East Ward Irvington Microcosm: Two Men and One Seat – and One Mayor

In the East Ward of Irvington: Councilman Paul Inman, left, and Sean Evans.

They enjoyed one another’s company on the school board, even used the word “friend “ to relate, in the service of Irvington’s children, and yet within that bitter asylum called local politics, maybe inevitably they came apart dramatically, cruelly and, of course, very publicly. All three of them showed political promise – Tony Vauss, Paul Inman and Sean Evans – but politics promises only one thing in the end – too many players and too few thrones of power: one for each of the four wards, three at-large, and ultimately only one citywide mayor in a place called Irvington Town Hall.

That title would go to Vauss, who in bumping off incumbent Wayne Smith (2,560 to 1,259 votes) in 2014,

Vauss
Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss

also outdueled Inman (284 votes) to assume charge of the Essex County town on the eastern border of Newark. He had the deepest ties to the organization, though Inman – who served as board president when Vauss was vice prez – swears he was the one who leg-upped his pal only to get repaid with a kick in the teeth. Vauss remembers it differently. He team-played as Inman’s campaign manager in 2012 when the East Ward resident first ran for council. Then even after Inman – embittered – ran against him for mayor, Vauss found a way to overlook his off-reservation tendencies, create peace, and bring him back to Team Irvington Strong in time for the 2016 election.

Evans – himself looking to move up off the school board – wanted to run against Councilman Inman, a box store manager turned realtor.

Didn’t think he was doing a good job.

“There was a promise when the previous Councilman, Quinzell McKenzie, turned it over to Paul,” Evans recalled. “When Paul came in, he was going to make a difference. There was going to be a great difference from when Quinzell McKenzie had the ward, so he said. But Councilman McKenzie did a great job, and I expected the same thing with Paul, but it didn’t happen.”

Vauss talked him out of a run.

Inman won with the backing of the party organization.

Then it happened.

 

East Ward Councilman Inman.
East Ward Councilman Inman.

The councilman’s voice surfaced on tapes encouraging a woman to pursue legal action against the mayor, in conversations that reveal antagonism by the councilman for Vauss, bitterness over a housing authority job he wanted that went to his one-time school board friend, chest-thumping over educational credentials he says Vauss lacks, and his admission to an allegation that the mayor purchased a firearm only after he knew Inman had one. But worse than all that for Vauss’ allies was Inman’s insistence on helping this Irvington employee pursue sexual assault charges against the mayor – charges that came to naught.

They were friends – another overlapping trio of township allies – working together in the same department in town hall, before their relations soured, according to Inman, when he innocently asked a question about Vauss’ wife receiving a job as the supervisor of truancy officers. Vauss had moved up to become president of the school board when Inman became councilman. “I just asked a question and that raised some eyebrows,” he said. “All I wanted to know was if there was anyone else qualified for the position.”

Vauss said the trouble actually started after he beat Inman and became mayor, and people around him, Tamara Smith included, expected different treatment – advantages – because they knew him and now he had augmented power. “She had me in places while I was in other places,” the mayor said of the charges against him. “The charge went from inappropriate touching to assault. Not only did she lose the case. They made her pay me [$7,000] for lying.”

Inman insisted he didn’t collude with Smith. She called him to bad-mouth Vauss, and he didn’t know she was recording him. “I never said anything inappropriate,” the councilman said. “I just told her, ‘You need to seek legal advice,’ which is the same advice I would give anyone who calls me. I might have shared how I felt about the mayor, but that’s no secret. I told him directly.”

But Vauss’ legal team proved the councilman did cross the line in his conversations with Smith, insist his own ambitions prevented him from bubbling over with strategic insight into getting rid of the mayor, and after the transcripts of those calls became public after the election in 2016, Inman began hard-bucking the team.

“He had voted for every budget before then,” said the mayor. “That’s when he went rogue.”

Inman has already won his seat back, however.

That was four years ago.

A 2020 RECKONING

Originally home to goofball genius comedian Jerry Lewis, Irvington, with a $100 million local budget, is a tough town, and the East arguably its most challenging ward. It suffers more fires, more homelessness, more home invasions, more muggings, more car-jackings, and more abandoned properties than the other wards, its foreclosure woes intensified in the aftermath of the 2008 housing market crash.

When the council considered an application to the FBI to recognize Vauss with an award for reducing crime, Inman- as usual since that phone conversations flareup – voted no. “The residents are frustrated,” he explained. “They’re not getting the results they want. I couldn’t in good faith give the man an award with an award.”

But Vauss said the ward has, in fact, experienced a reduction in homicides.

If the ward is struggling, it’s Inman’s fault, he added.

“The East is one of the wards in need of the most help,” Vauss acknowledged, “but redevelopment plans are set to go. I need the representative over there to do his part, and right now, the representative of the East Ward is not participating. He doesn’t represent the East Ward as he should.”

So now Vauss backs olf friend Evans, principal of Berkeley Terrace Elementary School, a Plainfield

Sean Evans, East Ward Council candidate.
Sean Evans, East Ward Council candidate.

native who moved to Irvington in 1999, around the time he began his career in education in the Newark Public Schools. Holder of a Master’s Degree from St. Peter’s University in Jersey City, he comes from a family of educators.

He doesn’t mind getting political.

