Between Newark and Elizabeth, the election year forces of Hillside begin to mobilize

HILLSIDE – Crammed between highways in an industrial terrain just beyond the grip of two oxygen-hoarding metropolises to north and south, Hillside has that forgotten city feeling, as if residing within its limits between Newark and Elizabeth were actually the ultimate New Jersey emblem of honor, where the ironic allusion to being disrespected comes with a special appreciation of big and rough edges.

Indeed, if Newark can claim to be the triumphant birthplace of Red Badge of Courage author Stephen Crane, Hillside was handed the unhappy task of burying the 28-year old wunderkind in the local cemetery.

Peruse the names of native silver screen personalities, and Hillside fares no better. Newarkers can brag of living in the birthplace of tough guys like Ray Liota and Joe Pesci while Hillside provided the early stomping grounds for the brilliant if largely unknown actor Michael Gazzo, whose claim to fame was getting bumped off in the Godfather II.

Politics is no different, as Hillside residents generally must content themselves with whatever deals go down in Essex County to give them Newark-heavy Statehouse representation in the 29th District, or work with the Union County Democratic Committee, whose powerful chairwoman lives in town and has access to beyond-the-borders muscle to make things run.

Or – and this is a charge leveled by her political opponents – to make things not run.

“The only way we can do anything is to get rid of the cast of characters in there,” complains mayoral candidate Joe Menza. “The tax increases have been record-setting over the course of the last four years. People are paying $8,500 in property taxes in a blue collar town. With no business administrator, a part-time council is trying to run the day to day ops, and that kind of mismanagement’s done intentionally, so that decisions will be directed right back to King Street (DeFilippo headquarters).

“The bottom line is government has to function,” Menza adds.

At this point it’s no source of town intrigue that the 38-year chair of the local Democratic Committee here and former town clerk, Charlotte DeFilippo – who’s also the Union County Democratic Party chair – doesn’t get along with one-time organization darling turned persona non grata Mayor Karen McCoy-Oliver.

It’s a hurt-feelings feud that goes back nearly four years now and is likely coming to either a head – if McCoy-Oliver decides to pursue reelection to a third term, or an end – if she does not run for reelection.

A lifelong independent, real estate broker Menza lost to McCoy-Oliver in 2005 by 208 votes: 1,680 to 1,472. Born and raised here and a former welfare director in town, the 49-year old challenger already has signs up and intends to run an aggressive campaign.

“I declared early on that we’re comin’ at ya’,” Menza says.

Hillside sources say they don’t know whether McCoy-Oliver intends to run again for the part-time, $13,000-per year mayor’s job. She’s made no public statements, press phone calls go unanswered, and even some of her allies have begun discussing the moves they will make in the event she doesn’t pursue reelection. Among them are School Board member Andre Daniels, who’s said to be more than mulling a mayoral run, and the talk is he might run on a slate with fellow anti-establishment candidate Jeffrey Dykes.

Then there’s At-Large Councilman Jerome P. Jewell, whose buttoned-down, no-nonsense presence in the council chamber inevitably creates muffled hand whispers among audience members about his intentions to run for mayor.

If he does – and it does indeed appear that he will – sources say he would be the candidate most likely to secure the backing of the DeFilippo-led Union County Democratic Committee, complete with all the big party trimmings, including the likely endorsement of Newark Mayor Cory Booker.

“I’m leaning toward running,” Jewell tells at the governing body’s reorganization meeting on Tuesday night.

“I’m very deep into the community,” adds the councilman, a 43-year old Newark Police detective and 20-year veteran of the department. “I grew up in Hillside. I grew up in Little League and Pop Warner, and we need a mayor who’s at the meetings, who’s visible. We need more programs for the children of
this town and we need to stabilize taxes.”

Jewell plans to make his formal announcement one way or the other in the days following his return from the Inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, where he will serve as part of a special security detail.

So far the only declared candidate in the race, Menza waits.

The winner of seven white voter-dominant districts to McCoy-Oliver’s victory in six African-American-dominant districts in their 2005 matchup in a 13-district town where African Americans have a slight edge in numbers, the Italian-American says he doesn’t care whether he runs against machine-driven Jewell or a disaffected McCoy-Oliver or anyone else. He intends to assemble a full slate of candidates with appeal to voters of all backgrounds.

Of course, Jewell, an African-American, would counter with the same, and would likely run on the line with Italian-American incumbent Councilman at-Large Frank Deo.

But it’s the top of the ticket that counts in this mayoral election year, and Menza’s promise of a multiracial ticket notwithstanding, there’s some off-the-record worry in town among his opponents that if too many African-Americans get in the race for mayor, they will finish one another off and handMenza a victory. Hillside’s provisions for a runoff election between the top two vote-getters in the absence of one candidate receiving 50 percent plus one, however, make such an outcome unlikely.

In any event, Menza stays focused on his old political foe, DeFilippo, whose machine he takes pride in having already weathered four years ago, who he says would have made a decent leader in another era and in another theater of operation.

“She would be a good admiral in the British Navy in the 1800s,” says Menza, adding that she can position a ship in the right direction, light the fuse on a cannon and blast away at a single target.

“But she doesn’t like guerilla warfare,” he says. “That’s because she needs to control everything. You need evidence? All you need to do is to take a look at the council. It’s horrendous. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen. All they come up with are tax increases.”

A district captain for the party in the 4th Ward, Jewell knows if he runs against Menza on the one hand and Daniels or McCoy-Oliver on the other, he’s going to face the charge that he’s a pawn of DeFilippo.

He says he’s ready to fight that charge.

“She’s a Democrat just like our president is a Democrat,” says Jewell. “Her job is to get Democrats elected. I’m my own person and I have my own ideas, and I need to be in that mayor’s spot to make things happen.”

At least one other potential candidate could add an entirely new dimension to the mayoral race, and that would be 2nd Ward Councilwoman Shelley-Ann Bates, who over the course of her last two years in office has positioned herself as an independent Democrat who commonly joins Councilman Gerald Freedman in the dissenting camp.

A fierce independent with Bushman’s hat pulled down over his ears, the bearded council veteran Freedman backed Menza in the last election and regularly doesn’t hesitate to give a blunt “no” answer in the face of administrative requests for more money.

At the reorganization meeting on Tuesday, the seven-member council wades through multiple resolutions for municipal employee salary raises, for example, and Jewell consistently votes aye over the entrenched minority of Bates and Freedman.

At this point, the township council doesn’t even know if it’s receiving state extraordinary aid, argues Bates.

“This is a township where we have not passed the budget or collected taxes, we don’t know how severe the decrease is going to be,” the councilwoman says.

A Republican who gets along with the Democratic Party machine, Council President John Kulish concedes, “The economy’s in the tank.”

Still, he can’t see denying employee raises.

“It’s kind of hard when you’re looking at giving individual raises, but a lot of employees have been working in the past without contracts,” Kulish says. “No one knows what the economy is going to be in the future and we shouldn’t penalize employees in the town.”

Bates votes no again, and so does Freedman.Jewell again votes yes with the majority.

It’s the first meeting of the New Year, and, of course, an election year. It proves no big event. There appear to be no newspaper reporters present. The mayor is a no-show, and state elected officials stay away. Menza doesn’t go tonight.

But the players are all emerging and reemerging.

The fact that the meeting is not seen as newsworthy is itself not news in Hillside, which these days gets little play in its rugged 2.8-square mile niche of upper Unon County, where a political battle slowly, and in its own way momentously, takes shape.

Between Newark and Elizabeth, the election year forces of Hillside begin to mobilize