Weathering the Ravages of COVID-19, Teaneck in the Midst of Historic Control Election

Walser, left, and Schwartz.

Hit very hard by the COVID-19 virus, politically divided Teaneck fought back, helped equip its besieged local hospital with personal protective equipment (PPEs), and collectively solemnly worshipped, while also stubbornly – maybe even defiantly – holding onto those political divisions that could only be somewhat semi-resolved at the ballot box.

Blessedly never completely resolved.

Amid nearly 1,000 local cases and now 72 deaths in what early on became the state’s COVID-19

Weinberg

epicenter, they’d be damned if irritating and perpetually irritable democracy was a casualty. “Without a democracy, the rest of this is almost not worthwhile,” said Teaneck diehard Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37). “We live in a free country. I am confident we will be able to pull this off.”

The trouble was there would be no ballot box this year – at least not on the classic sense – on account of COVID-19 shutting down conventional elections. So, they faced the guinea pig prospect on May 12th of being among the state’s first towns to test the properties of an all vote-by-mail (VBM) contest. The fact that they were all living under quarantine obviously ruled out the typical hedgehopping and door knocking campaign rituals, and instead transformed the cycle into a COVID-19-footed virtual minefield of hard-headed rivals committed to the new normal in a control election year. Bergen County Clerk John Hogan sent out 28,000 VBMs to registered Teaneck voters (138,000 countywide), who will be able to send back their choices through May 6th.

As it participates in an historic election (a sharp-elbowed social media firestorm, in this case), the New Jersey town most associated with the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis in the early going has slowed its rate of infection, but remains imperiled. “People have to stay quarantined, and we don’t know what’s going on until we have adequate standardized testing,” said Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin.

Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin
Teaneck Mayor Mohammed Hameeduddin

A seven-person town council oversees a $77 million budget in this Bergen County town of 41,000 people and 95 sworn police officers, where three seats are in play this year, including the one occupied by the retiring Hameeduddin, who served as mayor from 2010-2014 and from 2016 to 2020). “We have managed to deal with every problem that has come our way,” said Hameeduddin, who wants to leave Teaneck (where they’ve passed six local budgets without a tax increase) in what he sees as the capable hands of Deputy Mayor Mark Schwartz, who leads the Moving Teaneck Forward slate. Veteran Councilman Henry J. Pruitt – formerly a Hameeduddin-Schwartz ally – is also retiring. That leaves Schwartz with two new running mates (Mike Pagan – a veteran of the office of the late U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg – and Planning Board member Karen Lew Orgen).

“A number of things over time could have been better handled had we been more deliberative; this is about quality of life more than it is zero-based budgets,” said Pruitt, who backs the three-person opposition People for Progress slate. The challengers also have an ally in sitting Councilwoman Gervonn Romney Rice, which means a sweep by the challengers’ slate (Denise Belcher, Ardie Walser, and Gina Gerszberg) would flip control to 4-3 and change the direction of Teaneck.

Hameeduddin says the challengers criticize but fail to offer compelling solutions for the town. “They write letters but don’t create PPEs,” the mayor told InsiderNJ. “This is a contest between one ticket made up of town budgeters who volunteer on the local ambulance corps, and another composed of inexperienced naysayers bashing people on social media.”

The opposition sees it differently, of course. They’d object to the argument that they lack government experience (Walser is actually president of the Teaneck Board of Education and has served on the board since 2005). But they mainly decry the council’s decision to introduce a budget on March 24th, in a telephone conference without further public discussion ahead of the election. They resent the principals going around touting zero percent increase when few have seen the budget. With so many restrictions present in the community and Teaneck and its hospital a COVID-19 hotspot in the county and state, at the very least they find the budget hard to believe.

“Why have there been no meetings since the virtual meeting on March 24 and none planned until May 19, a week after the council election is over?” Gerszberg wondered.

