Candidates square off in EO Democratic primary

EAST ORANGE, NJ — When East Orange voters go the polls for the Democratic primary on Tuesday, June 6, they will have a chance to make local history.

Voters will have three choices for mayor: City Council Chairman and 3rd Ward Councilman Ted Green, John Thompson Jr. and Kenwyn S. Williams. They will also have a host of incumbent City Council members running for re-election, as well as current Board of Education President Bergson Leneus, who is running to become the first Haitian-American elected official in East Orange history by taking over Green’s soon-to-be-vacant 3rd Ward seat; and 2nd Ward council candidate Khalfani Alleyne, who is running to become the city’s first Guyanese-American elected official.

Leneus is running on the Green Team in 2017 ticket, with a slate of incumbent council candidates seeking re-election, including 1st Ward Councilman Chris James, 2nd Ward Councilman and Council Vice Chairman Romal Bullock, 4th Ward Councilwoman Tyshammie Cooper and 5th Ward Councilwoman Alicia Holman.

“For the 3rd Ward Democratic Committee — Leroy Jones, Lakeisha Bondurant, Councilwoman Quilla Talmadge and Ted Green — to see the potential in me, this young brother with the strong Haitian and Caribbean roots in the community … and to give me the opportunity to run and to be one of the leaders in the 3rd Ward and to be the mouthpiece for the community in the 3rd Ward is big,” Leneus said Tuesday, Feb. 21. “It’s big for me, my family and my culture. Progress doesn’t stop; when you stop, that’s when it becomes stagnant and that’s when you see some of the things that you’ve seen in the district and in the community and I can say, with great fervor and with great passion, that we work hard to make sure that progress continues in our communities, in all aspects.”

Leneus said he knows he has big shoes to fill, when it comes to succeeding Green as the 3rd Ward representative, but he’s confident he’s up to the challenge. He was originally appointed to the Board of Education by former Mayor Robert Bowser and reappointed by Taylor.

“Councilman Green is known in the community throughout the city of East Orange, not only in the 3rd Ward for everything that he does for the seniors, for the youth and just in terms of his policies and programs that he’s instituted; he’s just left big shoes to fill,” Leneus said. “I’m going to work hard every day to fill those shoes and try to exceed everything that he’s done in a positive way. Councilwoman Talmadge has been one of my biggest supporters, giving me advice as long as I’ve been a public servant, and I know that we’re going to mesh together very well.”

Cooper is running for a second consecutive term representing the city’s 4th Ward, despite being investigated by the F.B.I. for her alleged involvement in the theft of federal government funds; conspiracy to commit theft and accept corrupt payments; wire fraud; conspiracy to commit wire fraud; extortion under color of official right, conspiracy to do the same; and money laundering at the Orange Public Library. She works as the chief of staff for Orange Mayor Dwayne Warren, earning more than $100,000 a year, although this job does not exist in the city of Orange Township Table of Organization in the official Orange City Code. She also makes an additional $36,000 annually as an East Orange City Council member, with corresponding publicly-funded pensions for both jobs.

Alleyne also works in Orange in the Warren administration; however, he said his heart has always been in his East Orange hometown. A registered Democrat, the Guyanese-American candidate said he decided to toss his hat in the June 6 primary election ring and challenge Bullock in the 2nd Ward, despite the fact that it seems to be an uphill battle against the Green Team, which has already been endorsed by East Orange Democratic Committee Chairman Leroy Jones. Alleyne said he wants to increase the representation of the city’s large West Indian and Caribbean population on the City Council.

“As it stands today, there is no Caribbean representation on our City Council at all,” said Alleyne on Saturday, April 8, and again on Thursday, May 25. “I would be the first Guyanese-American on the City Council and that’s what I intend to bring. I’m vested here: My family lives here, my kids go to school here, my wife works here in the school system, we live here in East Orange and we want this to be a better, safer place for our kids and all the families of East Orange. We want to improve the quality of life here for all the residents in the city. Forget the politics, let’s make it more about the people.”

According to Bullock, East Orange city government is already all about the people, and always has been.

