Running in a crouch familiar to old-timey Newark sports fans, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr., heads out onto the grass – and this time approaches a half circle of women who have stationed themselves outside his press conference at the Turtle Back Zoo. They’re protesting his decision to allow a deer hunt early next year in the South Mountain Reservation.
"I don’t like guns, but I have no choice," he tells them. "We’ve tried trap and transfer. We’ve tried birth control. Nothing works. We have to reduce the deer population."
The women close the distance with shaking signs. "They’ve been holding a hunt for 18 years in the Great Swamp and the deer continue to proliferate," says Carole Riville. "That’s proof it doesn’t work."
"Immunocontraception is 71% effective," says Janet Piszar, referring to a deer birth control method.
DiVincenzo stands firm. Immunocontraception is still experimental, he says, and "If I don’t do something I won’t be fulfilling my responsibility." After some more back and forth he says he’ll schedule a meeting to talk to the protestors again to hear their concerns, an offer they throw back at him scornfully because he’s already made the decision and they don’t want a social call.
It’s a classic constituency-versus-elected official showdown, and DiVincenzo argues a little longer, before he again climbs into his car, in pursuit of the next and the next and the next event.
"We cover 75 miles a day throughout the county; I’m at this 24-7," he says, before he answers another phone call on the fly.
Not facing his own third term re-election bid until 2010, DiVincenzo unavoidably remains a protagonist in this election cycle, as two of the three candidates in Newark’s contentious District 29 Senate race work as his deputy chiefs of staff: M. Teresa Ruiz and Assemblyman William Payne, both on administrative leave without pay until after the campaign. A third candidate, At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana, is running as the anti-establishment pick.
DiVincenzo has endorsed Ruiz, the Democratic nominee whom the executive regards as one of the ascending stars of the party in Newark.
"She didn’t want to run," DiVincenzo says of Ruiz, 33, the favorite, who if elected would succeed indicted Sen. Sharpe James. "I kept saying, ‘This is an opportunity. You don’t do this, you’d not only be cheating yourself, you’d be cheating the people of your district.’"
The party-backed presence of Ruiz forces the 74-year old Payne into a last stand scenario similar to what Assemblyman Wilfredo Caraballo faced as he went down fighting for re-election in the June primary. Rather than go out as Caraballo did, however, Payne chose to file as an independent. Now he hopes the participation in this race of Quintana, 47, will drain votes from Ruiz in the Latino-heavy North Ward and enable Payne to lock up the mostly African-American South Ward.
In a telling snapshot of how the race will go, at least on the demographics front, the Ruiz and Quintana campaigns had a Monitor-Merrimack battle of the flotillas at Sunday’s Puerto Rican Day Parade, while Payne didn’t attend and stayed busy making his own battle preparations in the South.
"I understand that when my name was called, there was applause," insists Payne, in his campaign headquarters on Bergen Avenue the day after festivities put a traffic choke hold on the city’s downtown.
Indeed, the Assemblyman has name recognition and deep roots in the city where he was born and grew up delivering newspapers on the streets of the North Ward with his brother, now U.S. Rep. Donald Payne. In this contest, theveteran Assemblyman picked up the endorsement of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA), and owns a record as a principled fighter who has secured coveted state funds – including Abbot District money for Hillside.
But it’s going to be difficult for Payne.
He’s not financed like the party, and he’s running as a line "E" independent candidate in the Newark portion of the district and line "F" in Hillside.
"I would have loved to have had him and Teresa run," says DiVincenzo, referring to the Democrats’ original efforts to craft a ticket that featured Ruiz at the top of the ticket and Payne in a supporting role as one of two Assembly candidates.
Payne didn’t like that arrangement.
He figured he put the time and effort in as a legislator, and as an African-American leader who knew Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as early as the mid-1950's when the two spoke at a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) event in San Francisco. Payne didn’t think it was right to step aside and let someone with no record as an elected official assume senatorial courtesy.
He’s worked too hard, and still remembers a Newark in which blacks could only go to the ice rink on certain days.
"My epiphany in life was when I read about (1950 Nobel Peace Prize winner) Ralph Bunche," says Payne. "I thought, ‘If he was able to rise above racism, so could I.’ I could almost feel the chains of second-class citizenship fall away. I made up my mind I would never stand on the sidelines."
