The factory worker’s daughter

They don’t make anything in Newark anymore, at least not in the classic manufacturing sense.

But those who are still tied to this biggest of Jersey cities hope to be able to craft something out of what’s left.

In the midst of a political battle to decide what that will be, M. Teresa Ruiz says her opponents want to inflate North Ward boss Steve Adubato into a poster-sized target to obscure the fact that they’re running against a Puerto Rican woman who was born and bred in the City of Newark.

“This race is about better services, creating better opportunities, and making sure our communities are safe,” says Ruiz, who recently took a leave of absence from her job as chief of staff to Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo so she can focus on winning the state Senate seat in District 29, which covers part of Newark and all of neighboring Hillside Township.

The 33-year old Ruiz says she wants to make sure the educational funding she secures at the state level actually makes it into the classrooms. She wants to help constituents coming back from incarceration by championing legislation that enables them to get jobs, help improve public housing for seniors and families, and assist in creating responsible development as her city tries to crawl back from the abyss.

It’s an ambitious agenda for someone who never held elected office. But the Democratic Party nominee says she’s ready based on her unique experience as a Newarker, and dismisses charges that she is a “political neophyte” in the words of opponent Assemblyman William Payne, and a string “puppet” in the hands of Adubato, according to opponent At-Large councilman Luis Quintana, who are both running off the line in hopes of upsetting Ruiz.

“I am super independent,” Ruiz says. “I have my own thoughts and my own ideas. It’s my nature and my character to question and to clearly give my stance and my view of the situation. I have great relationships with every person who has endorsed my candidacy.”

One of those people isn’t former Mayor Sharpe James, who has served in the state Senate representing district 29 since 1999.

Ruiz, Payne and Quintana are all running to replace James, who announced in the spring that he wouldn’t pursue re-election to the senate, and earlier this month was led into a federal courtroom in leg-irons and handcuffs after the U.S. Attorney’s Office indicted him on 33 counts of corruption. Charged with funneling public resources to friends and taking international jaunts at the taxpayers’ expense, James in his heyday commanded a ballpark salary of a quarter million, between his jobs as Newark mayor and state senator in a city where 36% of the residents are mired in poverty.

Tired of the James game, State Democratic Party Chairman Joseph Cryan last week called on the former mayor to step down from his senate post in advance of the end of his term in January, and for the appointment of Ruiz to fill the district 29 senate seat.

The Ruiz campaign responded carefully to Cryan’s remarks.

“Teresa is ready to serve if the seat becomes available,” says Ruiz campaign manager Phil Alagia. “She’s the Democratic nominee and she’s been through a primary.”

Surfacing at City Hall on the day after his appearance in court, James did the old ain’t got nothing on me routine. The fallen former mayor backs Payne to be his replacement, but at one time or another the senate candidates, themselves aligned through the North Ward Democratic Organization, aligned themselves with the James machine. In the 2002 mayoral showdown between James and current Mayor Cory Booker, all three backed James. When James pulled out of a bid for re-election in 2006, the candidates supported the powerfully emergent Booker and his change message over longtime state Sen. Ronald Rice.

Booker supports young Ruiz, much to the chagrin of Payne and Quintana, elected officials and fierce warhorses who were stung by the suddenness of the party’s cold shoulder after they’d toiled on Booker’s behalf. Now as he wrestles with the city that James left behind after over 20 years as mayor, a city that spends more than it takes in, a crime-ridden clutch of five wards backlogged with 5,000 lawsuits against it and the recipient in 2006 of roughly $192.2 million in federal Housing and Urban Development dollars – a sum that will be less this year because the city failed in the past to comply with HUD requirements – the first year mayor faces the prospect of some shaky-kneed spotters who in a political season may leave Booker to bench press Brick City on his own.

What happens in the senate race will be a gut check moment for Newark. Will Ruiz and her fellow Booker-backed Democrats receive the added boost of revelations that the old regime was even more corrupt than initial reports and be able to strongly reassert the sense that there’s a new era, or will the new mayor’s opponents find political footing by making the argument that James – an effective leader in some areas – is an African-American scapegoat for the city’s deeper and older plagues? And will the latter be able to swing that into support for Quintana and Payne?

Political activist Larry Hamm, a former member of the Newark Board of Education, says the mayor’s stated willingness to layoff as many as 1,000 city employees to help stabilize the city’s future budget ($785.4 million this year) could help generate significant opposition before the election and play havoc with Ruiz’s perceived mainstream candidacy.

“The city is not in good shape,” admits Hamm, “But we would be opposed to balancing the budget on the backs of working and poor people.”

Whatever the machinery of her alliances, Ruiz says ultimately she’ll rely on her roots.

The Newark native became active politically ten years ago, after she received her degree in English from Drew University in Madison and returned to her hometown. She was captain of her North Ward district, and quickly became a pro at aggressive, door pounding, street level politics. She taught pre-school at Adubato’s North Ward Center, worked as an aide to Councilwoman Bessie Walker and emerged in the last five years as the voice of Essex County, writing press releases and handling media outreach for DiVincenzo. She says she understands the county Green Acres program, how Newark can gain access to recreational funding, Department of Transportation funding and welfare needs; and highlights her experience in Essex’s 22 municipalities on different levels. Her husband, Samuel Gonzalez, is chairman of the Newark Public Schools Advisory Board.

