From Newark to Trenton, and back again

They hear it on the streets of Newark.

But on the first and third Wednesdays of each month, the City Council can be sure to receive a barrage of complaints from residents who are worried not only about the murders and gangs but about the cost of living and the threat of corporate interests upending local concerns.

“You’re supposed to be standing up and fighting for us,” the poet Amiri Baraka cried during the public comment forum of a meeting. “Until I see you fighting, then you’re not a good council.”

“You’re giving tax abatements to developers,” cried resident Frank Hertz. “You’d better justify this tax abatement.”

And always there is the complaint about the scarcity of jobs.

Failing a large company investing in Newark, the council must search among the resources it has and historically one of these is the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, a plant based in the city that treats the wastewater of 34 northern New Jersey municipalities. Currently the $150 million-a year operation is in the midst of a hiring freeze. A common gripe that the council has heard and heard again, is that although the commission draws $30.5 million in sewer taxes from Newark residents, just 2% of the 630-man work force lives in Newark.

“We definitely need more employees to be hired from the City of Newark,” said Newarker Kiburi Tucker, lead operator with the commission, and son of the late commissioner, Assemblyman/Newark City Councilman Donald Tucker. “For that reason alone, it’s very important that there’s a commissioner who protects our interests.”

A $10,000-a year seat on the nine-member Passaic River Sewerage Commission hardly sounds like glamorous work, even if it carries an invite to the international sewerage convention in Geneva, and other perks, like being able to walk down the street in the city and catch hell from residents who know when a bad commissioner has failed to secure lower sewer rates or failed to employ Newarkers.

But a good commissioner can wield more popularity in Newark than a state senator. In the early 1960s, the Democratic Party dumped state Senator Donal C. Fox because he didn’t support Commissioner Dennis F. Cary, who used his position in no small part to land jobs for city residents. For over 20 years, Assemblyman/Newark City Councilman Donald Tucker filled the Democratic Party’s seat in Essex County and by all accounts was a fighter. But since his death in 2005, Newark has gone not only without good representation on the commission but without representation, as the seat has remained vacant.

There are nine commissioners representing the four counties within the PRSC’s area. Each county gets two commissioners, one per party. Angelina M. Paserchia of Belleville fills the other seat on the commission, but she’s not a Democrat and she’s not a Newarker.

As it faces a skeptical public, the Newark City Council is now battling to replace Tucker with another city councilman following the meltdown of the governing body’s first choice, At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana, whom the Senate Judiciary Committee drummed out of contention last month on orders from Gov. Jon Corzine.

Three councilmen are vying for the seat: Donald Payne, Jr., Augusto Amador, and Carlos Gonzalez. The nine-person council is divided about the best person for the job. Payne has connections: he’s a freeholder in addition to being a councilman and his father’s a congressman. Amador is the veteran who knows government operations, and Gonzalez the lawyer who ran on Cory Booker’s slate in 2002 and 2004, and is said to be the mayor’s first choice.

“We don’t get back what we deserve in terms of jobs,” said Councilman Ron Rice, Jr., who himself offered his own name as a compromise candidate during negotiations. “The person who serves us on the commission has an obligation to be pain in the butt and take on the powerful interests of other towns, who should have courage to say screw this person or that person, we need someone who can do best by city of Newark.”

But going on two years now, “While we’re fighting over our commissioner, other counties are coming in and eating our lunch,” said Assemblyman Thomas Giblin of the 34th district.

Questioning the wisdom of a councilman filling the commissioner’s seat given current attitudes towards dual office holding, Giblin added, “I think we have to let cooler heads prevail in terms of who will represent the interests of Essex County.” Indeed, senators who spoke out publicly against Quintana mentioned their opposition to his candidacy based on his status as a dual office holder.

As Booker broods on the matter, at the very least he likely wants to avoid the political dagger play exchanged at the higher levels of government that resulted in Quintana’s demise and a stand-off that sent the whole issue hurtling in his direction.

It happened in Trenton on Nov. 8th, yet it was all about Essex.

County Executive Joe DiVincenzo thought he had made the governor understand he didn’t want the judiciary committee to consider Quintana for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission appointment. But Senate President Richard Codey prevailed on Judiciary committee Chair Sen. John Adler to keep the at-large councilman’s name in play – at least for as long as it would take the committee to sign off on Quintana before the start of the new year – when a new senate would include a new cast of characters who could exert senatorial courtesy, among them freshman Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz.

When on the day of the hearing DiVincenzo found out that the committee had Quintana in the docket, he called the governor personally and complained. The North Ward Center had brought Quintana along at an early age, supported his candidacy for city council and generally considered him first family. Then Quintana stepped out on his own – because he refused to run against fellow Puerto Rican Hector Corchado – and thereafter became a walking stick of political dynamite in the north ward.

Running against DiVinzenco protege Ruiz in the 2007 election as an independent senate candidate, Quintana proved an irritating foe with his own salsa campaign song blaring incessantly from car-mounted loudspeakers in DiVincenzo’s territory.

After truding through a long campaign season in which Quintana not only ran himself but also supported fellow North Ward Democratic Party castoff Wilfredo Caraballo in the primary, the county executive couldn’t abide watching Quintana happily resurface in such a powerful position as sewerage commissioner.

