In Hard-Nosed Belleville, Kimble Must Handle Two Grassroots Challengers on May 8th

BELLEVILLE – “Gritty” might be a generous adjective to describe a place where a windy day could mean getting slapped in the face with a piece of trash, and yet there’s still some rickety effort at civilization in Essex County’s Belleville, scene of a May 8th Mayoral Contest.

At a Saturday morning book sale in the local public library, a yellowed, ragged Clive Cussler novel appears wedged between bound legal volumes and Encyclopedia Brown soft covers. It’s for sale, arguably giving evidence of something. To be fair, the town struggles (or doesn’t) to get out from underneath whatever influence Newark has at any given time, inevitably living with the consequences of being the little neglected brother of New Jersey’s terminally ill-disposed bad boy.

Mount Prospect spills northward out of Brick City’s North Ward until it gets truncated on Mill Street, which staggers up to Belleville Avenue. Hook a right and eventually you end up on a Town Hall-anchored Washington Avenue overcrowded with names like Dollar Store, Dirty Laundry and Popeyes. The flag of Ireland flaps frantically in the breeze in front of that centrally organizing monolith housing local government. A bust of Christopher Columbus adorns the sidewalk. Houses that look shoveled on top of one another with cement that barely dried before they went live rise over the shoulders of Town Hall just across the river in the scrap of Bergen crunched between Essex and Hudson.

Mayor here since 2006, Ray Kimble wants a fourth term, and has some heft on his side as he eyes May

Kimble

8th Election Day. He’s a former police chief and former town manager. His campaign lit burnish those biographical pieces as evidence of local statesmanship. He also has the on-paper usually high-five inducing incumbent’s leg up of – not one – but two challengers in the contest; in this case, former Councilman Michael Melham and School Board Trustee Liza Lopez.

But will this be the year Belleville breaks out of the old mold?

That’s the question on the streets.

Home to a dedicated band of white ethnics roughly very chopped between those visible emblems outside Town Hall, Belleville steps constantly at the edges of recognizing its exploding Hispanic population. Ten years ago, Elvin Pereira, a Newark North Ward transplant, and the late P.J. Mac Donald, a Belleville diehard, waged one of the all-time local contests, with the former careful to acknowledge his Irish American fiancé, and the latter noting – with pride – his Hispanic niece. Mac Donald barely won, using labor muscle to turn back Pereira and reminding voters that if they went with the Steve Adubato acolyte they might as well vote to replace Belleville Town Hall with the North Ward Center.

Kimble stood with Mac Donald back then, and has since twice won reelection.

In 2013, a year ahead of his own race, the mayor backed the reelection of Republican Governor Chris Christie, partly to stop-gap that part of his politics that never lined up neatly with powerful Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, another North Ward Center political creation. The executive was a big Christie ally. Kimble backing Christie probably ensured that the organization wouldn’t send another Elvin Pereira up to his backyard to campaign against him. It delayed Belleville’s utter submission to becoming a satellite of Adubato World.

But it didn’t remove the inevitable bubbling up of local politics.

Lopez

An attorney who comes to the dance without the North Ward Center connection, Lopez wants better communication between the schools and Town Hall, not only to obviously bolster the future of the children, but to improve a somewhat down on its heels town where people everywhere on the campaign trail tell her they’re at the verge of pulling out of Belleville.  

“As a trustee of the Belleville School Board I have had an inside look at the neglect of the schools,” Lopez told InsiderNJ. She noted a $48.3 million bond referendum to fix nine school buildings in town. “In order for those projects to go through, you need a healthy, symbiotic relationship between the town and the schools.”

Lopez’s father bought his Belleville home when Lopez was 18. The mayoral candidate grew up in New York City. She went to school in Puerto Rico, and worked as a community organizer in the South Bronx. She received her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology and moved into town when she was going to law school. She served as associate counsel to the Newark public schools.

She’s running an animated grassroots campaign. She has some connective tissue to Pablo Fonseca, the-operative formerly known as Chief-of-Staff to Senator (then-Newark Mayor) Cory Booker. 

On Saturday, InsiderNJ observed happily deployed sidewalk-marching Lopez Campaign volunteers in maroon t-shirts.

“We’re pounding the pavement and letting people know they have an option,” said Lopez. “I want to make people’s lives better, and as part of that we need to revitalize Washington Avenue. We’ve knocked on over 10,000 doors, and we hear the same things repeatedly. Property taxes are egregious and people are thinking about leaving.”

