Paterson In-Focus: Councilwoman Ruby Cotton Runs for a 4th Term

PATERSON – Running for a fourth term in the Fourth Ward, Councilwoman Ruby Cotton prides herself on working hard, and working with others, qualities reinforced in those summers of her childhood when she toiled sunup to sundown with her sharecropper uncle, brothers, sisters, and cousins, in the cotton fields of Bishopville, South Carolina.

Growing up in Paterson brought out that other lesson from her ancestors: caring for people.

“We had a slogan when I first ran for city council [against Vera Ames in 1986]: ‘If you vote for Cotton, you’ll never be forgotten.'”

The proud Eastside High School grad lost that election by seven votes but would go on to immerse herself in the Paterson community, as a football and baseball mom, with vital roles at the Rosa Parks Fine and Performing Arts High School, the National Council of Negro Women, Inc., the Passaic County African American Women, NAACP, American Temple #258, and as a door-to-door advocate for improved early childhood education. In those years, she worked in operations at the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission (a job she had for 22 years), and in the office of then-Senator John Girgenti (D-35).

When Vera Ames retired from the Council 12 years ago, Ruby Cotton won the council seat. When Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres subsequently melted down on corruption charges, Cotton assumed the mayoralty for two weeks, becoming, in local parlance, the William Henry Harrison of Paterson mayoral politics.

“I was always connected,” she told InsiderNJ in Tony’s Bagels on Thursday morning. “My husband [the late Eddie Cotton] was political. He was a Paterson councilman, and the first African American DPW director in New Jersey [under then-Mayor Frank Graves].”

Mr. Cotton also served as deputy mayor for then-Mayor (and now Congressman) Bill Pascrell. Also a professional boxing referee, Eddie Cotton died in 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving his wife to carry on their family legacy of public service.

“People tell me I’m a legislator, and that includes getting out there and walking in the streets, reaching out, and touching people,” said the councilwoman. “I have passed out around 12,000 cards in the three terms I have served as Fourth Ward councilwoman. If you don’t have your card, it means you don’t want to be bothered.”

Cotton describes herself as a people person, who loves what she does, as the League of Municipalities veteran connects constituents with her own vast network of government contacts fortified over the years. Sometimes it just means listening. In the bagel shop on Thursday morning, people came and went, but not before connecting with the councilwoman. “My ward was devastated because of the mortgage crisis, and we are always working to connect people, and to build community,” Cotton said.

She describes Paterson at its governmental best when the School Board, administration and city council all work together for the good of the people.

She doesn’t want people to be cynical.

“Voting is very important,” she said. “Our ancestors fought and died for the right to vote. I want people to remember that we’re all different, elected officials. If you may have a bad experience with one, don’t draw a conclusion about all of us. We’re not all the same. When someone calls me, I’m more of a hands- on representative. I want you to be able to reach out and touch.”

Gearing up for this year’s ward reelection campaign in May, the councilwoman said she loves what she does, the accumulation of a Paterson life, with roots in the American South, a partner no longer here but spiritually rooted in the same wisdom.

“When I was growing up, there were those in the field and there were those in the main house and sometimes they tried to pit us against each other but my ancestors wouldn’t allow it,” said Cotton.

Divide and conquer.

“That’s how they get you,” she said, with a smile of caring calm, the depth of presence infectious amid the morning rush.

“I can go all day because I’m used to going all day, sunup to sundown,” said Cotton, a lady of faith and a member of the New AME Zion Church. “Being an elected official is not easy, but you have to have heart.”

And you have to listen, she said.

To the people – those alive and those deeply gone – but not forgotten.

 

Fourth Ward Councilwoman Ruby Cotton on Voting:

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