‘A Whole Lotta Elbow Love’: Election Year Orange Weathers COVID-19 Heartbreak

Donna Williams and Dwayne Warren of Orange

In towns with diminished enthusiasms, municipal elections in Essex are not so much opportunities for mayors to put down people power insurrections as they are theaters to burnish numbers higher than their rivals in other towns, who might also be eyeballing the county executive’s seat.

If the towns are the respective samurai provinces, the county executive is the shogun; thus, elections become an inevitable feudal testing ground for power.

Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren ($83K raised, closing balance $31,296, as of January, according to ELEC) appears a week away from another election victory (his third). But county executive buzz seems less insistent than it did when he was a first-term local executive; softer for him than it does for other mayors, among them Ted Green in East Orange and Tony Vauss in Irvington. Insiders put Lieutenant Governor Sheila Oliver in that same conversation.

Then again, little Orange (population just above 30K) was always going to have a hard time trying to stand next to East Orange (population 64K and change) and Irvington (just under 60K). Short of a deal that springboards him (“This coalition of black mayors may have the juice,” a source told InsiderNJ) he may have to satisfy himself with local surroundings.

Warren’s strong footing hinges most obviously on the fact that 80% of the population here doesn’t vote,

Warren
Warren

giving an edge to whomever occupies the fortress of city hall. He also faces not one, not two, but six contestants for his seat, two of whom are women, who appear to be sawing into each other’s support.

Then there’s the awful fact of current circumstances making it difficult – if not damn near impossible – for people to campaign.

Orange (2.2 square miles, with eight senior high-rises) is an easy town to walk, but not when it’s boarded up in a COVID-19 pandemic, same as everywhere.

It might as well be 200 square miles.

Add to that sufficient time for a conveyor belt-acculturated electorate to forget the past (Warren backed Republican Chris Christie in 2013, along with Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and Sheriff Armando Fontoura), and not only does Warren look like a walkover on May 12th, but like a walkover who can safely proclaim, as he did in last week’s debate, to be the harbinger of “our progressive agenda.”

“Now, more than ever, we need experienced leadership. We want to stay in it so Orange can complete its transformation,” Warren – a former Orange municipal judge who first won in 2012 with the considerable backing of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) – declared in a debate forum co-sponsored by local legend Becky Doggett, founding member of HUUB; the University of Orange; and Radical Orange, an organization founded by young, politially interested residents.

“Orange,” said the mayor, “is going to come out of it stronger and better equipped for our children and our families to succeed.”

He cited new supermarkets in town, expansion of vouchers for the farmers’ market, expanded summer lunch and breakfast programs, low income, affordable and luxury housing stock; beefed-up police force with services and personnel, and reentry services improvement, the investment of a million dollars into safe routes to school for children, and the creation of four opportunity zones.

Williams
Williams

Among his five challengers – and likely the best known – is Councilwoman Donna K. Williams, who first landed on the council scene in 2008 in what at the time looked like a legitimate burst of energy: a change election on the heels of a Mayor Mims Hackett meltdown, reinforced by Barack Obama’s national victory in the presidential election. Orange native Dionne Warwick showed up at Eldridge Hawkins’ swearing-in ceremony at the high school.

As she undertakes her own challenge now for the mayor’s seat with a week remaining on the clock, Williams does so through the worst of a personal pandemic that just last month claimed the life of her mother, and put her in the hospital on oxygen. “Thank you for all of you who prayed for me as I dealt with my mom, and as I have come through COVID,” Williams told those watching the Zoom video conference. “Thank you for the many words of kindness.”

If elected, Williams would be Orange’s first woman mayor. “This pandemic has brought my people-first

Jackson
Jackson

agenda to the forefront,” the councilwoman said. One of her rivals on the Zoom conference, candidate Shawn D. Hunter, reminded viewers of an FBI inverstigation in town with convictions and promised “consideration of all residents,” while Councilman Christopher Jackson, who like Williams is giving up his council seat to run for mayor, more integrity in government.

InsiderNJ called Williams earlier today to to ask her about her campaign for mayor, and to offer condolences on the loss of her mother.

Francis Williams was a writer, who retired from the county welfare office. She died on the 14th of April, three days after Councilwoman Williams went by ambulance to St. Barnabas Hospital. An asthmatic, the councilwoman says if she had waited any longer before calling for medical assistance, she might not have lived. As it was, she suffered the worst scourge of her life.

“To lose my mom is the hardest,” she said. “She was very supportive of me when I first ran in 2008. This is a challenge, I think by far the hardest, but we’ve been through Irene and Sandy. Every situation has brought about its own challenges. I’m a praying woman, and I am my mother’s child. I – and we – will get through this. Pay attention. Know thyself. Call 911. Isolating in your house is the safest thing.

“It’s time,” Williams added in a town rocked by 700 COVID-19 cases and 50-plus deaths, “for a whole lot of elbow love.”

OTHER ORANGE IMPLICATIONS

As noted, the retirement from the council of Williams and Jackson creates at-large opportunity, and

Marable
Marable

former Ward Councilman Ed Marable sees his chance this year at a return to City Hall. One of  11 candidates for three seats (including one currently occupied by Councilwoman Adrienne Wooten), Marable left office in 2014. “I really, to some extent, missed it,” said the attorney and former public defender. “I offer a level of independence; I’m unaligned with any of the mayoral candidates. I’m an objective and critical thinker, and I have the ability to ask the right questions based on 25 years of legal training and problem solving.”

A homeowner paying $20,000 per year in property taxes, Marable said he almost gave up on his home town. But his house now is worth $100,000 less than when he bought it. He opted to run for city council instead of mayor this year, because, in his words, even Barack Obama wouldn’t be able to displace an incumbent. He decried Orange’s contribution to dispassion through political inertia, and vowed that “One of the things I want to do if elected is more community organzing and flexing our muscles, using our power in a transformative way.

“I think I’m going to win decisively,” Marable added. “I want to win by 1,000, for even if Mayor Warren wins the next election, he won’t be mayor for the next two years. I’m a prayerful, spirit-led person, and based on my conversations, his time is short.”

Wooten
Wooten

It was a significant statement, uttered confidently by the at-large council candidate and former councilman, who senses he may soon have an opportunity for that crack at an open mayor’s seat, which eluded him in the past. In the meantime, he too has felt the hand of death nearby. The retired pastor of Elmwood Church, who married the Marables in Orange and retired to South Carolina, died in this era of COVID-19, though not from the virus. “People pass away all the time,” said Marable. “It just makes you appreciate life more. I’m glad to have a job.

“But I’ve been looking out the same window for the last few months, and it hasn’t been easy for me,” he added. “Personally, I have known many people, many local people, many good people, and losing them is a real loss.”

The Essex town with two train stations endures, albeit with its own urban NJ struggles, and the same subpar voting totals, almost predictable a week from Tuesday’s admittedly weird all-vote-by-mail election. Nothing much changes, it seems, in an election year altered by process but perhaps not by outcome, if the buzz is to be believed. Warren, on track to a win next week, after that faces the unknown, if Marable’s cryptic words prove prescient, even if the end is not county executive.

And COVID-19 still plays the worst havoc with everyone’s plans.

Politics be damned.

“It is the worst pandemic in our history, but we stepped up and led, feeding people and collaborating with the governor on many executive orders,” said the mayor.

“It has not been easy ,” Warren concurred. “My heart goes out to the familes who have lost and who suffered through it.”

pro-Warren mail piece in Orange.
Pro-Warren mail piece in Orange.

 

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