“I’m just out with our campaign staff talking to voters, and that’s what we do — we go out and talk to the people and bring our message to the people,” said Bullock on Saturday, April 8. “I think we’ve gotten a lot done in this first term. We came in with a lot of challenges. We still have a lot of challenges, but I think what we’ve been doing in terms of redevelopment, in terms of keeping crime down, in terms of fixing the gold course, and so many more initiatives that we’re trying to put in place that I think we want to see the through and just keep the progress going.”

“Basically, my role as I see it is just to support the chairman,” said Bullock on Monday, Jan. 2, at the City Council’s annual reorganization meeting. “Of course, the official role is to substitute in conducting the meetings, when the chairman is unavailable; that’s happened I think twice. Other than that, it’s a good thing to be able to support this chairman in particular, because Ted Green has been a wonderful councilman for many years and he’s doing a great job leading. Given a chance to lead, he’s leading; he’s doing a great job and I’m just glad to be a part of it.”

East Orange is different from other state municipal governments operating via the Faulkner Act, because it has a 10-member City Council is composed of two representatives from each of the city’s five wards, rather than a system of single ward members and an odd number of at-large members who represent the interests of the entire city. Normally, in Faulkner Act governments, the mayor and at-large candidates run at the same time one year, followed by the ward candidates two years later, in a system that ensures continuity in city government, thanks to the overlap of the terms.

East Orange is also different in that there are no at-large seats, so the mayor’s office and five ward seats are up for grabs simultaneously and, two years later, the other five ward seats are contested. To Thompson’s chagrin, the Democratic Party has such a stranglehold that, whoever wins the primary, wins the general election. This means whoever has the endorsement of the East Orange Democratic Committee wins the primary and turns the general election into a moot point.

Jones has already gone on the record with his and the committee’s endorsement of Green, as well as rest of the “Line A” Democrats, including Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, Assemblyman Tom Giblin, Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders President Britnee Timberlake and Phil Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany and former Goldman Sachs executive, for governor.

Thompson said he’s running for mayor because he wants to implement real, positive change in East Orange, but the only way to do that is by dismantling the East Orange Democratic Committee and what he calls the Essex County Democratic Committee “mafia.” He even crafted a petition years ago specifically designed to offset the county and statewide Democratic Party’s undue influence on East Orange’s local elected officials.

In a letter he mailed to the Record-Transcript Editor on Thursday, March 16, Thompson said “As I start my journey on finding ways to keep my promise of reducing taxes for our community, I found a staggering difference between the 2012 budget and the 2016 budget. Salary increases of $3,684,634. Now to some people, that may not seem like a lot, but to a community like ours, this matters.”

Thompson said, “Increasing salaries in the midst of a recession is outright ethically wrong and narrow-minded” and the biggest problem for city taxpayers is the fact the council didn’t just give city employees a raise; they gave themselves one, too.

“How can a government take advantage of its community, when (the) cost of living continues to rise and taxes keep going up,” Thompson said. “The City Council salaries went from $49,000 to $67,710 in 2015, including benefits. This is all public record, so you can find this information online or you can ask them when they’re walking around looking for support for re-election.”

Williams declined to comment for this story.

Green has also raised concerns about recent city budgets from Mayor Lester Taylor and others. He also recently unveiled his own public safety plan to help ensure that the city continues its current streak of consecutive years with reductions in crime and public safety that he would implement if he wins the primary and the subsequent general election.

“While we have experienced decreases, criminal activity of any kind is not acceptable,” said Green on Wednesday, May 10. “Over the last two months, I have had an opportunity to listen to the people directly and one of the issues at the top of their list is taking steps to further decrease crime and to improve overall public safety in the community. These conversations will help inform me and my administration on public safety issues most important to you.”

As mayor, Green plans to occasionally participate in evening foot patrols, to continue his dialogue with the public and to bring greater visibility to his plan for zero tolerance for crime and expanded police coverage. In addition, he plans to move forward on existing plans to improve technology to address crime and to keep communities safe.

“As mayor, I plan to push to utilize the latest technologies and innovations that will help us fight crime,” said Green. “In my role as chairman of the City Council, we have been working to support the work of the Police Department and to invest in technology that will help to keep our communities safer. I am also exploring ways to improve the Fire Department, as well. Our strategy for technology improvements include installation of new cameras, upgrading the dashboard that will allow us to identify and address criminal activity, upgrade the 9-1-1 system, purchase body cameras and include social media to identify, report and reduce criminal activity.”