“I have been a public servant,” says Ruiz. “That’s what being a senator is and should be: understanding how government operates, listening and recognizing the needs of your constituents, forging relationships across the board with every level of office and then merging all of that together to ensure our communities and our residents get a better quality of life.”

She adds: “I may be new to elected office but I am not new to public service.”

As much as Payne and Quintana strive to depict Ruiz as an Adubato underling, Ruiz says the chief trouble with that argument is both politicians have labored for the powerful Democratic boss’s attention in the past.

“They’ve gone to Steve for his support and have accepted it but when he has a different agenda and in this case didn’t support their candidacies, then he becomes the mastermind and the puppet master,” Ruiz says. “Call me a neophyte but who I am is a determined, government-centered Latina and a Newarker. I’m going to rely on the experts and they are the people of the district.” Alagia says, “They’d both give their arm to have Steve’s endorsement.”

Besides, Ruiz has her own North Ward story, one that goes back to her childhood, the family connections in Puerto Rico, the striving to outdistance the reach of the worst streets – and the return to her home city with an education.

She grew up in the North Ward, where today the beige and eggshell blue rowhouses project a best effort show of normalcy that never eradicates the underlying suggestion of crime.

From the playground of St. Michael’s School, an asphalt lot with pastel colors drawn on it, a steel bridge in the upright position is visible on the Passaic River over the rooftops to eastward. To southward, on the far side of Bloomfield Avenue, stands the lone copper spire of Newark’s Sacred Heart Cathedral.

In a tough niche of the city, this was where the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrant and factory worker Silvestre Ruiz and his wife Virginia, went to school. A native of San Sebastian, the late Silvestre Ruiz had a fourth grade education and worked as a forklift operator outside the city limits for a cardboard construction company. At other times he worked at a cheese factory and for a paint company. The candidate’s mother received her GED and worked in an office.

“My mother gained more access to different career paths than my father because she had that GED,” says Ruiz. “My father’s thinking about my sister and me always was, ‘I want them to see themselves in a different place.’”

So when Ruiz breaks the issues down, she starts with education.

“We must provide excellence for our children in the educational system and we’re not doing it,” she says, vowing to get tough in the wake of scandals that sank the Schools Construction Corporation (SCC).

“It’s a matter of working to get a clear understanding of how to get dollars back in districts,” she says. “Right now in the district we have trailers taking up recreational areas because we’re busting at the seams with our student population. I’m not saying there are schools that are not doing well. There are fantastic schools in the city. We have to recognize what’s working in those public schools. We need to equip our children with a better foundation.”

The expungement issue is big in Essex County, which doubles every other Jersey county in terms of prison population, where experts say ex cons – non-violent first-time offenders the largest subset among them – are regularly turned away from jobs after filling out applications and including the information that they’ve been convicted of crimes.

“We heard about it in every corner of the district when we canvassed,” Ruiz says of her primary campaign travels around the district with running mates Albert Coutinho and Grace Spencer. “A lot of individuals we spoke to had some kind of record. When they’ve paid their dues and done their time, they need to come out with a clean slate so they can be part of the community. We have to come up with a way at the state level to address that issue.”

Another horror show reality Ruiz and her allies confronted in their door-to-door was the crumbling housing conditions of many of the district’s senior citizens.

“Some housing was in great shape, but some is in huge disrepair with no security and anyone who would go to visit those seniors would walk away saddened,” Ruiz says. “At a time when senior residents should be enjoying their golden years, they’re living in environs that are in great disrepair.”

Like her desire to make certain that education funding goes to education and not bloated middlemen, Ruiz wants to serve as a watchdog over those state and federal funds designated for housing.

“My vision for the district is that it becomes a model community in every aspect with great school systems, thriving downtowns, where people feel they have an opportunity to gain access to services,” she says.

On Mount Prospect, there’s a sagging cardboard grotto propped against the yard of a brick apartment and a red stain on the sidewalk where the candle wax has melted. A man was shot and killed here, across the street from a front stoop where several more people were shot in a drive by, none killed on that day. The closed down Newark Boys and Girls Club down on Broadway looks like an old boarded-up factory building, and across the street the police prowl cars crawl in and out of the precinct parking lot.

Just before Broadway meets Bloomfield, a woman pushing a baby stroller up to the highest point of the North Ward will momentarily be afforded a view of Manhattan on the other side of three successive rivers: the Passaic, Hackensack and Hudson and the swampland in-between. She’s wearing a T-shirt that reads “I Love New York,” a nice try fashion statement that higher up on the street will prove the wrong one in Jersey, where a muscleman stands in shades with a black T-shirt on that says to that New York shirt and all others like it, in block letters that leave no room for argument: “I Am Brick City.”

Up the street there are young people passing out pamphlets in front of a supermarket telling people not to shop there because the place doesn’t pay prevailing wages.

Ruiz walks out of a Dominican restaurant on Broadway, exchanges a cheek kiss with another Latina, a friend from the neighborhood who tells her, of course, she has her support in the campaign. It’s a few blocks up the street from St. Michael’s, a few blocks down from the grotto.

“I want the district to become synonymous with excellence across the board,” insists the factory worker’s daughter of the place that like her family and her father, helped make her.

The factory worker’s daughter