Roselle Mayor Garrett Smith needed this one, and so did theUnion County Democratic Organization.
Those twomutually exclusive desires added up to one thing: a war.
Ever since former Assemblyman Neil Cohen’s (D-Roselle) career went belly up amid charges of keeping child porn on his computer, the battle lines for local party control intensified here in his town, which, depending on your perspective, is either a bufferfor Westfield against thedanger-zone of Elizabethor a buffer for Elizabeth against thewhitebread excesses of Cranford and Westfield.
A mild-mannered wonk in Trenton, Cohen could get toughin his hometown as head of the local party. Hewasn’t beyond delivering full-blown, profanity-laced public dress-downsto recalcitrant committee members as he dealt with the ongoing headache of Smith,a charismaticindependent Democrat, originally from Jersey City,whobuilt his name as head of a thrivinglocal basketball league before seeking his first term as mayor in 2003.
Smith and Cohencould grudgingly come together to beat on Republicans in presidential or gubernatorial general elections, but mostly they embroiled themselves in a Roselle battle-royale with themselves as chief antagonists.
For years, Roselle seesawed back and forth betweenthe mayorand the assemblyman, with the formerbattling a Cohen-controlled, 6-1majority in 2004 before chipping and chopping away, one candidate per year, to win re-election despite being outspent $300,000 to $50,000 and finally land a 4-2 majority over Cohenin 2007.
It didn’t last.
One of those councilpeople losta year later, while another flipped and joinedthe regular Democrats, evenasthe child porn stories hit and overnight buried Cohen’s political career, leaving Union County Chairwoman Charlotte DeFilippo, herself mired in troubles with the state Attorney General’s Office, to attempt to harness control of what Cohen left behind.
This was the back story for this local 2009 election.
The organization Democrats supported Christine Dansereau. Smith backed former Irvington cop Marc Baltimore as the candidate who could give himthat criticalthird councilperson, and a 3-3 deadlock that he, as mayor, could break with his own vote.
Baltimore’s candidacy, in effect, represented nothing less than township control for the mayor. IfBaltimore won, Smith would have the decided edge in the post-Cohen world of Roselle. But if he lost,the mayorwould risk getting prematurely relegated to lame duck land two years in front of his 2011 re-election bid.
But it was how he lost – with what Smith and his allies argue were local and county barriers thrown up at every juncture of his effort- that hasthe mayorstill battling andintent onrestoring Baltimore to the ballot.
Smith sat in one of chief haunts,the Cavalier diner, on Thursday and recounted the timeline leading up to June 2nd.
First, Roselle Borough ClerkRhona Bluesteindetermined that Baltimore’s petition signatures weren’t in order, and refused to put him on theprimary ballot as an independent Democrat.
Technicalities, said Smith.
But the team shrugged it off. They had to. They knew if they tried to put a challenger on the ballot, the challenger could get scrutinized out of existence, and, well, that’s what happened.
So they went with Plan B.
Smith and Baltimore campaign managerFred Anderson launched a write-in candidacy for Baltimore, but on Election Day, their absentee ballot submissions never made it past the Board of Elections Office in Elizabeth, where Board of Elections Administrator Dennis Scott Kobitzassessed the 50 petition signatures and said they didn’t passmuster.
Now, even if Kobitz had counted thesigs, Dansereau would have won.
But that’s not the point, as the mayor sees it. Smith adds up the roadblocksas a collusion between DeFilippo cronies at the local and county level and a violation of the Voting Rights Act.
“They did everything they could to discourage people from voting,” said the mayor.
County Clerk Joanne Rajjoppi denies it.
“As far as I’m concerned, everyone’s treated the same,” she said in her Elizabeth office. “I run on the Democratic ticket, but that doesn’t mean I ignore the process. Everyone has a right to run.”
As a write-in candidate, Baltimore finally received 123 votes, while the Board of Elections certified Dansereau as the winner of the primary with 317 votes.
Stymied at every turn to this point, Baltimore wants to run in the general election as an independent, but here he has yet another problem.
“There’s a law that doesn’t allow him to do this,” Rajjoppi said.