The irony of his life’s work on behalf of disenfranchised people is that now Payne also carries the stigma of coming out of the Essex County inner sanctum, hardly a regressive reality countywide but potentially harmful in a city strung together by gradations of mostly left-wing, anti-authoritarian political alliances. South Ward activist Ras Baraka, for example, sees Payne as an establishment candidate who was too late to turn radical.
Eschewing the Ruiz-Payne-DiVincenzo nexus, Baraka instead backs Quintana, the self-professed street-level candidate who’s mounting an insurgent campaign against what Quintana says is a Democratic Party controlled by North Ward boss Steve Adubato.
"Payne should have left county government," Baraka told PoltiicsNJ.com.
"Why should I?" says Payne.
For all of the wounds suffered early when he fought off tuberculous, worked in a Newark factory, and worked his way through Rutgers night school, looking around sometimes to find himself the only African-American in the room, for all of the struggles, his commitment to equal access education, Payne now appears to the Baraka crowd as politically weak for not having been able to impose his will on the top of the Democratic ticket in the 29th.
But he has the support of West Ward Sen. Ronald Rice, and for what it’s worth remains respected in the Ruiz camp, which has its own solid link to grassroots South Ward activism with the presence on their ticket of lawyer and Newark native L. Grace Spencer, another element that boosts Ruiz where she needs it in the South.
There are no hard feelings here when it comes to Payne.
"He’s still going to play a valuable role as my deputy chief of staff," says DiVincenzo. "He’s still going to be working for me. I’ve got a great relationship with the Paynes and I wish it could have worked out differently but ill’s going to be all right."
While she’s never held elected office, Ruiz has distinguished herself as DiVincenzo’s deputy chief and public relations coordinator, according to her boss; and she is an Hispanic woman in a district where Latinas form a significant and fast growing voting block. If elected she’ll give up her public relations gig with the county, but like Payne, stay on the county payroll as deputy chief.
The other candidate in this race is a little different.
Running with former South Ward Councilwoman Bessie Walker and South Ward district leader Carlotta Hall, Quintana also feels he’s done his time, in his case on the council, and he figures he was a vital enough part of Team Booker last year to merit a move up to the state Senate. Plus, he ran against James once before, back when he had Booker’s support in that cause. Now the mayor’s backing Ruiz.
The at-large councilman, who also once served as James’ deputy mayor, doesn’t seem to care. Political alliances are transient.
"I believe I’m the people’s champion," says Quintana, son of a seamstress. "As representative of the 29th in the state Senate I want to make sure I comply with the human cry of New Jersey’s citizens – urban and suburban."
He says he would not pursue re-election as a councilman in 2010 if elected senator.
"In the meantime, I will not receive my senate pay ($48,000)," says Quintana. "I will give that to non-profits."
He can’t resist a dig.
"My opponent will go back to her job," he says of Ruiz. "She’s going to go back to her master."
Ruiz forces argue that it was Quintana’s failure to secure a job with the Passaic River Valley Authority that originally bruised his ego. Quintana blames North Ward Democratic Party boss Steve Adubato and DiVincenzo for blocking his way to the political appointment, what he describes as retaliation because he backed Caraballo instead of the party’s candidates for Assembly.
"Joe DiVincenzo will not control my destiny," says Quintana.
Which brings the race inevitably back to the fourth floor of the mammoth Essex County complex in downtown Newark, where the county executive and his chiefs maintain their offices, two of which are currently empty.
Now it’s DiVincenzo up there, presiding over a roughly $600 million budget in Essex, with 3,600 employees on the payroll – a figure he says he’s thinned over five years in office from 4,200 employees. He’s been through his own political wars: arguably the most bruising in years- DiVincenzo v. Giblin, back in 2002, an Irish against Italian version of Thermopylae stretched over the course of a full primary season, which DiVincenzo ultimately won.
In the midst of a huge, multimillion-dollar architectural overhaul of the county complex, the executive says his mission, as the slogan says, is to "Put Essex County First," and that includes seizing every opportunity to create and restore public spaces.
"What I want to put in people’s minds is how you have to have green space," says DiVincenzo, standing in the heart of downtown Newark. "Nobody can say the county isn’t doing its part."
