EAST ORANGE, NJ — Dwight Saunders said he is working hard to make sure he and the other members of the newly formed East Orange Progressive Democrats and Essex County Progressive Democrats can get on the Democratic Party primary ballot on Tuesday, June 4, so he can challenge the recently sworn-in Essex County Freeholder Romaine Graham for her seat on the board.
“We are registered as East Orange Progressive Democrats Inc. and Essex County Progressive Democrats Inc.,” said Saunders, a former East Orange councilman and code enforcement director, Friday, March 1. “Carol and I will be running under our organization banner for county seats and our team also.”
Saunders was referring to Carol Clark, a former East Orange councilwoman and Essex County freeholder. Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin confirmed Clark had picked up nominating petitions from his office in downtown Newark on Friday, Feb. 15.
“Yes, Carol Clark picked up county office petitions,” said Durkin on Tuesday, Feb. 19. “Petitions become available on Jan. 2. Petitions are due on April 1 (for) the office of register of deeds and mortgages for a five-year term and the office of freeholder at large for a one-year unexpired term are on the ballot.”
Clark is seeking to obtain enough signatures to run for the post of register of deeds and mortgages, currently occupied by former Newark Councilwoman Dana Rone; Saunders will be running for Graham’s county freeholder seat.
Saunders and Graham both want to finish out the remainder of the freeholder term of Lebby Jones, who died of cancer in January. Graham was appointed to fill Jones’ vacant freeholder seat at an Essex County Democratic Committee meeting in Irvington at Irvington High School on Saturday, Feb. 9, and sworn in at the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting Wednesday, Feb. 20, in front of an audience of more than 50 people wearing hoodies printed with “I’m with Ro.”
“I posted my remarks on the freeholder website,” said freeholder President Brendan Gill on Monday, Feb. 25. “I made a joke that I had never seen the sweatshirts before. That was some serious business. They raised the bar. I’m going to have to figure out how to match that or do even better.”
Gill said he and the seven other freeholder board members are happy to have Graham aboard, yet still sad about Jones’ death.
“I’m excited to get to serve on the freeholder board with her,” Gill said of Graham. “She’s well-known and I think she’s worthy to fill the legacy of Lebby Jones. I have no doubt that she will carry on the legacy of Freeholder Jones and Freeholder Beasley.”
He said there has been a lot of activity on the normally staid board recently.
“We has a special election that also filled out the term of former freeholder President Britnee Timberlake,” Gill said. “Adding more women to the board with Romaine Graham and former East Orange 4th Ward Councilwoman Tyshammie Cooper, which is great. Both have extensive local government experience. It will serve her well as a freeholder.”
Gill also mentioned the recent re-election and swearing-in ceremony of Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr., and his State of the County Address.
“We just had the State of the County Address by the county executive tonight,” Gill said. “Big things ahead. New complex in downtown Newark. We’re AAA bond rated. Continue to focus on our infrastructure and open space and environment. Expecting big things for 2019.”
One of those big things is the primary on Tuesday, June 4, in which Graham will likely square off against Saunders. Previously, Durkin and East Orange and Essex County Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones confirmed Graham’s appointment, and Durkin said the vote to appoint Graham was done by the rule book.
“On Saturday, Feb. 9, Romaine Graham of Irvington was the only nomination made and was elected by unanimous voice vote,” Durkin said Tuesday, Feb. 12. “There will be a primary election where the one-year unexpired term for freeholder at large will appear on the ballot. The certified winner of the November general election for the one-year unexpired term for freeholder at large will be sworn in and will serve until Dec. 31, 2020. This seat will appear on the ballot, with the other eight Freeholder seats in 2020 for three-year terms in office.”
Jones agreed with Durkin.
“She’ll be on the ballot in June and again in November,” said Jones on Tuesday, Feb. 12. “What happens now is the freeholders set a date, she’ll be sworn in, then she’ll go through the primary. At the end of the November contest, the winner will be sworn in for the full term again.”
Saunders is best known for transforming the city’s code enforcement department into an efficient, revenue-generating entity during his four years as director for former Mayor Lester Taylor.
“I’m running for District 3 freeholder at large,” said Saunders on Monday, Feb. 18. “I will focus on the issues that have an impact on everyday lives of Essex County residents, including promote greater civic engagement; road safety and transportation infrastructure; improving transportation safety; more money for bridge rehabilitation and county roadways to ensure optimal accessibility and safety; supporting excellence and efficiency in law enforcement, schools, community colleges, and regional infrastructure planning; lowering taxes through shared services with neighboring towns; being responsive to my constituents; supporting a 2-percent tax levy cap; focusing on parks, recreation and open space; supporting the county ban on unnecessary release of toxins into the air; and supporting legislation on federal revenue sharing policies to get more governmental aid to Essex County.”
Saunders also said he wants to “help make Essex County a great place to live, work and raise a family.”
“It’s exciting,” said Graham on Thursday, Feb. 21. “Everybody’s on board. Everybody’s excited.”