NJSA 19:13-8.1 prohibits an unsuccessful primary election candidate from running as an independent, and Baltimore as part of hisJune 10th testimony at a summary hearing admitted that he actively sought voter support as a write-in.
“I have reviewed all the testimony and evidence submitted at this hearing,” wrote Deputy County Clerk Alan J. Falcone in rendering a June 12thopinion to deny Baltimore a place on the general electionballot as an independent candidate. “Mr. Baltimore testified his campaign included knocking on doors; putting his signs on people’s lawns; speaking to everyone he could in the 5th Ward seeking their write-in vote; distributing literature identifying him as a write-in candidate and giving out instructions on how to cast a write-in vote.”
Smith – who led a protest outside the Board of Elections Office on Broad Street last month – intends to sue.
Kobitz, however, noted still another Baltimore dilemma. And if Smith refuses to back down with his own legal fight, the deputy clerk can amp up his own beef with Smith’s candidate.
Not that he hasn’t already.
“Marc Baltimore voted twice,” said Kobitz. “He voted absentee ballot and then he went and wrote himself in. I filed a complaint with the with the Attorney General’s Office and sent a letter with the evidence to the prosecutor. The day after the hearing,he admittedthat he voted both ways.”
Earlier this week, heattended the swearing-in ceremony ofHillside Mayor Joe Menza, someone he expects will be an ally much the same way Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka – another lone gun mayor – is an ally.
“I was extremely happy that Joe Menza won that battle in Hillside,” said Smith. “He has the passion and head for the job, and that’s critical. It needs to be in your heart that you can make a difference, because this machine wears you down.”
An independent who defeated the regular Democrats’ candidate to win by seven votes but who comes to the job alone, with no Township Council allies, Menza had to contend with his ownlegalissues during the election.
In his case, a judge ruled that the Hillside Township clerk arbitrarily decided not to bracket Menzawith his council candidate alliesafter not including bracketing applications in the materials received by the candidates, and Menza won his court challenge – and then won again when he defeated At-Large Councilman Jerome Jewell.
But ifthe bondbetween Smith and Gerbounka and now Menza represents a challenge to the DeFilippo power structure, the Union County chairwoman can boastafter this latest cycle of beating Smith on his home turf – even though the mayor insiststhat Baltimore fight isn’t over – but also defeating Smith ally Councilman Adrian Mapp in Plainfield, a second punishing blow.
After running a feisty independent campaign against Mayor Sharon Robinson-Briggs, Mapp lost rather convincingly on Election Day, his vote sapped by other challengers in the race.
Now it’s payback time.
On Wednesday evening, the Roselle Borough Council votedfor a shared services agreement withRoselle Park, which would result in the firing of Mapp as the borough’s chief financial officer.
“He’s gone,” said Council President Jamel Holley. “We will share our finance staff as part of in-house internal agreement.It’s anhistorical cost-savings agreement. This is what we need to be doing to cut costs.Mapp goes. Sept. 1st.”
Mapp’s dismissal underscoresSmith’s weakened condition.
When the mayor tried to securehis ownshared fire departmentservices agreement withhis ally, fellow upstartGerbounka in Linden, the council said no way, and promptly countered by making a supposedly good government cost-savings adjustment that coincidentally rid the town of Smith’s appointee, Mapp.
The loss of Mapp furtherstings Smith,whose candidates for the School Boardalso lost earlier this year.
A year after Cohen’s meltdown, his chief acolyte, Holley, has control of the council and the council presidency.
“The relationship with Garrett Smith is very strained,” Holley told PolitickerNJ.com. “Due to the fact that Neil was a very strong leader in Roselle, we remain strong and together. He always asked us to stay together. And we are. We’re winning, and we have a strong relationship with the Union County Democratic Organization.”
Smith has Gerbounka still, and now Menza, andstrong relationshipswith U.S. Rep. Donald Payne (D-Newark) and state Sen. Ronald L. Rice (D-Newark).
But if Cohen’s gone, now he has to contend with Holley and a county infrastructure still strong if their Roselle and Plainfield victories are any indication both on the streets and in the rooms of power.
It gets lonely.
“There are times when I think to myself it might be good to have a godfather,” said the mayor, who a moment later laughed and said no, maybe not.
He’ll keep working the outside angle.