Reminded by the county exec of his conversations from months ea
rlier regarding the upstart Quintana’s candidacy against the Democratic nominee, Corzine summoned Adler and told him to remove the name from consideration.

Codey found out and was steamed.

Quintana was no Codey political bunkmate, but ever since he went against DiVincenzo, Quintana for all of his cowboying could at least offer the former governor one assurance: he wouldn’t be a foot soldier for DiVincenzo, and that was important when considering how fast power coalesces in New Jersey politics and how DiVincenzo’s power in Codey’s Essex County carries a particular threat. These men can live in close proximity – just barely – as long as one doesn’t suddenly seize the upper hand.

Rather than stand toe-to-toe with Corzine and DiVincenzo on the matter, the senate president said goodbye to Quintana – but insisted that Booker select the new nominee and present that nominee to the governor. If Codey couldn’t get the independent councilman for the post, better to distribute power through the mayor of Newark than let old rival DiVincenzo consolidate. DiVincenzo was fine with that. Let Booker decide. Booker and DiVincenzo are close, but their political alliance is not of a familial nature.

Booker can’t be beholden to Joe D., and Codey knows that.

The official story coming out of the primary season last June was that Booker, in his first show of strength since his own landslide election to the mayor’s post in 2006, had impressively gone 5-6 in the 28th and 29th district legislative races.
But that’s not how the Essex County politicos read it, who knew the newly elected mayor had no other political recourse after his election but to solidify relations with DiVincenzo, North Ward boss Steve Adubato and the North Ward Democratic Organization.

The alliance paid off, but while five of the six candidates whom Booker endorsed won, it’s also true that three of the six candidates were selected by DiVincenzo and his allies at the North Ward Democratic Organization. Most significant was the fact that DiVincenzo’s deputy chief of staff, none other than Ruiz, won the senate primary in the 29th district, while Booker’s candidate, Bilal Beasley, lost in the 28th.

Every executive covets the power of senatorial courtesy.

In former Mayor Sharpe James’ case, he coveted it to the point of actually becoming the senator to complement his position as mayor. Ruiz’s victory meant DiVincenzo would have the next best thing to double-dipping: a deputy chief of staff working in his office, who would also be the senator serving half the population of the City of Newark.

Meanwhile, Beasley’s loss in the 28th meant that instead of having a friend in the senate, Booker would have to work with his old enemy, Sen. Ron Rice (father of the councilman), the man he beat in order to become mayor, but who never ran a full season’s campaign against Booker because James suddenly dropped out in the face of Booker’s gathering machine.

From Booker’s standpoint, it would have been good to beat Rice with Beasley in his first year in office. Instead, he had to look on as the West Ward-based senator added to his folk hero status by coming back from the political dead in the one can’t-lose race for Booker while everyone else from the earlier era – Caraballo, Truitt, Payne, Stanley and James – expired.

“In any war,” Rice said when he returned to the senate after the primary, “there are casualties.”

Although Ruiz buried Quintana in the general election, the at-large councilman didn’t see himself as a casualty – not with Rice and Codey down in Trenton taking care of an appointment he had long desired, which some say Tucker had seen as more important for all of its power-wielding capacity, than his assembly seat.

On the day John Adler felt himself being pulled in two different directions: by Corzine on one side telling him to kill the Quintana nomination and by Codey on the other telling him to keep it there or else, he decided to listen to the man currently and officially called governor.

When Rice found out about that he personally went to Corzine’s office and railed to no avail. Then he went before Adler’s judiciary committee. Noting that it was against protocol to allow testimony at that time, Adler reluctantly gave the floor to Rice in deference to a fellow senate colleague. But only for a few minutes. He took the Newark senator’s entreaties to keep Quintana under advisement, then voted against Quintana.

Leaving the chamber, it was again Rice’s turn to feel beaten in the ongoing Booker-Rice battle as he watched the power to name the commissioner slip back into the hands of his onetime conqueror.

But as Booker now muses on the particular advantage of having Gonzalez fill the seat, he must contend, as always, with the terrain of Newark municipal government, as complex or more so than Trenton, and he must face another irony, which is the stubborn refusal of Rice’s son on the council, Councilman Ron Rice, Jr., to acquiesce in the face of Booker’s choice.

As Booker cannot be beholden to DiVincenzo, so too the council cannot appear to be beholden to Booker.

Ultimately the council is going to be sitting there hearing from residents about a sewer bill that went up – and why; or why there aren’t any new jobs for Newarkers, and what is the commissioner who’s supposed to be representing Newark doing in his or new job on the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission?

“We as a governing body would hope that the council would decide who the commissioner is,” said Rice. “The person who represents the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission should come from the city council. Of course, we want somebody the mayor is comfortable with, and the governor.”

A moderate voice in city politics, Gonzalez isn’t Quintana. He’s loyal to Booker, is a community lawyer in the north ward, and his family has its own grassroots political machine. Adubato and the North Ward Democratic Organization have the technical know-how and power, but in his modest way Gonzalez is a presence in the north.

“We have not received a name from the governor’s office,” Adler said last Friday.

Whether it’s Gonzalez or someone else, whoever the council and Booker agree on, whose name goes to the governor, who submits it to the judiciary committee, only one thing is certain.

The issue will ultimately come back again to Essex County, to Newark, and if there’s a new commissioner, he will hear about the job he’s doing, as will the council – from the people on the street.

From Newark to Trenton, and back again