‘The Next Station Stop is… Linden’: Mayor Armstead Makes His Case for Reelection (with Video)

Armstead

LINDEN – It seems almost bucolic, the actual NJ Transit time-transcending conductor who says, “The next station stop is: Linden,” as the train heads through an industrial Luchino Visconti-like wasteland and several people get on or off in dreary semi-irony.

The train moves on.

But to linger in Linden is to immerse oneself in politics shaped by the late John Gregorio, the Bill Musto of this factory town-bedroom community (Phillips 66 is the biggest ratable in town) at the edge of those cities at the edge of New York City, which now splits almost evenly into state Senator Nick Scutari (D-22) versus Mayor Derek Armstead.

Armstead fought the machine for years, going back to when he first nabbed a Ward 4 Council seat.

His father was a mail carrier, and his grandparents 7th Ward District 2 committee people who backed Joe Suliga for council, that Linden product who would go on to claim the District 22 Senate seat before dying in a car accident and creating the pathway for Scutari’s shot at the senate.

In 2014, Scutari tried to get along with Armstead, an unreconstructed rebel if one examines his political career. How could the senator make the newly elected mayor’s life easier?

He could get rid of Chris Hudak as the local Democratic Party chairman.

Ok, done.

Scutari did that, nothing personal. Just trying to make happy the man who beat the local machine in the Democratic Primary. Scutari made himself chairman, and Armstead seemed somewhat politically content.

But by the time he built his own majority on the council – and Linden has the biggest city council among all of New Jersey’s municipalities, incidentally, composed of an at-large council president and ten ward representatives – going from a 2-9 minority to 6-5 majority (the process was complicated) – he and Scutari felt apart.

They tried but couldn’t, and when Scutari ran for the chairmanship of the Union County Democratic Organization this year, the mayor backed his rival, Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr.

Scutari won, and now he’s trying to finish the job by stymying Armstead locally.

The senator’s choice for mayor is Gretchen Hickey, the 10th Ward councilwoman and daughter of a late police officer who was wounded in the line of duty.

A third candidate in the race, 5th Ward Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby, adds a wrinkle the mayor dismisses as Scutari and company’s cynical effort to try to divide the African American vote.

Notwithstanding Cosby’s self-proclaimed effort to run and win, the mayor says it won’t work.

“I felt Nick Scutari wanted the chairmanship for the wrong reason – and that was control,” Armstead said. “I wanted someone who was interested in moving it forward in a good and just way. That helped in my decision to support Colleen; and Colleen worked as vice chair with [the late] Jerry Green and I thought she deserved a chance to be the chair. In January, Nick Scutari endorsed me. It was the first time I had the endorsement of the political machine.

“But it was coming with a price,” he added.

He didn’t want Chairman Scutari, he insists, against the assumed backdrop of typical alien versus predator politics. But to hear Armstead tell his side of the story is to experience sweetness and light (Armstead and his city council)  versus alien (Scutari) and predator (the county).

“I’m here for a different reason, with the best of intentions,” Armstead told InsiderNJ. “I’m just not the type of a guy who wants to make deals. I took a view of this whole thing and my thought was, if the county is continuing it’s going to translate to higher taxes and the people here can’t afford higher taxes.

“We can’t afford them anymore,” he added of Union County government. “It’s painfully obvious. County taxes are going up every year.:”

But not in Linden.

“We’ve eliminated the garbage tax,” the mayor said. “Now, the naysayers said he eliminated it but he’s only going to raise taxes next year but we actually lowered taxes. I just think everybody can do better.”

Hickey and Cosby and Scutari all say he can better.

They say he’s arrogant and abusive and disrespectful.

Hickey’s ally, Councilman John Francis Roman, got into a tiff with him last week, which the mayor’s critics say showed a lurid glimpse of papered over mayoral horrors.

Armstead dismissed the alleged incident as political theater in the lead up to the June 5th Democratic Primary election.

In his office, he stayed focus on what he says are his administration’s significant accomplishments, including paving the way for the development of 360 units on contaminated land, a $1 million boon for Linden.

“We have increased our surplus by $1.4 million, and we are the only municipality in Union County that has lowered taxes,” he said, when asked about his reelection mantra. “That is it in a nutshell. I came in with nine council members working against me. If they wanted to lower taxes they could have. What I’ve had to do is campaign vigorously in the various wards to secure a council to work with me, and now I have six allies and five working against me.”

It all sounds great.

Coming off the countywide chairman’s fight, the mayor’s enemies, starting with Scutari, appear energized with two weeks to go before Election Day. They grudgingly acknowledge Armstead’s cunning, but argue he’s had other moments like the one with Roman and left people angered, humiliated and fatigued. Still, in his office on the third floor of City Hall, the mayor makes a relaxed case for why Linden has managed to keep alive – and is even surging – through the haze of post-industry that dogs or buried other similarly situated burghs along the tracks.

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