The Political Implications for Each Mayor in Key May 12th Towns

Atlantic City Hall

The COVID-19 catastrophe turned the once ultimate intimate door-knocking campaign cycle into a social distancing guinea pig for the rescheduled July 7th election. Especially if the all-vote-by-mail election proves disastrous – and particularly if the state manages to somehow crawl out from under the deadly grip of the coronavirus – Governor Phil Murphy will feel additional pressure to open some polling places in time for the primary.

State Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28) certainly hopes so.

But if voters turn in their ballots by the May 12th deadline and results emerge that the combatants and observers deem accurate, maybe the implications for the state’s next immediate ballot won’t be so bad, even if terror for the new campaigns and elections normal won’t abate.

These mayors below – some of them more than others – must cope with the strange atmosphere of elections in their towns amid a pandemic with a governor’s shutdown order in place, and people actually already having to endure humiliation for having been caught campaigning in public.

In the words of one baffled insider, forget about ringing doorbells, “I don’t want to pick up the phone and catch a family in its hour of bereavement. I don’t know what to do.”

Also, voters are disappearing, in the worst way in some cases, but simply displaced, too, because they have lost jobs due to the coronavirus.

Some candidates, like Paterson 3rd Ward candidate Alex Mendez, have simply turned campaigning into a variation on COVID-19 crisis management.

For his part, Ward 6 Councilman Jesse O. Kurtz is gently reminding voters to oppose the referendum in

Sweeney and Blistan
Sweeney

Atlantic City. In his virtual travels, he encounters people, especially older voters, who are lonely and appreciate interaction. “We touch on the referendum and then end up in a conversation about how the world has changed and is changing,” Kurtz told InsiderNJ.

Finally, the towns will have handle the economic devestation on top of the health and safety ravages, and in that ara Kurtz said Senate President Steve Sweeney’s (D-3) furlough proposal fascinates as a potential salve to local governments.

In the meantime, what are the political consequences for sitting mayors in key towns in next Tuesday’s elections?

Marty Small

Hoping to be more than simply the man who took the reins of yet another crackup (in this case jailed AC

Mayor Small of Atlantic City.
Mayor Small of Atlantic City

Mayor Frank Gilliam), the interim Mayor of Atlantic City does not face the voters on Tuesday, but might never face them, if voters approve a referendum question changing the city’s form of government from mayor-council to city manager and commissioner. If that question passes, Small would become a lame duck, his shot at winning the mayor’s seat in an election short-circuited. Heading toward the VBM deadline of next Tuesday, his biggest ally now is also his biggest foe later: Pamela Thomas-Fields, who will presumably be campaigning just as hard as Small against the referendum so she can try to take his job in the rescheduled July 7th Democratic Primary. So no, Small is not actually a star performer in this cycle, but his very political fate dangles from the Tuesday trapeze of the Atlantic City referendum.

The champions of the referendum sound confident.

But conventional wisdom is that Small survives to fight it out in the primary.

It’s not just the mayor and Thomas-Fields who want it to fail. Every elected official in the city is united

Atlantic City
The Atlantic City Boardwalk. Photo by Alex Zdan

against it, and on the phones overtime. The “no” vote enjoys near unanimous support from South Asian voters; Vietnamese voters; the Callaway organization; municipal Democratic and Republican committees; senior buildings; civic associations; Protestant association of clergy (Fellowship of Churches); the mosques; and super-majorities in Wards 2 & 3. According to a source in the city, there are four key pockets of support for the “yes” vote: “The Cove” portion of 1st Ward where former Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian lives; the Venice Park section of 4th Ward where the middle class African-American neighborhood is still sore over Speedy Marsh’s heir apparent lost to Bengali Mohammed Morshed from the Ducktown (home of referendum organizer Bob McDeVitt) section of the 4th Ward; Latino membership of Local 54 (again, McDeVitt); and Republican Councilman Jesse O. Kurtz’s 6th Ward, where the councilman himself is a vigorous “no” vote.

The bulk of money the “yes” vote forces are spending on mailings, digital ads, and robo calls and the new frontier of every registered voter getting a ballot in the mail should introduce some unexpected “yes” votes to the totals, but not enough to overcome the varied coalition of people and groups united behind the “no” vote.

Dwayne Warren

The Mayor of Orange – or the virtual Zoom version of himself – is the only one on this list who’s actually a

pro-Warren mail piece in Orange.
Pro-Warren mail piece in Orange

candidate – or a reasonable facsimile thereof – going before the voters. In search of his third term as mayor, Warren – who’s been many things in his time as mayor, including the spearpoint of the CWA movement one year, and the loyal Democratic trooper who backed Chris Christie the next – does not appear to be in any imminent danger. Five local challengers cut into one another allowing the incumbent to play the role of steady hand in a crisis. He also enjoys the reinforcing insulation of his fellow Essex County urban mayors, who endorsed him in a mail piece, which also burnished the support of fellow COVID-19 crisis manager Governor Phil Murphy. So under the radar is Orange this year, and so entrenched is Warren in the establishment that the mayors even have their own Marvel Comic Book universe molded around themselves with Warren in the role of Hawkeye that a loss by the incumbent here would probably be the statewide shock of the night.