They’re playing in part on national Trump moods dopplegangered locally.

Kevin Kennedy, a councilman on the ticket with Kimble, has posted some infamously inflammatory statements on Facebook, at one point referring to U.S. Representatives Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Walters as “these two bitches… auditioning for Saturday Night Live.” At least one close Kimble confidant told the mayor he had to pull the plug on Kennedy, but he didn’t. For all his loathsome social media predilections, Kennedy’s a good politician, who’s the first person to show up with a card of condolence or that concerned phone call when someone in a political circle is up against it. Amid catcalls, Kennedy’s running for reelection with Kimble.

“He constantly makes disparaging remarks,” Lopez said of Kennedy. “I don’t understand that. As an elected official you have to be sensitive to all members in your community. As I’ve knocked on doors I’ve talked to every walk of life – African Americans, senior citizens, South Asians. Everyone expresses a similar sentiment, which is they say yes to change. That is the general sentiment.”  

Then there’s Melham.

Melham

The other challenger runs a company called AlphaDog, which holds 20+ government contracts for municipal communications, and builds campaign and election software. His 6,000 sq/ft commercial building, adjacent to Town Hall, located in the heart of Belleville’s main thoroughfare, Washington Avenue, remains unfinished and deteriorating, a case of political retaliation, according to the mayoral candidate.

In 2015, Melham filed a federal lawsuit against the Township, which, in part, alleged the Township Manager was holding his position illegally. As a result of the evidence presented, multiple government agencies immediately stepped in and asked for the Manager’s reluctantly provided resignation.

“They say you can’t fight City Hall. I not only fought City Hall, but took on the Township Manager, Township Attorney and several members of the governing body at the same time, and so far, I’ve won,” Melham said at his kickoff last year. “I plan on using that same vigor to fight for every taxpayer and resident who feels they don’t have a voice. I will stand up for them, the same way I stood up for myself.

“My building is literally a microcosm of everything wrong with Belleville,” he added, referring specifically to the near-collapse of Washington Avenue. “From the lack of leadership and vision, to old-school mindsets, to the way current elected officials use their positions to settle personal and political vendettas. It’s over. I believe in a Better Belleville, that’s why I want to be Mayor.”

In a three-way contest with no runoff election, one source said he believes Lopez has a clear shot, with the two white males dividing the vote and allowing the attorney to ride fast-emerging demographic advantages. But Melham has poured real money into the contest: $24,000 according to his state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) report on hand in January. He’s running a real vote-by-mail effort to squeeze our every conceivable loose change vote. There’s also the fact that Kimble – who should have the fortification of Town Hall in his corner at the very least – this year lacks the services of a jammed-up Richard Yanuzzi, a local Boss Tweed-like figure and Steve Adubato-of-Belleville candidate who for years got the vote out for his Town Hall pal. But Kimble still has more money than Melham – $41,000, according to his last ELEC report.

Kimble could not be reached for comment.

Having warred with him, made up with him, then endured the rank public displays of social media candor by Kimble cohorts, DiVincenzo, state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29) and Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones are staying out of the trenches here, letting Kimble fight his own wars and probably trusting – in Ruiz’s home district – in a status quo result, so that they can eventually put more commanding fingerprints on whomever next occupies Town Hall.

Grassroots creations, Melham and Lopez lack that connective tissue to the establishment.

But, in the words of one insider, if the winner isn’t Kimble, that person can expect a personal visit by the county powers that be at some point, and the proffered hand of an Essex-wide family otherwise known as the Democratic Party.

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7 responses to “In Hard-Nosed Belleville, Kimble Must Handle Two Grassroots Challengers on May 8th”

