The Sacred and the Profane: Lone Hamilton Mayoral Collision Plays out in Church

Hamilton Mayor Kelly Yaede and Councilman Jeff Martin.
Yaede arrives.

HAMILTON – The word “psychotic” was already thrown around. Someone’s military service record ended up under a hard and unforgiving glare. Headlines of malfeasance have sprung, only to retract in court. An embittered GOP Primary opponent haunts the race. And worse. It has been an ugly, profane and repugnant affair in which just about everything happened except an actual face to face (or at least profile to profile) debate between Republican incumbent Mayor Kelly Yaede and Democratic challenger Jeff Martin, which went down tonight in the preposterously ironic sacred stained glass surroundings of St. Phillips Baptist Church.

Martin arrives.

Nearly a decade and a half has passed since Republican challenger John Bencivengo sat in the Nottingham Firehouse next to Democratic Mayor Glen Gilmore and announced to the people of Hamilton, “You’ve had a tall, handsome Irishman and now it is time for a short, ugly Italian.” The line undoubtedly won Bencivengo a few votes that night and helped propel him to victory. But it couldn’t save him ultimately from getting jammed up on bribery charges and having to wear striped pajamas for 18 months.

Installed in City Hall in 2012 after her predecessor’s meltdown, Yaede won the mayoralty in 2013 and again in 2015, extending the GOP’s win streak going back to Bencivengo’s 2007 win over Gilmore. Once a talked about future gubernatorial or at least LG candidate, she also buried her primary opponent earlier this year to muscle her way back into another local general, this time against upstart Martin. Now the Democrats – inspired in part by the dysfunction of the local animal shelter under Yaede’s watch in addition to the dysfunction of the local Republican Party- sense an opportunity in a 85K pop. town where on paper Democrats outnumber their rivals 21K to 13K.

Council President Martin showed up first at the church with family, including his wife Scarlett Rajski Martin. “He’s been wearing some very nice suits lately,” observed someone in the crowd. The challenger was early. He bantered. The event was supposed to start at 6 p.m. Yaede also arrived early, impeccable, professional, about ten minutes behind Martin and ten minutes in front of the formal start of the event. She made her way down the main aisle shaking hands and lingering alongside the family of Councilman Anthony Carrabelli. Like the challenger, she disappeared behind closed doors and emerged moments later.

The candidates installed.

In her opening statement, the locally grown Yaede (who first ran for office when she attended Nottingham High School) pointed out a 17% drop in crime, taxes cut 1.6%, and strong economic growth. The township’s first female mayor, the mayor said, “I’m strong enough to take on the vicious attacks that have taken on Hamilton Twp.” For his part, Air Force veteran/attorney Martin – who’s collected considerable labor support (fire, plumbers and pipefighters and IBEW among them) to his candidacy in this labor-oriented town and Democrats as wide ranging as state Senator Linda Greenstein (D-14) and Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones – took a crack at making safe and clean drinkin water and redevelopment of blighted properties key priorities.

Yaede.

It was a mostly ineloquent collision early, defined by an arguably overly civil format which gingerly kept the candidates face forward.

“How are we going to tighten our belts? How are we going to sharpen our pencils? We need to start thinking outside the box,” said the mayor, seated beside her running mate, Richard Balgowan. “Public safety is so vital and key to keeping our community… I give all the credit to the police officers. How did we achieve that? By working together. …You see blighted vacant properties being developed. We thought outside the box.”

Martin threw his first elbow at the mayor.

“These issues are so important to me,” said the challenger, “I don’t need any notes.”

He also detailed his first big idea: consolidating the town’s fire districts.  “I come from a military

Martin, right, with veteran Trentonian columnist L.A. Parker.

background,” said Martin. “Singular chain of command. One chief. One singular chain of command.”

Later, a hard question sailed at the mayor, related to her appearance at a Nottingham GALRE class last month, where she derided her political opponents in front of a young audience.  “In going into the GALRE classes, one person recorded one of the GALRE presentations,” Yaede said. “I had been called names, which I did not do. My family has been harrassed, in court. In that the questions were asked, I said, ‘The ugliest of politics has come to Hamilton Twp.’

“They want a leader that will defend themselves,” she added. “Experience does matter. Born, raised, educated. Getting a feel and flavor from Hamilton Twp. Without experience, how can you lead us into the future?”

Martin referred to his time in uniform. “I’m proud that I served my country for four years,” he said. “Experience has taught me to be a leder. You’ve heard of calling out racisim in town. You have to treat all those instances exactly the same. You have to treat the empoyees and you have to show the residents that you’re going to treat everyone the same.”

Then it happened.

The witching hour.

A Pastor Joseph Woods – whose queries grew more pointed as the forum progressed – question about the local animal shelter.

“I’m proud to have called for an investigation into the animal shelter,” Martin said. “Why was over a million dollars in taxpayer money spent on something that didn’t produce? To call it a witch-hunt, Republican County prosecutor appointed by a Republican governor – just baffles me.”

“It was a witch-hunt, and here’s the reasons why,” the mayor said. “The same things the City of Trenton and Ewing… evidence was there. There was an organization behind it. Right now you’re talking about chipped paint. Do they say that about the City of Trenton? It was a political hit job and there are bragging rights going around in this town right now about who brought in the state.

“Was everything perfect in the shelter?” she wanted to know. “No. Is it a world class shelter? Yes. This is politics at its worst. Hamilton deserves better.” Nancy Phillips, who’s running with Martin, said Hamilton’s services should not be justified by comparisons with neighboring towns.

They closed with a challenge to utter kind words, each for the other.

“Your devotion to the town and your family are second to none,” Martin told the incumbent.

Stung by the overall tone of the clash with her rival, Yaede somewhat globalized her statement.

“People are not running for office because of the disrespect [on social media],” the mayor said.

She applauded her own running mate, and mentioned various offices in which people serve, including county executive. “Putting your hat in the ring,” the mayor said. “It says a lot about you when you throw your hat in the ring.”

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