Andre Sayegh

The Mayor of Paterson faces a mid-term test on Tuesday in six ward contests as he seeks to gain control

Mendez and McKoy.
Mendez and McKoy

of the third floor of city hall. A nine-person governing body, Council President Maritza Davila has allies in Ward 1 Councilman Mike Jackson, Ward 2 Councilman Shahin Khalique, and At-Large Councilman Flavio Rivera. The mayor has strong ties to Ward 4 Councilwoman Ruby Cotton, 5th Ward Councilman Luis Velez (with a fellow Latino challemger, the two African-American districts 5.4 and 5.5 save Velez), 6th Ward Councilman Al Abdelaziz, and At-Large Councilwoman Lilisa Mimms. Now, Sayegh spent the last year building a strong political alliance with 3rd Ward Councilman Bill McKoy, his former rival, who had originally supported Davila for council president. Sayegh – who gave $1,000 to candidates in five wards – is going all out for McKoy, and with good reason. Unless someone else springs a surprise in this strange and somewhat unpredictable VBM election year – the 3rd is evidently the hinge to the entire city council control election, with comebacking former Councilman Alex Mendez – always an election year animal – looking to unseat McKoy. A reinstalled Mendez (who finished 2nd citywide in the 2018 mayoral election, in contrast to McKoy’s far less threatening 4th) poses a political risk for the mayor. At the very least, he’d be a headache for Sayegh. Not only would the mayor have to live with his old rival reoccupying a council seat in the role of bomb-hurling naysayer, but Mendez would represent the go-ahead vote to maintain Davila on the council president’s throne, thereby disrupting Sayegh’s shot at controlling the agenda, presumably with ally Mimms occupying the legislative throne.

The mayor has used his position to exert pressure on behalf of fight-of-his-political-life McKoy, who enjoys endorsements from the main players within Passaic County’s Democratic establishment as they try to hold off Mendez. But the challenger has the backing of the Henry Sosa operation, which specializes in aggressive vote-by-mail harvesting.

Tony Vauss

Four ward seats of the seven total council slots are on the VBM ballot that is now in the hands of Irvington voters. Mayor Vauss has control of the council, and commands a vaunted political organization in Team Irvington Strong. But there’s bad blood between the mayor and East Ward Councilman Paul Inman, and Vauss wants him out of there in favor of the Reverend (and elementary school principal) Sean Evans. “It’s not control so much as it is support,” Vauss told InsiderNJ, when asked about the interplay between himself and the governing body. Vauss is likely to retain support. But observers on the ground say an Evans victory would represent a nice notch on the night for Vauss. A one-time backer of the mayor, eight-year council veteran Inman surfaced on a tape in a slander case, which revealed him as a bitter foe of the unsuspecting mayor’s.  Initially supportive, then found out to be working against Irvington Strong in stealth mode, Inman then went local nuclear on trying to be an adversary. So this is a little personal here, this Irvington East Ward denouement. “We can do better over there,” Vauss said of the East Ward. “We’re not looking for figureheads who are not representing the people. That just creates more work for me.” The mayor also has to be careful in the South Ward, where organized, politically sophisticated Marine Al-tariq Ibn Shabazz is again challenging for the seat occupied by Councilwoman Jamillah Beasley, daughter of Irvington political pioneer Bilal Beasley.

Michael Melham

Elected in 2018, the Mayor of Belleville won’t have any trouble maintaining control of the council. But he

Melham

clashes with veteran First Ward Councilwoman Marie Strumolo-Burke, and wants her out of there. To that end, the mayor backs challenger Carmine Mattia, Jr. The election represents the ultimate opportunity for a mayor to lower his thumb on a ward, and in this case it’s old school (Strumolo-Burke) versus virtual media blitzing Melham, whose campaign forte is supposed to be voe-by-mail. With the other ward elections looking ike walks in the park, Meham has put everything on the First. A Strumolo-Burke win would be humiliating for Melham, and a political headache heading toward the mayor’s 2022 reelection.

Ras Baraka

Baraka
Baraka

The Mayor of Newark has a piece of a school board slate pie here cut three ways, with the son of his recreation director representing that third immediately attached to Baraka. This year’s local school board election is a light workout at best for the COVID-19 crisis-bogged Baraka, whose brother, Amiri Baraka, Jr., is said to be captaining the unity ticket’s campaign in those wards most precious to the mayor’s base, including the south and central. Certainly if Hasani Council were to lose when all the votes are tallied, that would be an extraordinary humiliation for the mayor, but of course, that won’t happen. If anything, the competition for bragging rights is really internal, with the Baraka brothers waging a friendly fire contest with North Country allies Democratic Chairman Sammy Gonzalez and North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, both happily motivated to see their portion of the ticket (Josephine Garcia) shine.

Mohammed Hameeduddin

The Mayor of Teaneck is retiring, so he not only doesn’t occupy a place on this year’s ballot, but his more

Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin
Hameeduddin

than part-time frontline fascination with the machinations of local politics are fast-receding. Still, Hameeduddin has always been strongly tied to his political allies, and it’s a control election year in Teaneck. He wants the Schwartz ticket to prevail on Tuesday at the very least so he’ll be able to say his vision of the Bergen County town will continue. The seven-person council picks the mayor, and a source told InsiderNJ that if the Hammeeduddin-affiliated slate prevails, Councilman James Donleavy is the name that jumps to mind as the person most likely to succeed Hammeeduddin as mayor.

Mayor Jackson
Jackson

Robert Jackson

Like Hammeeduddin, the Mayor of Monclair is retiring, so he has little to lose amid the rearview conflagration that is Renee Baskerville versus Sean Spiller. Still, like the Mayor of Teaneck, Jackson would like to see his own vision for the town deposited in the lap of someone who shares it, and that happens to be Spiller, whom the outgoing mayor endorsed.

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