The county’s 17-park system is the oldest in the state and includes the North Ward’s Branch Brook, where the county executive played as a boy, revamped now under his leadership as a daytime haven of baseball diamonds and carefully cultivated cherry blossom trees. The Caraballo campaign attempted to portray DiVincenzo’s parks-fixation as ultimately detrimental to other county services.
But DiVincenzo makes no apologies.
"You see that building over there?" he asks. "That’s the Essex County Vocational School. When we’re done here, the students in that school will look out the window and see a park instead of a parking garage, which is what they see now."
Like Ruiz and Quintana and Payne, who came up in North Ward politics, DiVincenzo blazed his way out of the north, a star quarterback at Barringer High School in 1970 who also wasn’t bad with a bat and glove, who tried going pro with the pigskin before he ended up in the North Ward again, working as the athletic director for Steve Adubato’s North Ward Center.
At one point he discovered another gridiron.
"This woman, Anne Marie Natoli, got me into politics," said DiVincenzo. "She told me, ‘Joe D., if you run with me, I’ll win. We ran on the ‘C’ line and won and became district leaders in the North Ward. Six months later, Anne Marie Natoli died of cancer."
He went on to win election to the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders in 1990, and served as the board’s president for over ten years.
Reflecting on his current office, DiVincenzo says the men before him were seduced too quickly into believing they had the goods for higher office, before they were either led off to jail (Republican James Treffinger) or soundly beaten (Democrat Peter Shapiro, in his 1980's run for governor). DiVincenzo says his own bid for re-election last year amounted to a walkover.
"All you have to do is win five of the 22 towns, and I won 19 of them in the last election," he boasts.
If critics like Quintana wants to say Ruiz is too closely aligned with DiVincenzo, that’s fine, says the executive.
"Luis is his own worst enemy, who does not get things accomplished because he fights," argues DiVincenzo.
His chief of staff, Phil Alagia, says DiVincenzo had already signed off on Quintana's appointment to the Passaic River Valley Authority when the news struck that Quintana would be filing to run against Ruiz. Alagia says his bosslater called Gov. Jon Corzine and asked him to withdraw his letter of support.
"It's the dumbest political move I've ever seen," Alagia says of Quintana's challenge.
Meanwhile, Divincenzo revels in what hehas forged withhis party'spolitical alliances. "Look at what we’ve done," The county executive offers by way of contrast. "Teresa’s a big part of this."
It isn’t only parks and recreation facilities.
His car pulls up in front of the New Essex County Hospital Center, a new, 180-bed psychiatric facility that under his leadership went from blueprint to $60 million reality in two years. The fast-striding county executive enters a conference room where small business leaders are assembled at a business expo. DiVincenzo steps up to the microphone and plugs the results of a county disparity study, which found that Essex wasn’t engaging nearly enough minority-owned businesses.
"We established a goal of hiring 25% minority-owned contractors to build this hospital center, and we exceeded that by 6 %," says DiVincenzo, which he says amounted to $20 million-worth going to minority firms.
Payne gives DiVincenzo credit for that, and takes some credit for making it an issue early. "I’m sure my presence alone was enough to keep it on the front burner," says Payne. "Of course, it’s not happening as fast as it should, but anything that is done is an improvement that was being done. When Joe came in I think the county was giving about 3 % of its contracts to minority businesses."
All of the candidates in this race line up behind the understanding that the fight in Trenton is going to entail securing more money for schools, for improved public housing for seniors, and for prisoner re-entry programs and jobs-training in a county that doubles the rest of the state in prisoner population. Payne says he’s been there and done that. Quintana says he’ll do that and lower property taxes statewide. And Ruiz says that while she’s not new to public life, in terms of understanding what’s required of an elected official, she’s learned from the best.
On the outs with Adubato and DiVincenzo, maybe Quintana won’t return to the North Ward-rooted fold of officialdom. Indeed, the crux of the at-large councilman’s argument will continue to be that he’s an outsider, an independent entity who promises if elected senator to come back and work with the county to secure state dollars – but who refuses to be tamed, who will not be confined by a political alliance.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team from the North of Newark, fractured now and heading into the rough part of this campaign, will whatever the outcome likely come together again post Nov. 6th, around the quarterback.