Photo by Chris Sykes
Team Irvington Strong members, clockwise from front, West Ward Councilman Vern Cox, East Ward Councilman Paul Inman, at large Councilwoman and Municipal Council President Charnette Frederic and North Ward Councilman David Lyons, wait to address the audience who came for the Irvington NAACP unit’s Candidates Night Forum on Thursday, April 7.
IRVINGTON, NJ — The Irvington NAACP’s Candidates Night Forum was intended to provide the public with an opportunity to be introduced to the seven candidates vying for the four ward seats on the Municipal Council in the May 10 election; however, more attention was focused on who didn’t show up and who spoke instead.
The forum at Greater New Point Baptist Church on Thursday, April 7, was supposed to feature incumbent North Ward Councilman David Lyons, South Ward Councilwoman Sandy Jones, East Ward Councilman Paul Inman, West Ward Councilman Vern Cox, and challengers Al-Tariq Shabazz, Cathy Southerland and Irvington NAACP President Merrick Harris, but Southerland did not participate in the forum due to a “family emergency.”
In her place, Irvington NAACP Vice President Kathleen Witcher, who organized and moderated the forum, allowed Southerland’s daughter, Candy, to sit in and read a list of prepared responses to the provided questions.
“The NAACP does not endorse a candidate, but we ask the candidates to come so that people can meet them and hear what they have to say,” Witcher said Thursday, April 7.
Not everyone was as accepting of this explanation.
“Personally, I don’t think it’s fair that someone is allowed to sit in for a candidate that’s not here,” said Lyons, who is running for re-election to a sixth consecutive term in office against Southerland. Lyons is running for the first time as a member of the Team Irvington Strong organization that dominates the town’s political scene. “That means Miss Southerland had the questions beforehand. It’s not fair, not just to me but to all these candidates.”
Witcher said a special exception was made because Cathy Southerland had an unexpected family emergency at the last minute, to which she had to attend. She also said she didn’t have a problem with Candy Southerland reading the answers her mother had prepared in advance, because she made sure she emailed all the questions that were slated to be asked at the forum to all the candidates, including Lyons, prior to Thursday, April 7.
“I sent the questions by email,” said Witcher, before she forwarded a copy of that email listing all of its recipients to the Irvington Herald as proof Friday, April 8. “If you didn’t get it, they’re posted online, too. The reason she had them is because everybody should have them. If you don’t like it, you can leave.”
Lyons said he didn’t like it and he still didn’t think it was fair to let Southerland’s daughter fill in for her at the forum, but he declined to leave the event as Witcher suggested.
“I guess the NAACP says it’s OK, so it’s OK,” said Lyons on Thursday, April 7. “We’re going to stay. I just wanted to make my objections known. Bring it. I’ve never seen this anywhere before.”
Mayor Tony Vauss is not running in the election on Tuesday, May 10, but as a member of the Irvington NAACP, he said he was also upset at how Witcher organized and ran the forum.
“There were a few things that happened tonight and I spoke to the vice president about it that, if you’re going to have a candidates forum where people are supposed to meet and greet the candidates and speak to them, the candidates have to be there. That’s just basic courtesy that the candidate has to be there, because that’s the whole point behind holding the forum in the first place,” said Vauss on Thursday, April 7.
“To have a forum and allow someone to represent someone else and then be able to read from a paper; I told her afterward, I didn’t agree with that move. And once you hear the reasoning behind that, it’s ‘Oh well, there’s no rules set and we can do that.’ I just think that, for a person of Kathleen Witcher’s stature, that’s not cool, no matter who does it.”
Vauss said he’s participated in NAACP Candidates Night forums in the past, when he ran for the Board of Education, and most recently, when he ran for mayor in 2014, and he never saw anything similar to what occurred at this forum.
“I think Councilman Lyons asked a very valid question: How did she get the questions that were going to be asked at the forum beforehand?” asked Vauss. “I’ve run for mayor and, that same forum, I know that they would have never let me pull anything like that. ‘I can’t be here but, uh, let me have Ras Baraka come here and speak on my behalf.’ They would have been like: ‘What? No, you can’t do that.’ ”
Shabazz said he knows exactly how Cathy Southerland got the questions in advance, because he got them the same way. Harris said he also got the questions prior to the forum.
Both Shabazz and Harris said they believed Lyons, Vauss and anyone else with a problem with how the forum was organized was making much ado about nothing.
“I’m not a member of the NAACP, but I was involved in a Candidates Night Forum the last time I ran for an at large seat on the council in 2014 and there was nothing wrong with what happened at this forum,” said Shabazz on Thursday, April 7. “It wasn’t a debate. It was a forum. So she gave the topics that would be addressed and there’s nothing wrong with that at all.
“They didn’t say they didn’t get them. That was just a beef to pick. All they had to do was push their agenda and that’s what we saw from the incumbents at this debate — that they don’t have an agenda. They continuously talked about the mayor’s agenda, but they didn’t say how they are representing their constituents and things that their constituents told them that they wanted them to address.
“The council must be independent of the mayor’s office. That’s why they have separate elections, right? You can vote for the council, you can vote for the mayor. So we want to know what agenda has the council developed when they talked to their residents in their ward, not simply carrying out the political agenda of the mayor. That’s not what this is about. You work with him, not for him.”