Running to unify a broken city, Hawkins enters Orange mayor’s race

  Promising good government and economic progress to a city plagued by bloated municipal budgets, gangs, a ghost town economy


Promising good government and economic progress to a city plagued by bloated municipal budgets, gangs, a ghost town economy and charges of political corruption, Eldridge Hawkins Jr., entered the race for mayor of Orange at the Elk’s Lodge on Saturday with the strength of his family name behind him.

Son of his namesake, the former state Assemblyman and respected civil rights attorney who was in attendance, Hawkins reminded a small crowd of supporters that Orange was once a thriving industrial city made up of 34 hat-making factories, including the F. Berg Hat Manufacturing Company Complex.

"Today, these same buildings are nothing more than rundown relics of what once was," said the 28-year old West Orange patrolman and realtor associate. "Such images can no longer exist in our town. For too long we have sat by and watched our city deteriorate and its progress be paralyzed by politicians and citizens that were unable to put their feelings, personal agendas and differences aside for the good of the city."

Reading his speech at a podium in a room decorated with balloons and a festive campaign banner, the theme was, "It’s a new day, change is on the horizon," and in that vein, Hawkins said there is no reason the 2.2-square mile city can’t become another Hoboken.

"Redevelopment will take time to be accomplished," he said. "So, the question becomes, where will the money come from to make these changes until that time is here. The answer is fiscal responsibility and accountability. My administration will look for a way to strategically manage the city to a better budget. …Specifically, even though our city has a legal department staffed with attorneys, the current administration appropriated $175,000 for outside professional services in 2007."

He vowed to reinvigorate youth programs and make public safety a priority.

"I need to know that if I dial 911 because someone is breaking into my car or that my house is on fire, adequate emergency personnel will respond in a timely manner equipped to address the problem," said Hawkins.

The candidate’s firmness on that issue in part prompted Councilman Hassan Abdul-Rasheed to sign on as an early supporter.

"He is the face of a new era in Orange, bringing new strategies of leadership and crime prevention; a mayor who wants to help all of our citizens, not just a select few," the councilman said in a letter that Hawkins shared with the public. "As a crime fighter, he is a unifer, not a divider."

The new day imagery inevitably provided contrast to the current administration. Forced to relinquish his Assembly seat last fall in the face of corruption charges, Mayor Mims Hackett nevertheless said he would pursue another term in the mayor’s office. But a lot of people in public circles think he’s biding his time before he exits. His new trial date is March 10, ten days before the filing deadline to run for the office of mayor in a municipal election May 13.

Hackett stands accused of accepting a $5,000 cash bribe, in exchange for guaranteeing that the City Council approve what was later revealed to be a phony brokerage insurance firm deal engineered by the feds.

Hawkins initially intended to run for an at-large council seat and sources in Orange say he was seen making the rounds with Hackett last summer.

"It raises questions if he was going to run on a ticket with Mims," said At-Large Councilman Donald Page, a Hackett ally when the pair were elected to office in 1992, who by the new millennium was fighting the mayor rather than continuing to serve as his rubber stamp on the council.

Now Page is himself running for mayor, and the 66-year old at-large councilman says his larger concern when it comes to his young opponent Hawkins is experience.

"That’s the problem, I’ve never seen him at council meetings," said Page. "I believe he’s running on the coattails of his father. As a councilman, I’m in City Hall everyday. I’m familiar with the directors of the different departments. When I become mayor, I can hit the ground running. I don’t need things to be explained to me."

Although Page does not believe that Hawkins’ job as a police officer in neighboring West Orange would present a conflict to mayoral duties in Orange, perennial Hackett critic Councilman Ed Marable Jr., said he’s uncomfortable with that aspect of Hawkins’ resume. Hawkins said he would not give up his job as a police officer in the event he becomes Orange’s mayor, a part-time position that pays $29,000 annually.

"What if he arrests someone from the City of Orange, a constituent?" said Marable, who also questioned the wisdom of Orange having a mayor whose boss is John McKeon, mayor of West Orange. Marable last November lost in a general election Assembly challenge to McKeon for the latter’s Assembly seat.

A former lawmaker who got his start as a young defense lawyer working on Springfield Avenue in Newark in the aftermath of the riots, Hawkins’ father noted that his son sued the Township of West Orange in a well publicized discrimination case.

"The critical thing about him is he’s an independent thinker," said Hawkins. "He won’t take anything from anybody, and neither will I. …If I see something wrong, I attack it. But my son is also a people person who can bring people together."

As for the experience factor, "Dick Codey was 26 years old when he became a state assemblyman, and he grew up to be governor," said the elder Hawkins. "Youth has nothing to do with a person’s character, knowledge, savoir faire, desire, education, and capability to be a public servant. Clearly, you can match Eldridge up there with anybody out there."

Codey’s onetime running mate, the elder Hawkins served in the Assembly from 1972 to 1978, challenged Pat Dodd for senate and lost off the line, then returned to his professional passion: civil rights law. The candidate’s father didn’t deny that the Hawkins’ communicated with Codey and McKeon in the runup to the candidates decision to run for mayor instead of at-large councilman. But "I can tell you it wasn’t McKeon who motivated him to run."

Disillusioned during his six years in Trenton, "I don’t like politics," admitted Hawkins. "But I’m doing this for son. The experiences I’ve had have enabled me to know how to gather support and get somebody elected. Everybody likes him, and that makes it easy."

A civic activist and former Miss New Jersey runner up, the candidate’s mother emphasized her son’s ability to draw different people together.

"He’s no one’s nemesis," said Linda Cofer Hawkins, the campaign’s chief spokesperson. "He gets along with Page, Hackett, Codey and McKeon, and he’s thrown his hat into the ring without being tied to any one political faction."

Running to unify a broken city, Hawkins enters Orange mayor’s race