ELIZABETH – The monotonous coffin nail clang of containers on the docks sounded up the road, and beyond that, factory smoke mauled the overcast Jersey sky somewhere in the twist of Highway 9-bisected towns, and under twin spires of a neighborhood church, Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-20) strolled into the First Ward.
He was on the move today in this town where he will need significant teeth to stay alive politically.
Holley and state Senator Joe Cryan apparently never really got along, going back to the days when Holley worked for former Assemblyman Neil Cohen and they all shared an office. Relations only worsened over the years, especially after the retirement of dock front policy wonk state Senator Ray Lesniak, replaced by Cryan on the Union County Democratic Committee line in 2017.
Now Holley wants to supplant Cryan, but he must do so off the line, which is where the organization consigned him when he continued to scrap with the District 20 senator. It hurt, and it hurts. If the line is a joke in New Jersey politics, that artificial barricade that turns mob flunkeys into party bosses, who mostly prowl the Internet waiting for someone to do or say something politically incorrect while keeping the machines revving on a gluttonous diet of patronage and pork, they’re also – pending a challenger by progressive groups – very real and usually elections-determinative.
So the assemblyman, in this crammed-together urban district, figures he needs significant support, not only in his hometown of Roselle, but in neighboring Hillside and yes, critically, Elizabeth, to compete against Cryan, who starts with a very disciplined base in his home town of Union, not to mention the entire weight of the establishment at his back- and the coveted party line.
On Friday, a band of Holley diehards set out through the streets of precincts one through four, which is primarily an African American and Hispanic ward, according to Blake Dooley, a labor man with the plumbers and pipefitters and Elizabeth-based community organizer.
High unemployment, and lack of representation, said Holley.
What about COVID-19, InsiderNJ asked the senate candidate.
His mask didn’t cover his face, a few in his group roamed without them routinely affixed, and it all may have been by design -Holley has routinely questioned the experts on COVID, quibbled over mandates, and opposed state-dictated vaccine requirements for public school children – but he insisted it was just sagging with overuse.
“I follow all protocols,” he said.
A kid on a bicycle stopped in front of him and couldn’t get over the fact that the man in the glossy mail piece that the candidate passed him is actually a picture of Holley.
“There’s a lot of momentum here because people are looking for change people are looking for new representation,” the assemblyman explained. “They’re excited to have the ability to vote for an African-American senator. We want to continue to be visible, to be vocal, and let them know they have an option.”
Moments later, Holley stepped forward gallantly and rapped on the door in front of him.
He rapped again.
It creaked cautiously open and remained just wide enough for a head to appear.
“COVID,” squeaked a woman’s voice from under a mask.
Everyone in the small group froze, preparing for a gigantic spring backwards.
Then they leaped almost in unison, as soon as she clarified.
“I have COVID-19,” the woman said, and the door slammed, right before Holley managed to impart a word of sympathy.
They pressed onward, in part motivated by a new law championed by Governor Phil Murphy, which restores voting rights to more than 80,000 New Jerseyans who are on probation or parole]. “We anticipate more African Americans and Latinos voting, due to the changing of the law,” said Holley. “There are a lot of folks who haven’t had the opportunity to vote before who have the ability to vote now.”
Dooley trudged behind the assemblyman with the rest of the group – including veteran activist James Carey – to the next block of doors.
“A lot of my guys with felonies are making changes,” he told InsiderNJ. “There are good police and bad police and we’re stuck in the middle. A lot of stuff have got to change here first.”
What is the awareness level of parolees and fellow prisoners about their ability to vote under the new law?
“Probably low,” Dooley admitted. “Jamel needs to come out and let them know.”
Against the national backdrop of the Derek Chauvin trial in the killing of African American Minnesotan George Floyd, InsiderNJ asked Holley about the case. “It’s playing a part in every culture,” he said of Mr. Floyd’s killing, “but in the African American community it just brought to life what is going on in every urban community, where we have a small group of officers who commit those heinous crimes. We’re hoping we get a guilty verdict to ensure that George Floyd’s death is not in vain.”
Whatever the impact of the line in the end and the weight of a political establishment behind his
opponent that runs the flagpole of power all the way up to the governor and two sitting senators, Holley – a former Roselle mayor who has run numerous campaigns over the years – projected little to no nervousness about his ground game potential.
Samaad Bethea is working the youth organization angle for the campaign.
“A lot of the youth are excited for change,” Bethea told InsiderNJ. “We are going to continue to get him the recognition that he needs, mostly in Elizabeth. The youth here are concerned with social justice. We just want to be treated right, like everybody else. A lot of the cops are out here harassing youth, which is not good.”
They kept moving.
Block by block.
“We’re going to be out here a lot,” said Holley, looking ahead to the less than two months he has now to field a winning campaign – against the odds.
It wasn’t all grim – but the deadly cross section of COVID and Elizabeth’s underlying conditions permeated, suggesting that maybe the assemblyman’s biggest challenge will be to connect vitally and meaningfully, as in actually getting people to vote – with that part of the population that still might be able to believe the system – even if it’s just one man in power – can work for those who don’t just belong to the political machine.
A glimpse at the streets offered the image of some people seemingly focused – not on politics – but on one very difficult step at a time. On one corner in the docks-within-eyeshot neighborhood an older couple clattered into view, and a man’s voice sounded hoarsely from under the mummy wrap of his facemask.
“You had COVID – you need to get that f-king dust out of your house,” he told the woman, who staggered with him along the sidewalk in the gauzy factory proximate air, dragging – with considerable effort – a breathing apparatus on wheels.