Graham and Saunders square off in primary

IRVINGTON, NJ — When Essex County Freeholder Lebby Jones, the former at large municipal councilwoman and Team Irvington social and political organization co-founder, died of cancer in January, she set into motion a scramble for her seat on the Board of Chosen Freeholders.

In the primary election on Tuesday, June 4, Romaine Graham, the former Irvington Board of Education president who was elected by committee to fill Jones’ seat, will run against Dwight Saunders, a former East Orange councilman and code enforcement director.

Graham was appointed to fill Jones’ seat at an Essex County Democratic Committee meeting in Irvington High School on Saturday, Feb. 9, and she 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.”

Durkin said he held the drawing for primary ballot positions Friday, April 12. Graham is on Line A, along with all the other candidates backed by their respective municipal Democratic committees, as well as the Essex County Democratic Committee and Chairman Leroy Jones, and the New Jersey Democratic State Committee.

Graham is also running with the backing of Irvington Mayor Tony Vauss, the Irvington Democratic Committee and the local Team Irvington Strong social and political organization. Saunders is running on the Essex County Progressive Democrats ticket.

The winner of the freeholder seat in the Democratic primary will vie for the position in the November general election with Republican Adam Kraemer of West Orange.

Line D is for the candidates running in the Republican primary, which will also be Tuesday, June 4.

“The first thing that my mentor, D. Bilal Beasley, taught me is that this is not a spectator sport. If you want to make change, you gotta be in it,” said Vauss on Monday, April 23, at the Municipal Council regular meeting where former Irvington Board of Education member Jamillah Beasley-McCleod was sworn in as the new South Ward councilwoman, following Councilwoman Sandy Jones’ sudden death from a heart attack on Thursday, March 21. “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 had taught him that philosophy and he believes in it and applies it everything he says and does.

“Bilal used to give us the 3 P’s — He said you always had to plan, prepare and perform and that’s what we look to do here in the township,” said Vauss. “Then, the next generation that’s coming up behind us, it’ll be interesting to find out what they call it.”

Graham said the freeholder race it an “exciting opportunity.”

“It’s exciting,” she said Thursday, Feb. 21. “Everybody’s aboard. Everybody’s excited.”

And Saunders is working to get his message out in the county ahead of the primary, too.

“We formed this Progressive Democrat organization to let people know that there are choices out here and to put the right people in place,” said Saunders on Friday, May 24.