It’s a touchable and semi-walkable town, full of old school Jersey flavor, deprived now of eyeball to
eyeball campaign season interaction, leaving Belleville at the mercy of a darker, snarkier Facebook version of itself, in addition, to hear Mayor Mike Melham tell it, to the bumbling nefarious interference of the U.S. Post Office.
“I called for a Federal investigation,” said Melham, “and the inspector general and postal police are currently in Belleville conducting and investing into missing and undelivered ballots.
“The post office is just inept,” the mayor added. “The fact that we left democracy in the hands of the post office is just tragic.”
Democracy, in this case, is a scheduled May 12th nonpartisan ward election marking Melham’s mayoral midterm. Having beaten the late Mayor Ray Kimble in 2018, he has a majority of allies on the town council, but he and veteran First Ward Councilwoman (once the mayor’s ally) Marie Strumolo-Burke clashed early and often.
Democracy, it is said, ain’t bean bag, and so this cycle would not pass without a showdown, even if unconventionally and counterintuitively virtual, as this one is, in an Essex County town defined by hard physical demarcations. Even the global phenomenon of America’s answer to the Beatles could not remove the considerable, jagged shadow of neighboring Newark over Belleville, or break up the parochialism of its neighborhoods, unto themselves miniature towns: the Valley, Silver Lake, the Hill, the 2nd Ward.
So if labor leader Carmine Mattia actually inhabits that challenger’s position on the Belleville ballot, Melham – who serves as Mattia’s campaign treasurer – looms behind him, and wants the First Ward councilwoman gone. “She’s from a bygone era,” Melham said of Stromolo-Burke. “She’s not prepared. I got along with her for a while and then she just turns on you. She just doesn’t understand. She’s an ignorant woman.”
If she’s from another era, it’s an era of caring, the councilwoman insists.
“I’ve been an elected official for almost 16 year, and basically I’m not a politician,” she told InsiderNJ.
“I’m always been there for the people, giving food, lending money. The guy he put up against me, I can beat him 15-1, if it’s head-to-head, but the mayor’s involved here. Why? I went against him when I did not want to raise taxes and opposed his 30-year pilot program for four-story high-rises. I did that and he banished me from his kingdom.
“Ever since, he has treated me like a second-class citizen – me, a woman in her seventies. I’m no spring chicken – even if I may look like one,” Strumolo-Burke said with a laugh. “I do my job and I deserve to win.”
Mattia, 59, thinks he deserves to win.
Like the councilwoman, he hails from the Silver Lake part of the First Ward, that iconic corner of the town that hugs the North Ward of Newark. An Italian immigrant bastion, it was once part of Newark, and remains home to the Belmont Tavern, which, pre-coronavirus, was packed every Friday and Saturday night. The homes run to the sidewalks, unlike northern Belleville, which is heavier on yards. Mattia always voted for Strumolo-Burke, he told InsiderNJ. But now, “She’s older,” he said. “She doesn’t do the things that a councilperson needs to do. It’s time for the old guard to say, ‘I did my job.’ Me, I don’t want to be a politician. I am the last house in Belleville. I’m right on the border. I’ve yelled at Mayor Michael Melham. I have told Mike Melham, ‘The place looks like a s-hole.’ I went to Marie. I went to her about the parking problem.”
She didn’t work with him, he said.
He went to her about the deterioration in the neighborhood.
She didn’t work with him, he said.
“The streets are a mess, and that goes to the councilperson who runs it,” said Mattia, who pays $17K annually in property taxes. “Being the councilperson is not about throwing a party. It goes to working with people. Ms. Burke only works with people she likes. The mayor? The mayor’s one of the smartest people I’ve met. Street smart. Book smart. Management smart. He knows where we want to be next year.”
Strumolo-Burke just doesn’t see it that way.
She doesn’t think much of the mayor, in fact.
Too much ego, in her view.
“He’s just not a nice person,” she said of Melham.
The collision runs deep, and ultimately probably goes to questions about control and independence, but development sits partly at the center of their feud.
The mayor came into office with ambitious plans to boost ragged Belleville – pop. roughly 36K with a budget of $72 million – out of the past, championing mixed use pilots for 1,500 units, in clumps of 100 each. “Belleville doesn’t have a spending problem, we have an income problem,” said the mayor. “We’re certainly going to redevelop our way out. Look, I’m a fiscal conservative.”
But the inveterate old school Strumolo-Burke describes the mayor’s vision as “overkill.”
Now, with less than a week to go for voters to fill out their vote by mail (VBM) ballots and mail them to the Essex County Clerk’s Office, those competing visions and personalities are being put to the test within the brutal context of a global pandemic that has battered Belleville. Strumulo-Burke’s brother Pete has been on a ventilator for over a month, and her son also tested COVID-19 positive. Once her running mate and now an ally of the mayor, 2nd Ward Councilman Steve Rovell’s son – a sergeant on the local police department – suffered through the virus. And Melham himself said he thinks he had it back in November of 2019, more than two months before the first confirmed U.S. COVID case; “patient zero,” an impatient rival sneers. They’re all struggling through it, and, in Rovell’s words, trying to cope with the fact that they can’t reach out and touch someone.
“I’m Italian, I’m touchy feely,” complained the councilman.
Still, he doesn’t face the campaign workout that Strumolo-Burke does.
