LINDEN – It has that showdown feel to it, this old train line factory town where Mayor Derek Armstead bucked state Senator Nick Scutari (D-22) to run on a ticket with Fanwood Mayor Colleen Mahr in a countywide party leadership fight, where you can almost hear the Ennio Morricone soundtrack in front of a City Hall that looks like an approximate real-size replica of the Lincoln Memorial, with massive gold front doors swapped in for the iconic statue.
Just hours ahead of a special convention for the Union County Democratic Party chairmanship, the passing street people on Wood resemble spaghetti western extras.
“Welcome to Linden” reads the sign on the bridge downtown, above the Polish meat markets, pizza slice dens, windows crammed with shelves of homemade pickles, and pasta houses, all chopped up between the nail salons, barber chairs and fur coat on mannequin frontispieces.
Armstead’s family came up here from Georgia and Virginia and settled in Linden in the 1920s. His father was a mailman, and so knew everyone in town, a runway the young Armstead could easily transfer into a his own political career, which landed him on the city council in the early 1990s, where he honed a two-decades reputation as a maverick before picking off the mayor’s seat in 2014.
Now, he wants to run again, for another four year term as mayor, but he’ll do so without the support of Scutari, who tonight will attempt to nail down the chairmanship of the party committee with Armstead on the frontline of the countywide opposition.
“Nick and I will have peace,” Armstead told InsiderNJ on the third floor of City Hall. “We will have peace out of our sheer abilities to fight each other.
“Nick and I are in equal footing,” he added. “He may be the senator and local chair, but I’m the mayor, and I certainly feel I have the support I need to deal with him. I could’ve had an easy run as mayor, but I don’t feel the chairman of Linden has done a good job.”
Scutari, of course, is that chairman, now seeking countywide amplification.
He sat in his law office hours before the big vote with Mahr, as his legal team racked another win in court enabling an open ballot, just as quickly apparently undone by Mahr’s desire to change up from machines to paper ballot voting.
“If you know me you know what you get,” a relaxed Scutari told InsiderNJ. “My word is good, maybe that’s not something that’s typical in politics, but I don t pull punches and I do what I think is best.”
It’s been a scrappy election between him and Mahr, one that has not defined itself so much by vision as – maybe – vitriol. But Scutari said he trusts in his ability to build a party, in a manner similar to what the late Charlotte DeFilippo did for nearly two decades in Union.
“I’d like us to be force to be reckoned with,” said the senator. “We have increased the pluralities since I got elected in 1996, when I served on the freeholder board with Republicans [now it’s all Democrat]. We have done a great job of working and building, and now we have the advantage of national trends, and opportunities for greater pluralities in statewide and countywide elections – and even in legislative elections.”
But the chair’s election is so toxic, starting right in Linden, where the mayor bucks him. How can the person who wins tonight lead the party going forward?
“That’s a concern for me, as well, I’m sure, for Ms. Mahr, but I will try to be a unifier,” Scutari said. “I tried to do that in the City of Linden, and I’ve been pretty successful until just recently. I try not to be decisive. I have been portrayed as someone trying to exhibit personal power, but that’s not what it is for me.”
He grew up, like Armstead, in Linden.
What does that mean?
“Strong work ethic,” he said simply.
He invoked the example of men before him who served: John Gregorio and Joe Suliga.
“And Ed Kologi, who’s helping me right now [as his attorney],” Scutari said. “These are the party leaders and elders of Linden.”
His detractors call it a power grab.
But Scutari doesn’t see it that way.
“I don’t look at politics as chess pieces,” he said. “I try to build relationships. I want to like the people I’m working with.”
Armstead doesn’t seem to be one of those people right now.
“People want these positions just to be in charge,” the mayor said.
But did he and Mahr close the case on how they’ll be different if they get past Scutari in Clark tonight?
“Yes, I believe so,” the mayor said. “I think we’ve communicated the message to Plainfield. They thought they had a slam dunk over there, they don’t. And we’ve communicated it in Linden, where they thought they had a slam dunk. There are 72 votes in Linden, but they won’t all show up.”
Armstead maintains that the senator wants a power rush.
If he beats Mahr, Scutari will be the only chair of a county party organization who also chairs a powerful senate committee: Judiciary.
Armstead said he mulled over whether Scutari’s empowerment would be a good thing for the city, and decided it wouldn’t be.
So he backed Mahr.
“Scutari’s chief of staff, Ed Oatman, going over there to be the county manager clearly indicated where this whole thing was headed at the star,” Armstead said. “He’s clearly trying to control people through jobs. I think Colleen is genuine in her approach to people. She understands she can’t win without these coalitions she’s built. It’s the difference between consensus pure power.”
Talking to the two of them, it almost sounds almost like the same message.
But each stands in the way of the other, in a blue collar factory town home to both of them called Linden.