions, the questions nobody else would ask. He’s not afraid to talk about things.”

While Gambino certainly has caught ears with his turns of phrase—stuff like “Criminals will fear the name Gambino in this town. You can count on that.” —he usually only speaks about town issues. As a result, he often has avoided the one thing on many people’s minds: Who exactly is Antonio Gambino?

As it turns out, that’s a complex question to ask of the man who is one of three candidates to be the next mayor of Hamilton Township. Election Day is Nov. 5.

There are the basics. Gambino, 57, likes collecting art and coins, playing chess and listening to music, particularly that of Steely Dan, his favorite band. His nickname, The Knight, came from his skill with the piece on the chess board. He has a suit of armor in his home to honor the name.

He likes to play craps, and said he developed an adroit mathematical mind through playing the game. He has been married for 27 years. He asked to keep his wife’s name private because he doesn’t like to involve her in his political or public life.

His history is more involved.

Gambino grew up a “military brat.” His father, Emmanuel, was a nuclear missile specialist in the army, and moved around often. Gambino said he had lived across the United States before, at 8, moving to Germany. There, Gambino developed a love of art and music.

Gambino fondly recalls trips he and his father took. He particularly remembers a trip to Dachau concentration camp in 1967, where he said some human remains—things like hair and bones—were still visible.

But it was also a tense time to be in Europe, the height of the Cold War. Gambino said he witnessed tanks line up along the German border when forces from the Soviet Union invaded neighboring Czechoslovakia in 1968.

At first, he attended a school next to an air force base where Americans trained German soldiers. Gambino said it wasn’t a big deal to see a German soldier walking through the school’s hallways. With increasingly tense conditions, officials became nervous and shipped the American children off-base for school, to a facility 18 miles away. Gambino said some people worried about the American children being kidnapped, and required a member of the military police and one German special forces soldier to ride the bus with the students.

“I saw more things as a kid than kids my age saw when they became adults,” he said.

Gambino lived in Germany for four years, until Emmanuel “met a tragic death.” He moved back to the United States, and enrolled in a military school in Utah. About the same time, his mother, Jeanette, moved to Hamilton to help care for an aunt. Gambino would live in Hamilton during the summer, when school was out of session.

He said it was a process to get into the military school, and he had to prove to the staff—retired army rangers and special forces— that he truly wanted to enroll.

At the school, Gambino would attend traditional classes in the morning. In the afternoon, students would learn a trade. They could study to be an electrician or a plumber, but Gambino chose a different route: survival school.

During the course, students learned survival and weapons skills to make it in the wild. They also learned how to jump out of airplanes. Gambino said he completed more than 50 jumps by the time he graduated. The school was in a valley surrounded by mountains, and parachutists would aim to land in the center of the campus.

“I did a lot of cool things,” Gambino said. “My body’s paying for it now, believe me.”

It was in Utah Gambino learned to play chess. He and his friends would play for hours; it was the only thing they could do in their downtime. Chess was a natural game for cadets, he said, because it was a game of war.

Gambino played so much chess he eventually found he could control games, and put his opponents in situations they couldn’t escape. He even invented a move he named “Heaven’s Gate,” where he uses the other player’s aggressiveness against them.

“You can come in on the chess board, and when you get there, it looks like Heaven,” Gambino said. “But, really, it’s Hell.”

Gambino enlisted in the army after graduating from military school. He spent 10 years in the service as a military intelligence officer. While in the army, Gambino said he went on many humanitarian missions. He spent much of his time in Africa, although he said he couldn’t mention what he did there.

Since leaving the army, Gambino has bounced around. He helped an attorney for a spell, answering office phones part-time. Gambino said he studied the books in the office during his downtime, and became astute about the law. At one point, he also had a small trucking business. He spent the bulk of the time as a contract operational officer for the government. Gambino said he couldn’t reveal what he actually did in the role.

Gambino also became interested in politics in his post-army days. He said he went to every day of the TWA Flight 800 hearings in Baltimore in 1997, and became convinced someone was covering up something about the plane explosion that killed the 230 people aboard in 1996. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation concluded in 2000 that the probable cause was an explosion of the center wing fuel tank. There are numerous conspiracy theories centering around whether a missile or bomb was actually responsible.

Shaken by what he saw as a malicious concealment of the truth, Gambino swore to stand up against what he saw as improprieties in government. He has made his voice heard, especially in Hamilton’s council chambers. He said he has revealed several “hidden agendas” within the township, including the alleged rigging of the bid that handed control of the township ecological center to private contractor Reliable Wood. He said he broke the news that the township planned to raise license fees on restaurants in 2008, an action that eventually helped stop the passage then. The fee increase eventually passed in 2012.

Gambino also spoke several times about corruption in the township during the public comment portion of the Nov. 30, 2012 meeting that eventually made Kelly Yaede interim mayor. He maintains the same fire today.

“If you are a Republican or a Democrat in this town, and you have a sign on your lawn, it tells me that you accept and support corruption,” Gambino said.

The former councilman Capodanno said he believes in Gambino, and only came on board because he was sure Gambino would stand up for the same values he follows.

“I’m not getting involved with anyone I don’t think is worth it,” Capodanno said. “If I’m involved with Tony, he’s got to be credible.”