“It’s so disturbing to read about town councils across the state that have called special meetings and have taken action, while Teaneck does nothing,” said Walser, an associate dean and professor of Electrical Engineering at City College of New York.

“I reviewed the Township Code and four members can request a special meeting,” said Gerszberg. “We want council to meet to take immediate action to provide property tax relief for our hardest-hit residents, by cutting interest rates or extending due dates.

“In 2007, the council had 47 public meetings. This year, only 19 meetings were scheduled,” added the Teaneck Democratic Municipal Committee member. “Four have already been cancelled—and three of those cancellations happened before the pandemic even reached Teaneck.”

Hameeduddin says Walser’s budget transparency record hasn’t been a model for anything, and anyway,   “They’re talking about meetings while we’re talking about testing sites.”

Walser, left, and Schwartz.
TEANECK RIVALS: challenger Walser, left, and incumbent Schwartz.

That’s not the only thing they’re talking about, though. The challengers’ have a problem, too, with Schwartz’s past history of supporting Republicans, including Chris Christie and Donald Trump. For his part, Schwartz says he’s a Democrat with a problem-solving town focus (and to be fair, he’s given money to Democrats, inluding Weinberg and U.S. Rep. Josh Gottheimer), including 18 years as an EMT and 22 a firefighter. He finds his rivals criticisms tiresome.

“We just introduced our sixth straight zero increase budget – name the town that has done three straight budgets at zero increase,” said the Deputy Mayor. “We hired nine firefighters – no slashing and burning – enhanced our parks, and our roads.

“There was absolutely public input,” he added.

As for his past history in this Democratic Party bastion (15,096 registered D’s to 3,525 registered R’s) of backing Republicans, “I believe Chris Christie did quite a bit for us, and we gave him that full support [in 2013],” said Schwartz. “I did the same for Phil Murphy. Chris Christie was a good friend of Teaneck and Israel. As it relates to Trump, I gave him $2k.”

He liked him on Israel – and he wrote the check at an Israel-specific event.

In the middle of the COVID-19 crisis, the incumbent deputy mayor said he’s never been substantively busier as he weathers “nasty and hateful attacks” furnished by his opponents. Although he leads the ticket now in place of Hameeduddin, he doesn’t see serving as mayor if he wins reelection. “I love being deputy mayor,” Schwartz told InsiderNJ. “I shine more as a flag officer than as a top four star general. My family begged me not to consider that [serving as mayor]. Let someone else cuts ribbons. I’ll cut the red tape.”

For his part, as the remotely contested rivalry grinds toward May, Walser acknowledged the challenge of running within the maelstrom of COVID-19.

“I don’t recommend running a campaign during a pandemic,” Walser said with a laugh.

But so be it.

“Most of the concerns you hear about things like development – those are not the problem,” said the challenger. “They are symptoms of a sickness, which is that folks are not being heard. We have talent in so many different ways in this town, but the way things are now, you have people who are afraid to go the council meeting because of retaliation. That’s crazy. On the school board, we go out of our way to hear what people have to say. That’s being a grown up. That way you have an opportunity to grow.”

The towering political figure in these parts with a history of bucking the system in Bergen while remaining close to Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-3) in Trenton, Senator Weinberg backs Walser and his running mates, describing them – and Schwartz and company bitterly disagree – as “completely devoted to democracy and transparency.”  She’s had a longstanding rivalry with the local power structure, and criticizes their oversight of the budget process as “lacking in integrity, and honesty.” Conversely, she celebrates the way the health-conscious county clerk has handled the election process in these challenging times, down to mail in ballots with a peel off tape strip that voters don’t have to lick. She thanks the mail carrier for bringing her the mail each day.

“Certainly this town has shown a resilience,” said the veteran state senate majority leader. She sees the obit page in the paper, and sadly, “A week doesn’t by that I dont know a person on the list. From that standpoint, so many of us are suffering from shellshock.” But, on the other side, “We’re very proud of the community.

“This election,” Weinberg added, “is a challenge we should be able to meet.”

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