Bergen County likely to get first black freeholder

Bergen County Democratic Chairman Joe Ferriero endorsed Rev. Vernon Walton, a former Englewood councilman, for freeholder today, lining him up to be Bergen County’s first African-American freeholder.

The endorsement, given today at the Bergen County Democratic headquarters in Hackensack, was also attended by Assemblyman Gordon Johnson, a Ferriero foe and former Walton rival who pledged his support to the freeholder-in-waiting.

Ferriero’s endorsement all but ensures that the county committee will confirm Walton to serve the remainder of the unexpired term for the seat left vacant by Connie Wagner, who just entered the Assembly.

Ferriero touted the endorsement as one of a number of moves he has made to increase the number of minorities serving in the party and Bergen County government.

“What’s most important is the Democratic Party has always been a party of inclusion, a party that is there to work for the under privileged, to work for seniors, to improve education,” he said.

Walton, for his part, said that he’s not taking the endorsement to mean that he’s assured a seat on the board.

“We all know that the real people who make this decision are the individuals who are elected to serve on the county committee all over Bergen,” he said. “I plan to work hard over the coming weeks to make sure and ensure that they understand my plan and my vision for the people of Bergen and my desire to serve in this particular capacity.”

In 2006, Gordon Johnson succeeded in ousting Watson from his Englewood City Council seat, citing his close ties with Ferriero’s powerful political machine. That opened Johnson up for charges of hypocrisy for dual office-holding from Ferriero, whose ethics he and his running mates frequently question.

But Johnson was on hand today to welcome Walton to the freeholder board and let bygones be bygones. Having some representation from the 37th district on the Freeholder Board – and particularly Englewood – is more important than political spats, he said.

“I think that Rev. Walton’s skills are well suited for county government. I think it’s also important that we have an opportunity for the city of Englewood to have someone represent us at our interest at the county level, just like when (Assemblywoman and former Freeholder Valerie Vainieri Huttle) was there.”

But Johnson said not to take his presence at the meeting as a sign of any sort of political reconciliation with Ferriero. As for one man having enough influence to effectively appoint the person of his choice to the freeholder board, Johnson said that at least they’re having a convention.

“We are trying to change that, but the system is the way it is right now.”

State Sen. Loretta Weinberg did not attend, instead issuing an endorsement of Walton that Ferirero read, saying that she looked forward to him being “an articulate and independent voice on behalf of the residents who we all represent.”

Ferriero wouldn’t say whether Johnson’s presence is any sing that he’s less likely to field primary challenger against him in 2009.

“I’m obviously pleased that Assemblyman Johnson has decided to support his candidacy and I’m sure that he’ll be sending out an endorsement letter to the Englewood County Committee and working hard on Vernon’s behalf,” he said.

Walton said that he plans to travel around the county to understand the issues facing its residents, and is particularly concerned with environmental issues like flooding and the potential growth of its homeless population. He said he harbored no ill will towards Johnson.

“As the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows. There are many big issues that need to be addressed county-wide, locally, statewide, and I think that it’s more important that we work together as elected officials to meet the needs of the people,” said Walton.

Ferriero’s choice ultimately came down to Walton and former 40th district Assembly candidate Zonnie LeSane, according to sources.

Bergen County likely to get first black freeholder