“The guy running against me was two years old when I first got on the council,” admitted Rovell, a nearly 16-year veteran of the governing body, same as Strumolo-Burke.
He won’t use the words “walk in the park,” but it’s close.
Meanwhile, the mayor and the councilwoman can’t socially distance from each other, even when it
comes to COVID-19. Strumolo Burke’s decision to give out bags with toilet paper, masks and gloves, prompted public health howls from the opposition; just as Melham’s moving forward with city hall weddings created a scandal among the Strumolo-Burke crowd.
“The governor said no door to door,” Mattia said. “If she did this at beginning of the pandemic, fine. But she did it during, which she was not supposed to do.
“She says it’s all about elping people?” the challenger added incredulously. “It’s an election year.”
Deprived of the usual bear-hugging procedures of a Belleville election, however, wouldn’t the odds favor Mattia, backed by a mayor whose company, AlphaDog, builds campaign and election software? Indeed, Melham won in 2018 (when Strumolo-Burke backed him, incidentally) on the strength of his VBM output. Votes returned to the clerk’s office earlier yesterday already exceeded the 650 cast in the last ward election – with five days to go.
What does it mean?
“I’m viewed around here as the vote-by-mail expert, I get it,” Melham said. “People think this is my race to lose.
“But,” he added, “consider how many challengers actually win. Think about it. With what’s going on right now, you can’t raise money. You can’t have a rally. You can’t campaign traditionally. Incumbents with name ID are virtually impossible to beat. But that said, I like challenges. I would have loved to have slugged it out in the streets. We’re good at doorbells. That’s what we do. Everybody thought the mayor [Ray Kimble] was untouchable, and I won. I took two newbies to town hall. I unseated the president and incumbents – one a 16-year incumbent. Carmine is endorsed by every member of the council.”
Still, to his point about the potency of incumbency in this crisis right now, Strumolo-Burke started the cycle with $20K and reports a closing balance of $5.5K, compared to Mattia’s $8K to start and his $5.4K on hand. “She’s engrained over there, a source – a Belleville diehard – told InsiderNJ.
The town’s changed from the days of blue collar Irish and Italian dominance.
There are 35 different nationalities represented there now, at least. “The town’s 50% Hispanic,” said an old schooler doubtful of Mattia’s chances against Strumolo-Burke. “The mayor should have run an Hispanic candidate.” Still, Mattia’s labor clout as business agent and executive board member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 827, give him cred of another kind, his backers argue.
Finally, Melham hopes those new voters who come out in this COVID-19 election fiercely object to a councilwoman who in 2014 was quoted in her kitchen uttering the “N” word. The councilwoman, for her part, doesn’t deny she said it but points out that helping people is her whole reason for being; that when the house of a black woman burned down, she stayed with the councilwoman. If imperfect, if competing in the ultimate virtual election as a living emblem of another time, Strumolo-Burke says Melham is selfish, and he and even the man he handpicked to run against her are more interested in development than the public good. Mattia, Strumolo-Burke’s allies note, last year wanted to build 18 one-bedroom townhouses, a project denied by the town’s zoning officer.
“Me, I leave food outside for people who are hungry, that’s what I do,” said the councilwoman. “They know me.”
Running hard with five days to go, even if it’s in place on the cellphone with the town on lockdown, Mattia says the ward needs more.
“I’m about fixing the streets, making it safe and getting some properties built,” said the IBEW local leader. “I grew up during the Newark riots. I get elected in my unit of 800 people, which is 85% African-American, five percent Caucasian, and 10% Hispanic. I get elected because I treat everyone the same. We sit on the border of Newark. I have a very good relationship with Mayor Ras Baraka – through my union. I’m educated and I’m not a racist. No one has ever said to me, ‘You’re a racist.’ And I’m with people all day who call a spade a spade.”
It’s an election year.
Downbeat, but still a little easily excitable.
This town, this place where the usual magical political watering hole The Chandelier is now temporarily closed, the town that once gave the world the Four Seasons, who 50 years ago confused their doo-wop fans with a pop art masterpiece called Genuine Imitation of Life Gazette, fulfills its destiny as one of those experimental NJ places either on course for an unconventional process victory or the guillotine of a May 12th COVID-19 election.
“I told the governor’s office, ‘You need to adjust some things,’” he told InsiderNJ. “I told them, ‘You need to be able to vote provisionally on Election Day. Let the municipal clerk’s office stay open. They needed to have been able to receive votes provisionally on a walk-in basis. As it is now, the chips are stacked against challengers. I told the governor’s office, ‘You would have never let this happen in a primary election. You don’t care about nonpartisan elections.”
For his part, running for a fifth term in office, this time without the late Ray Kimble, the man who got
him into politics to begin with, without the late Kevin Kennedy, his and Strumolo-Burke’s running mate, who went down with the mayor in 2018 amid his own always controversial views, and without Strumbolo-Burke, who’s running on her own this year against a reconfigured City Hall, Councilman Rovell prays the rosary, prays that his police sergeant son will be okay, and thinks, a little bitterly, but with an eye to rebuilding Belleville and the environs when the scourge ends, about the area hospitals that closed post-911, burdening those that remain – including Clara Maass in the first ward – and deepening the crisis in his suffering but surviving hometown.
“You know why my brother’s still alive?” Strumolo-Burke asked.
“Because he’s strong,” she said, with a sister’s pride.