BLOOMFIELD – It had all the potential to turn into the political version of a gory Braveheart battle scene, and then came off in the end like a choir of angels singing in full-throated Essex County unison.
Even former Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) – the ultimate unreconstructed rebel and county antagonist – appeared buoyed by the outcome, as Irvington Council President, transformed by the moment and forthwith, into Senator-elect Renee Burgess, descended from the stage at Bloomfield College and embraced her predecessor in the LD28 senate seat.
Going in, the faint murmur of war drums sounded in the vicinity of Senator Rice, retiring after 36 years, who worked to try to get Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker (D-28) the seat.
“We tried, but we didn’t have the votes,” Rice told InsiderNJ.
Prior to the meeting, where Irvington sat on one side of the room and Newark sat on the other, Tucker, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-28) and Tucker’s son, Kiburi, sat near Rice down in front, center, with other key dignitaries.
Assemblywoman Tucker said at the moment that she backed Burgess for the seat.
There would be no fight.
Everyone backed Burgess.
She would win the seat by unanimous acclimation.
Summoned to the stage by Essex County Democratic Chairman LeRoy Jones and making a dramatic entrance down through throngs of overjoyed Irvington delegates, the Irvington Council
President thanked the chairman, the governor, Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss – “a great man, and a great leader”; Baseemah Beasley; the Irvington Democratic Committee Chair; and Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, among others – including Irvington Strong.
“Senator Rice, many people have said I can’t fill your shoes and you know what, I can’t, but I am sure I can have a pair right next to yours [with the help of the people in the room),” Burgess said. “I will do my very best and I pray you will be by my side.”
Then she turned to Tucker.
“I have no words for the gratitude,” she told the assemblywoman. “Thank you. God bless you.”
After the event, they embraced, long and hard, centerstage.
It was a big, resounding win for Irvington, years in the making through campaigns and elections faced and won, which tonight enabled the organizationally savvy Vauss and his allies to claim the senate seat held for nearly four decades by legendary independent operator Rice of neighboring Newark.
It was also a significant win for Chairman Jones – who doubles as the state party chair – who got behind Burgess’ candidacy even though Rice wanted Tucker and Newark Mayor Ras Baraka never formally endorsed anyone amid rumors that he would support Tucker, largely on the strength of Rice’s endorsement but also because he and Jones don’t completely gel politically.
It was, after all, U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11) sitting in the front row next to DiVincenzo tonight, and Baraka not in attendance.
Insiders say Jones favors Sherrill as the next governor.
Evidently, Baraka wants to run for governor.
It’s a conflict, one the rivals of Essex power hope will balloon into a political catastrophe. Other pockets of power in the state wouldn’t mind seeing the mighty Essex segmented.
But the Newark mayor’s stout ally, South Ward Councilman (and South Ward Democratic Committee Chair) Pat Council, let the whole room know early that even the would-be Burgess-antagonistic wing of the committee stood with Burgess.
Council walked up onstage when Jones asked the crowd if anyone had any questions and it looked for a moment like Council was prepared to lecture the chairman. Jones seemed to think so, as he broke into Council’s speech and asked if there was a question.
Council put Burgess’ name into nomination, causing the crowd – particularly that portion of the crowd to the right of the stage – to erupt in applause.
Irvington was sitting over there.
Jones actually ended up calling for two motions.
First, he secured the committee’s backing for Burgess to occupy the seat Rice left when he retired at the end of August.
The second puts Burgess’ name on the ballot in November , which would allow her to serve the balance of Rice’s term, to the end of next year.
“This was about unity and coming together for all the serious issues we have to confront,” Council told InsiderNJ.
Navigating the back of the room in understated fashion, Vauss looked like a strong mayor.
Jones looked like a strong chairman.
He has an ally now in Burgess in the seat, and – after next year – a coming second strong senate ally in the 34th in Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake; and sitting 29th District senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29).
Political catastrophes be damned, the chairman seemed to say, as he choked up at the end, awarding Rice with a plaque for his service, and beckoned the room to honor the retired senator with a long and sustained standing ovation.
“I believe tonight ushers in new leadership that gives us hope for a better tomorrow,” Jones told InsiderNJ. “It also sunset the career of unparalleled commitment, dedication, service to city, county, state, and country by an African American hero and an institution of justice. His name is Ronald Rice.”
Irvington Strong worked for years to put the organization in an advantageous position, and Burgess and Vauss after the convention led a contingent of raucous partygoers from the Essex town over to a martini bar in South Orange to celebrate. “This was an historic win for Irvington, which has never had a senator from the 28th District,” the mayor told InsiderNJ.
He lingered outside, happy and proud.
Looking ahead to assuming the oath of office in Trenton, Burgess told InsiderNJ she wants to focus on healthcare for senior citizens and the disadvantaged, and on the expansion of voting rights for all citizens. “Absolutely,” she said, when asked if she sees her victory as an opportunity to broaden the impact and organizational influence of Team Irvington Strong, which starts with voter education and mobilization.
One of the people she thanked tonight at the podium was her daughter, and an hour removed from her victory, she had a message for young women.
“Stay strong,” Burgess said. “Get educated, yes – but don’t forget to help people. Help yourself, but help other people. Don’t forget them. And – I’m not afraid to say it – don’t forget that higher power.”
Others in attendance in the packed auditorium of Bloomfield College tonight included:
At-Large Newark Councilman Larry Crump
Attorney Sarah Jones
Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin
Essex County Commissioner Rufus Johnson
Phil Alagia, chief of staff to DiVincenzo
Newark Central Ward Chairman Andre Speight
North Ward Democratic Chairman Sammy Gonzalez
Former Assemblyman Craig Stanley
East Orange Mayor Ted Green –
and Jackie Jones, wife of the chairman.
“Renee C. Burgess has an extensive background in leadership and public service through elected and
appointed positions in government as well as employment in the private sector. A lifelong resident of Irvington, New Jersey, she has served the community as a member of the Irvington Township Municipal Council since 2014. Her path to elected office began in 2000 when she became the District Leader for Irvington’s South 2. Burgess later was elected to the Irvington School Board, a position she held longer than any other member to date (2003-2014). Her performance on the Board was acknowledged by her colleagues when she was chosen by them to become the Vice President of the Board for one year and the Board’s President for two terms. During her tenure on the Irvington School Board, Burgess was successful in leading the initiative for uniforms to be worn by all students of the school district. She was also a prime proponent of the school district’s football field which is a place of pride for the community.
“In addition to these accomplishments, Burgess founded and is the president of the Thurgood Marshall Area Block Association and is the Committee Chair of the Irvington South Ward Democratic Committee. In 2014, Burgess was bestowed the honor and responsibility of serving Irvington when she was elected to the Irvington Municipal Council as Council Member-At-Large, which provides her a platform from which to serve all residents and business-owners of the township. She was re-elected to the position of Council Member-At-Large in 2018. On October 15, 2019, Burgess was appointed to serve as the President of the Municipal Council.”