“Our councilman is not doing the things that are necessary to make sure the people’s needs are met,” Evans told InsiderNJ. “He’s just voting no on everything. He voted no on payroll. Who votes no on payroll? Look, I get it, you can’t be a rubber stamp. But you can’t vote no to vote no. The East Ward really can become the jewel of Irvington. We sit along the border of Newark, but that’s not a bad thing. Newark is the biggest economic engine in this area. I really feel the East Ward councilman plays a key role. I think we need to have multiple unit developments, definitely targeting low-income residents in terms of home ownership, but mixed and higher income opportunities as well.”

Vauss likes him a lot.

“Great role model,” says the mayor, who enlisted the assistance of multiple heavyweights to end their voices in support of his East Ward candidate, among them Governor Phil Murphy, U.S Senator Cory Booker, U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-10), and state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28).

Evans also has the backing of the teachers and firefighters.

Inman was especially irritated by Booker’s support for his rival.

But he tries to take it in stride.

“I have the residents who live here,” the councilman told InsiderNJ. “They know me. They came and got petitions from me. They’re getting other folks to vote. Cory Booker doesn’t live here. That said, I’m really disappointed. I went to meetings, I gave him my card and reached out. Not once did he get back to me about issues in Irvington. I just thought since he himself had a background of dealing with a troubled ward [when he served as councilman of Newark’s Central Ward], that he would reach out, and he hasn’t.”

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) also refused to throw in with Inman after a phone call from the councilman.

Vauss backs Evans, so why would Menendez back Inman?

That’s Essex party politics.

Playing through the pain: Vauss, right, and Inman.
Playing through the pain: Vauss, right, and Inman.

A Jersey City native who, like Evans, moved to Irvington in 1999, the intransigent Inman decried what he calls “no leadership from our mayor” through the COVID-19 crisis, and panned what he said was Vauss’ overtly political move to hand out PPE supplies to ally Evans for distribution and stubbornly  resisting communications with his least favorite councilperson.  “He wasn’t prepared to handle this crisis, which was frustrating and frightening,” said Inman, and though he lauded the office of the Essex County Executive, he seethes at the sight of the mayor’s picture on senior buses and city sweepers.

Vauss said Inman signed off on that image when they were still supposed allies – at least publicly.

“He didn’t have a problem lending a vote of confidence back then,” said the mayor.

Built by the late D. Bilal Beasely, who in some significant way mentored all three of them – Inman, Vauss and Evans – though backed Vauss for the mayoralty, Team Irvington Strong lives up to its name as a potent party organization locally under the mayor’s leadership. Run off the ponderosa, Inman has allied himself with other anti-establishment candidates, including Al-Tariq Shabazz in the South Ward and Destin Nicolas in the West, but Vauss says only a common foe unites them.

South Ward Councilwoman Jamillah Beasley is running in Irvington's Nov. 5th Special Election against Al-tariq Ibn Shabazz.
REMATCH: South Ward Councilwoman Jamillah Beasley is again running in Irvington’s Nov. 5th Special Election against Al-tariq Ibn Shabazz. Beaseley beat Shabazz in a special election last year by 300 votes. Now Shabazz is aligned with Inman.

 

As elsewhere, the virus poses almost insurmountable campaign obstacles and remains an X factor leading up to the May 5th 5 p.m. deadline for voters to submit their vote-by-mail ballots. Furnished with stamped and self-addressed ballots, will more registered voters than usual participate in this year’s election, thereby derailing Team Irvington’s usual dominance?

There’s a little bit of a jittery feeling in the establishment.

“I really believe that had COVID-19 not occurred, there would be no doubt about the results,” said Evans. “I had plans to go to every district, and now I’m relegated to trying to make phone calls, leaving messages on voice mails and sometimes getting no call backs. I’m hoping people will want the change, but I sure wish I could have run a knock-on-doors-style campaign.”

The three men who once shared the responsibilities of the school board have now become two against one, with Evans firmly entrenched in the Vauss camp.

“I am amazed at the things the mayor has done, including reduction in crime, and police who are more active,” Evans said. “Growing up in Plainfield, no one was fearful of the police, and I feel like that’s returning to Irvington.”

Still, Irvington High School students who graduate but don’t immediately go to college generally have trouble finding jobs, now doubly clubbed by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. “People are just trying to figure out how to eat, how to work and how to stay healthy,” said Inman, in a town where the virus has claimed the lives of 125 Irvington residents, among them Big Blue, who ran the 43rd Street Café, and catered to political events.

For all the devious, defiant and destructive optics of political war, Vauss and Inman did have one mutual friend.

Sallie Oliver insisted on voting for both of them, even though each separately urged her to abandon the

Team Irvington Strong at historic HQ on Chancellor Avenue.
Team Irvington Strong at historic HQ on Chancellor Avenue.

other. She wouldn’t do it. She backed Vauss for mayor, with Inman in her ear advising otherwise, then turned around and insisted on Inman for council over Vauss’ entreaties. Even in the midst of their own tortured rivalry, years old now, and four years out in the open, they could always count on her support.

But not anymore.

Ms. Oliver died of COVID-19 complications this year before she had a chance to record her vote in her hometown election. Apparently hopeful of some kind of reconciliation, oblivious to the sulfuric divide between the two sides, or maybe just willfully, hopefully insistent, she would have voted for Inman, says one who knew her well, though she backed Vauss and Team Irvington Strong.

Father and son Shabazz in Irvington.
Father and son Shabazz in Irvington.
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