  1. Wake up, Belleville residents of every ethnic stripe! The last two paragraphs of this article tells it all. The Essex County powerbrokers and the North Newark politicians are attempting to take control of our Township. For a “Better Belleville”? Not so. For lowering the “egregious” property taxes? Nada! The REAL truth of this election is to take control of $130 MILLION of our hard earned dollars. The $130 MILLION is the total of the Municipal and the Board of Education budgets. Control of these millions dictate who gets the plum jobs and what contractors get the lucrative Township contracts, not to mention the professionals who will be feeding on our tax dollars.
    Melham, the former Belleville Councilman, is running to be developers “front man”, allowing high density apartments to destroy our suburban character. As a Councilman, his plan to overdevelop the Valley section of town, destroying our industrial base, and using eminent domain to take the homes of long time residents, met with huge resistance. Belleville citizens formed a citizens group to fight Melham’s hostile plan. The good citizens won and sent Melham packing.
    The other challenger, Liza Lopez, has no real ties to Belleville. She admits she grew up in New York, was schooled in Puerto Rico, and was on “organizer” in the South Bronx. She is supported by a political operative, Pablo Fonseca, who is running candidates in Belleville, Paterson, Jersey City, and possibly some other municipalities. She appears to be a “carpetbagger” who stormed into Belleville last year to win a THREE YEAR seat on our Belleville Board of Education. Serving only one year of that term, she is now seeking to abandon the Board of Education, with two years left in her term, to take the Mayoral seat. If successful, she will cause disruption in the BOE and cost taxpayers the expense of a special election. Rumor has it she is contemplating moving on a fast track to take Senator Theresa Ruiz’s seat in the New Jersey General assembly. For-warned is for-armed, belleville residents.

    • Wow Mr.Frantantoni. Rumors are the root to all evil. Or wait that’s Money. Isn’t that what you are all about. Maybe invest some of it in your run down wash and fold instead of complaining about Washington Ave. Or perhaps fix it since you seem to have a construction company. Rumors Rumors Rumors. Mrs. Lopez has NO INTENTIONS of running against our Great Senator. When she gets elected they will work together for the betterment of Belleville. It’s sad how you are so evil. It’s people like you that make this great town look grim. If you don’t like the situation in Belleville and the change that’s coming You and Mr. Kennedy can shack up in an apartment together in a non racist town. By the way for anyone reading this This happens to be the same Frantantoni that ran multiple times for Council with no platform and lost. Last but not least. (RIP) Our Councilman PJ. Unarguably One of the greatest Councilmen to hit Belleville politics. Which Mr Frantantoni did not support. Yes Belleville Wake up and accept the change Mrs.Pruznak said it best. Stop the racism, rumors,and 12 year politicans that are all of a sudden being backed by Frantantoni. Lets vote for a new change for ALL of us.

      • So based on the reasoning Mr. .Frantantoni, someone who has lived in the city of Belleville for the last 30 years can NOT participate as a candidate in an election in this city?
        Wow … What a retrograde mentality!
        Now I understand why people, instead of moving to Belleville to build a future, are moving away from here. The taxes are so high that in any real estate website you can find more than 250 foreclosures in Belleville.

        Mr .Frantantoni let me EDUCATE you …
        Mrs. Lopez’s father has been living in the same house for 32 years. She herself owns a home in Belleville and has been contributing to the tax base for the past 8 years. Her stepdaughter has been at Belleville Public School since first year.
        And this conspiracy theory about Pablo Fonseca is tired!
        Fonseca is a political consultant and he gets paid to run campaigns. Of course he’s working campaigns in different towns, that’s business. The fact that he’s in different towns simply means that he’s the best at what he does!
        Quite clearly, you have your facts wrong. Including this rumor you are attempting to start about “moving on fast track to take Senator Theresa Ruiz seat”
        I’m not going to go back and forth but I could not stay quit and let people be misled.

        People must support those candidates who have the education and ability to develop and hold the community together regardless of race, sex or skin color because a divided community never brings good results for anyone.

  2. Mr. Pizzaro, as much truth as you have written in this piece, I have to take issue with your descriptions of Belleville as “gritty,” with “rickety efforts at civilization,” and your description of a “near-collapse” of Washington Avenue.

    Are you confusing Belleville with, say, Camden, or maybe South Central Los Angeles?

    Belleville is a small town with a rich history. It has had to face the challenges of de-industrialization, political bosses and machines fighting over political control, and the effects of the 2008 recession, but at heart it is a great town with good people.

    Just like any other town, Belleville has its problems and there are good, active citizens who want those problems addressed and will hold accountable the political leadership to do so. If either Melham or Lopez win the mayor’s seat after May 8th, they will be treated no differently than Kimble has been by engaged citizens who want the best for Belleville and its citizens.

    • That’s right! Stand up for OUR Belleville! We’ve got problems, as do all other places. But I would not live anywhere else. Where else may we comfortably and respectfully, share our honest opinions/perspectives?

  3. My Uncle, P.J MacDonald didn’t barley win, He won and had he lived he would have changed Belleville for the good, He would have embarrassed change in the town his parents called home , He would have been a voice for the people, I find it sad that this town can not move on,evolve, except change and grow.

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