Graham, Saunders battle for freeholder seat in Democratic primary

EAST ORANGE, NJ — Essex County Freeholder Romaine Graham will square off against former East Orange Councilman and Code Enforcement Director Dwight Saunders in the Democratic primary on Tuesday, June 4, in a race to fill former Freeholder Lebby Jones’ seat on the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, vacant since she died of cancer on Wednesday, Jan. 9.

Graham was appointed to fill the seat Saturday, Feb. 9, and was officially sworn in at the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders meeting on Wednesday, Feb. 20.

“State statute mandates that, in the event of a vacancy in the office of freeholder, the County Committee must be called to a meeting within 35 days of the vacancy occurring to elect a vacancy replacement,” said Essex County clerk Chris Durkin on Tuesday, Feb. 12. “On Saturday, Feb. 9, Romaine Graham of Irvington was the only nomination made and was elected by unanimous voice vote. 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.”

The winner of the Democratic Party primary on Tuesday, June 4, will face Republican Kristina Christoforou, of Caldwell, in the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 5.

“The first thing that my mentor, D. Bilal Beasley, taught me is that this is not a spectator sport,” said Mayor Tony Vauss on Monday, April 22. “If you want to make change, you gotta be in it.

“The freeholder board is a three-year term. Being able to galvanize our people to understand that, no matter who you are, there’s always going to be a changing of the guard, I always equate it to basketball. If you’re sitting on the bench when your number is called, you’ve got to be ready to go in. I think Romaine is ready to go into the game and, now, it’s just time to perform.”

Vauss said Beasley taught him that philosophy.

“Bilal used to give us the ‘three P’s.’ He said you always had to plan, prepare and perform and that’s what we look to do here in the township,” Vauss said. “Then, the next generation that’s coming up behind us, it’ll be interesting to find out what they call it.”

According to Durkin, Graham, Saunders and Christoforou turned in nominating petitions for the for the primary ballot by the filing deadline of Monday, April 1.

“There were no petitions denied,” said Durkin on Tuesday, April 30. “The drawing for positions on the June 4 ballot was April 12.”

On the ballot, Graham is Line 4A and Saunders is Line 4B. Graham is running with the backing of Vauss, the Irvington Democratic Committee, the Essex County Democratic Committee and the local Team Irvington Strong social and political organization.

Meanwhile, Saunders is running on the Essex County Progressive Democrats ticket, alongside former East Orange Councilwoman and Essex County Freeholder Carol Clark, who is running for register of deeds and mortgages in the primary. She is on Line 3B against Juan M. Rivera Jr., of Newark, on Line 3A. Rivera is backed by the Essex County Democratic Committee.

Republican Adrian Kraemer of West Orange also turned in petitions to run for register of deeds and mortgages. Kraemer is on Line 3D and Christoforou is Line 4D, but the Republican primary is separate from the Democratic primary, as only registered Democrats and registered Republicans can vote in their respective party’s primaries.