BELLEVILLE – All over town, the headquarters of candidates are shuttered on a Monday afternoon, with the exception of Paul “P.J.” Mac Donald’s campaign digs on Washington Avenue.
The mood is grimly combative in this roomful of politicians and former cops as Mac Donald recounts what led him to this point, eight days before the May 13 election.
“There was an empty seat and some friends asked me if I’d be interested in running,” he says. “I went down to the mayor’s office and sought his support. I called every public official and every one of them gave mehis blessing.
“Then I called Caputo.”
He remembers informing Assemblyman/Freeholder Ralph Caputo (D-Belleville)of his intentions to run for council and howCaputo told him, “good, you deserve it.”
The retired correction’s officer grits his teeth, shifts in his chair.
For Mac Donald knows that a few blocks away, his chief competitor, Elvin Pereira, strides the neighborhoods of the Third Ward, pounding on doors, planting yard signs and shaking hands, all with the good graces of none other than Caputo.
Pereira used to be a district leader for Newark’s North Ward Democratic Organization and an acolyte of North Ward leader Steve Adubato’s. He has worked by turns as a community activist, block watch association president, and campaign organizer specializing in absentee ballot registration. Recently he helped elect Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).
After renting in town for four years, the 46-year old county employee last year bought a house in Belleville.
Now he wants to beat Mac Donald.
“I’m running against whatever his name is,” Pereira says of his 67-year old rival, whose proud local political ties go back to his uncle, former Town Clerk Cappy Barnett, and Essex County Democratic Party legend John Cryan.
“I have to win,” adds Pereira, organizing out of his house, his pace quickening as he turns a corner and heads up another block.
Back in headquarters on Washington Avenue, Mac Donald’s allies sift double time through his latest round of campaign mailers.
What the candidate once believed would be a walkover against gadfly opposition has turned into a $25,000 dogfight with a fierce young upstart, who makes up in work rate and savvy what he lacks in his $5,000 campaign fund.
Mac Donald’s campaign takes the attitude that they are not just competing against Pereira but against Caputo and Adubato.
Hanging on the wall amid lighter-hearted snapshots of Mac Donald with various political luminaries is a homemade sign juxtaposing pictures of Belleville Town Hall with Newark’s North Ward Center, captioned with the question, “Who do you want running Belleville?”
Caputo says he’s running a slate – including Pereira – against Mayor Ray Kimble’s candidates – including Mac Donald – as retribution for the mayor’s support last year of Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex) against Caputo’s top-of-the-ticket running mate, M. Bilal Beasely.
“If Ralph Caputo wants to disrupt progress, he can try to do that,” Kimble replies. “But I’m going to continue to support the incumbents who have contributed to making Belleville one of the top 100 towns in the state.”
Competing without the incumbency advantage enjoyed by his running mates, Mac Donald might have the toughest campaign challenge among the Kimble allies.
Given the presence in the race of a third candidate, Vincent J. Frantantoni, who could siphon non-Latino votes from Mac Donald, the ward’s ethnic demographics work in Pereira’s favor.
Mac Donald knows he has to reach into every corner of the ward to win, and so it’s no surprise when he meets a crack about his Irish flag campaign signs – orange, green and white – with a stern gaze. As a politician trying to win a contest in a mixed-race ward, at this point he’s probably heard the Irish reference too many times.
Kimble takes up the slack.
“They’re trying to paint us as the Irish guys,” explains the mayor. “I’m not even Irish. P.J.’s Irish, sure, but I’m a mix. I’m a mutt.”
Before Pereira tore into the Third, Latinos made up about 35% of the ward’s registered voters. The Puerto Rican takes credit for raising that to 40% over the course of the past few weeks.
One of Mac Donald’s letters to would-be constituents among 7,400 targeted voters contains a promise to strictly enforce housing/property maintenance codes, dutifully written in English and Spanish.
“Covering all the bases,” says the candidate, whose signature appears at the bottom of the letter alongside that of his niece, who has a hyphenated surname that is equal parts Irish and Spanish. Lymarie Vega-McDonald serves as the campaign secretary.
“The thing I’m out there trying to explain to people is that I’m not here to represent the few Irish families left in the 4th Ward,” Mac Donald says. “I’m here to represent everyone.”
The Irish tavern he owned a few blocks up the street 40 years ago is now a nail salon. He’s moved on. But Mac Donald says he won’t give in against the incursion of a Newark political machine.
“We’re going to win,” he promises. “If we have to do it the hard way, so be it. I’m not afraid of a donnybrook.”
Several streets away, Pereira sits momentarily on his front porch with the cherry blossom tree in the yard next door in full bloom.
He says he continues to go door-to-door on every block of his ward. His blue and white signs that blanket the district appear to be the work of a political army, but Pereira shakes his head no. He says he and his finance, who’s also his campaign manager, put all of the signs up together – just the two of them.
“If I had Steve Adubato in here this race would have been over two months ago,” the candidate says. “They would have cleaned up. Adubato is a tough cookie. He gets things done. Unfortunately, I can’t benefit from that right now. I don’t want to. I’ve got to beat them on my own.”
He argues that Belleville is a political enclave unto itself with its own patronage system, which has not served the taxpayers and which has been mostly unresponsive to the Latino community.
He’s reaching out to all voters, he insists, not just Latinos; and emotionally describes the tax travails of his neighbors, which stretch across ethnic lines.
When a young Latina in spring attire approaches the house, Pereira receives with a stunned look a compliment directed toward what surely must be his fiance.
“She’s my tenant here,” Pereira says as the woman ascends the stairs. “My fiance is Irish.”