A Deep Dive Into the Bloomfield Mayoral Race

Lopez and Venezia are both running for mayor in Bloomfield.

Lopez and Venezia are both running for mayor in Bloomfield.

The Bloomfield mayoral race has been rife with drama. Now, there is just one week left until voters make their way to the polls to decide if incumbent Mayor Michael Venezia gets to keep his seat or if challenger Councilman Joe Lopez will have an advantage in becoming the new mayor of Bloomfield headed into the November general election.

The spectacle in Bloomfield started back in November of 2015 when councilman Elias Chalet was accused of bribery. While Chalet was not indicted until January, his indictment caused a rift on the city council. Lopez immediately sided with those calling for Chalet to resign. Venezia, on the other hand, waited until after the indictment was official to make his calls for Chalet to step down. That hesitation led to Lopez and others to criticize Venezia for a lack of action regarding Chalet.

The tension between Lopez and Venezia came to the first head on January 4 of this year at a Bloomfield council meeting. There, a group called CORRUPT (Citizens Organized to Rapidly Remove Underhanded Political Takers) rallied to “to monitor and make public, questionable actions that have been taken by the Venezia administration.” At that council meeting, Lopez called upon Chalet to step down amid the bribery allegations. In the parking lot after the meeting ended, Lopez was approached by five Chalet relatives. He engaged in a physical altercation with one, Daniel Chalet. Later, Chalet brought assault charges against Lopez for the incident but Lopez claims he acted within his rights and was defending himself when the fight broke out. Currently, the charges against Lopez have been dismissed but Chalet said he plans to reopen them.

In February, Lopez blasted Venezia for a radio interview on Hot 97 where Venezia said that the Chalet family was a part of his “team.”

In March, Lopez officially announced his candidacy for mayor and would be running with council candidates Kathy DeMarino, Jo Lewis and Yudi Sobharam. Venezia also announced that he would be pursuing reelection in March and that he would be running with Councilwoman Wartyna Davis, Councilman Carlos Pomares and candidate Ted Gamble.

Initially, because Lopez’s slate was backed by Bloomfield Democratic Committee Chairman Peter Strumolo, Venezia’s slate was off the line. Late in March, the Essex County Democratic Committee stepped in and attempted to broker peace between the two Bloomfield Democratic factions and avoid the messy primary battle. The deal, put up by Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo and Essex Count Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones, proposed that Venezia would run unopposed for mayor with the six council candidates (including Lopez) competing for three seats all on the line. Strumolo rejected the deal, putting Venezia and his candidates on the line in place of Lopez’s Strumolo-backed slate.

Mail also started circulating in Bloomfield in March blasting Venezia for alleged ties to Councilman Chalet. While Team Venezia tied Lopez to the group that distributed the mail, Wake Up Bloomfield, the candidate claimed he had no knowledge of the mail pieces.

In April, new fodder for the discord between Lopez and Venezia was generated when Seton Hall Law released a study claiming that racial profiling was a major factor in why Bloomfield police officers issue tickets in the municipality. Lopez immediately jumped on the charges and held a public discussion on the topic. Despite the fact that Venezia, township administrator Matthew Watkins and Police Director Samuel DeMaio did not attend, place cards were left for them out on the table during the entirety of the discussion. Venezia’s team claimed that the move—and a video truck seen circulating the area featuring news footage about the study—“blatantly politicized” the event.

Venezia held a second discussion on the topic—this time with DeMaio—on May 3. At that event, LD28 legislatures senator Ron Rice, Assemblyman Ralph Caputo and Cleopatra Tucker made calls for the study to not be politicized. Even so, Lopez claimed Venezia was not being cooperative about the study and went to the microphone at Venezia’s event to express his disdain for the allegations that his motives had been political in nature.

While all this has been happening, Venezia has been steadily picking up endorsements from officials around Essex County. The incumbent has secured support from the LD28 legislators state Senator Ron Rice, Assemblywoman Cleopatra Tucker and Assemblyman Ralph Caputo. He also has the backing of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, Essex County Democratic Chairman Leroy Jones, building trades, PBA and FMBA. Last week he earned the endorsement of three Essex County Latino leaders: State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29), Newark North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos and Newark Councilman-at-Large Luis Quintana.

The Latino endorsement comes as a particular sting to Lopez who has struggled to find footing among Essex County’s Democratic establishment. In April, Strumolo issued a letter claiming that it was time the “town makes history by electing the first Latino Mayor in Bloomfield and in Essex County’s history.” Even so, leaders like Ruiz decided to back Venezia. The incumbent mayor’s slate includes Pomares, a Latino candidate.

The campaign has also turned messy in terms of allegations flying back and forth between the two sides. In mid May, Venezia’s team accused Lopez of attempting to remove a lawn sign supporting Venezia from a neighbor’s home. Lopez later came out with a statement from the neighbor, Apolio Ponte, claiming that he was supporting Lopez and that the Venezia sign should have never been on his lawn. Lopez also included a picture with Ponte in his statement.

The next week, a Lopez campaign worker’s car was vandalized with an obscenity referencing “Joe L.” Lopez attributed the vandalism to Team Venezia but a spokesman denied the claims and hearkened back to Lopez’s now-dismissed assault charges. The spokesman, Phil Swibinski, claimed that the charges were still pending. Lopez quickly released a statement, blasting Team Venezia for the claim and calling for an apology. In response, Team Venezia claimed they did not want to get involved in Lopez’s legal business.

There is also the Pablo Fonseca factor.

Fonseca, working on Lopez’s campaign, was former Newark mayor and current Senator Cory Booker’s chief of staff and campaign manager. After leaving City Hall in 2010, the political bulldog worked for West New York for a time but has since left that post to run political campaigns and run his own business. He routinely turns up in scrappy places where backs are against the wall. His work with Lopez may be an attempt to scorn the system.

According to ELEC reports filed on May 9, Venezia’s campaign has raised $131,725.09. Lopez’s campaign has raised $10,750 according to ELEC reports filed on the same day.

Venezia’s contributions include $2,500 from Plumbers Local 24, $6,000 from IBEW #164, $1,219 from the Bloomfield FMBA, $1,300 from well-known political operative Joey Muniz, $2,000 from the Carpenters, and $2,000 from Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, among other contributions.

Lopez’s contributions are notably fewer and more individual. He received $1,000 from the Latino Political Action Committee.

As 11-day pre-election and 20-day post election filings have yet to be made for either candidate, a full financial picture is not available at this time.

Venezia and Lopez will face off in the June 7 primary.