EAST ORANGE, NJ — Leroy Jones, chairman of the East Orange and Essex County Democratic committees, always refers to the EODC and ECDC as his “family,” prompting him to call the June 4 Democratic Primary election a “family fight.” He said this happens with the understanding that the divided family will come back together after the election is finished, regardless of who wins and loses.
Members of the Young Professionals of East Orange organization likely hope this will be true. Two YPEO members found themselves competing for the same 2nd Ward seat in the primary Tuesday, June 4. YPEO member Brittany Claybrooks hopes to be elected to office for the first time; she running as part of the 2019 Green Team slate of incumbents and newcomers, which is backed by the EODC and ECDC, and endorsed by Mayor Ted Green.
Claybrooks, who was listed among the Line A Democratic Party candidates on the June 4 primary election ballot, was running against fellow YPEO member Khalfani Alleyne, who ran on Line B on the East Orange Progressive Democrats ticket. This ticket was organized by former East Orange Councilman and city Code Enforcement Director Dwight Saunders along with former East Orange Councilwoman and Essex County Freeholder Carol Clark.
Alleyne also happens to be the Code Enforcement Director for neighboring Orange. He and Claybrooks competed against Gerald Georges, of the East Orange Democrats for Progress ticket, on Line C. They were all vying for 2nd Ward Councilwoman Jacqueline Johnson’s council seat, as she has opted not to run for re-election.
While Jones is sure the EODC and ECDC will be able to come back together following the election, Alleyne is less sure about YPEO’s future. The organization, prior to this year, was best known for pooling its finances to purchase a building; renting a storefront on Main Street to serve as its headquarters and base of operations for community service and outreach efforts; partnering with the East Orange Fire Department to host a “Vision Board Party” at the East Orange Public Library last year in honor of Women’s History Month to “Empower Teen Girls”; and hosting networking open house mixers at Bogies Lounge on William Street.
But now that Claybrooks and Alleyne have run against each other for Johnson’s old council seat, the YPEO may soon be known as the place to go when looking for the city’s next leaders. At least that was the case until Alleyne opened up about his feelings regarding the June 4 election.
“I’m excited about this year’s election,” Alleyne said May 8. “As far as the YPEO organization’s role in this election, honestly it’s bittersweet. It’s great because young professionals are now a huge part of this 2019 council conversation, which has been my goal from day one. The only part that’s disappointing is the YPEO organization has allowed itself to become divided by outside influences.”
Alleyne also voiced concerns about this year’s primary election process that don’t seem to bode well for the future of YPEO — or at least his continued participation in the group.
“As an organization, we met multiple times and had multiple conversations regarding this very conflict,” Alleyne said. “Our goal was to remain autonomous and not let any outsiders influence what we believed in. Our belief was that the person who represents this organization and the 2nd Ward should be a person who is active in the community, has a genuine love for the community and a vested interest in the community, which led to the organization deciding they would support my candidacy in 2019.”
However, Alleyne said that somewhere along the line in the lead-up to the EODC and ECDC decision regarding who would succeed Johnson, something changed. Jones and the Democratic Party leadership decided to back Claybrooks instead of him.
“Ms. Claybrooks was a part of those conversations. The people working on her campaign were also part of those conversations,” Alleyne said. “What’s disheartening is that there was no conversation amongst the Young Professional organization after everything was decided, and that’s caused some tension within the organization. A conversation would have brought about clarity.”
But Alleyne said that conversation never happened, leaving a bad taste in his mouth and doubts.
“If the next generation of leadership is from within this organization, being genuine and being able to communicate are essential parts of being an effective leader,” he said. “Honesty and integrity. That’s what I am about and that’s what I intend to deliver to the 2nd Ward.”
Kaylan Jones, a YPEO founder who served as Claybrooks’ campaign manager, said she doesn’t know what Alleyne is talking about.
“Based on his statements that he made, those conversations that he mentioned never took place in any YPEO organizational meeting,” Jones said May 28, saying YPEO never discussed politics at any organization meetings. “So he might be referring to individual conversations that he had with individual YPEO members, but that doesn’t represent YPEO as a whole.” Jones reiterated that Alleyne’s belief about the YPEO members collectively deciding to back him in his 2nd Ward council seat run was not accurate.
“We never sat down as a group or an organization and had a quorum or discussion about candidacies. We never discussed any of that,” she said, adding to Alleyne, “Be more precise in what you’re saying as far as the organization is concerned. When all is said and done we’re going to be all right. We have a bigger mission.”
Claybrooks agreed with Jones.
“YPEO is an amazing organization and a way that young professionals in our city can give back to the community, whether it’s time, talent or through volunteerism, and I chose to be a part of that effort because I’m dedicated to making folks’ lives around me better,” Claybrooks said May 28. “As a young person who has the passion, time, energy and resources to do so, I couldn’t find a better time to be a part of a group of like-minded people. During my time in YPEO I served as both a dedicated volunteer and secretary of the executive board — not because this was a formal position already — it was a position that was created because I automatically started to lend myself to tasks I saw that needed to be completed.”
Claybrooks is also optimistic about the future of YPEO.
“I think it’s awesome that folks, including myself, are choosing to run for office and choosing to serve in the capacity of an elected official because that’s an awesome thing,” Claybrooks said. “At the end of the day I feel that this is going to come down to who our community and the voters believe is going to represent them best.”
YPEO founder Akeem Cunningham echoed Claybrooks and Jones’ sentiments, and lauded both Claybrooks and Alleyne for running.
“YPEO does not endorse candidates, but we do support the efforts of our members who are all qualified and capable of making a difference in our city as an elected official,” Cunningham said May 28. “It just so happens that two members are running. For us, that means no matter the outcome of the election, we will have a positive voice speaking for issues that are important to YPEO.”