PATERSON – The fight in the Fourth promises to be a suspenseful and potentially ward-altering showdown as several young upstarts hope to dislodge Councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes, who’s owned the seat for 22 years.
A feisty Paterson product who will buy coats for needy children and take them to Disney World just as quickly as demolish someone at the microphone who stammers a protest in the direction of the City Council, Ames-Garnes said her youthful challengers are going to have to blow her out of there.
"I have no problem with anybody running, this is America," said Ames-Garnes, 60. "But my question is, ‘What is your track record?’"
The challengers limbering up to face the veteran are two 27-year olds: fourth-generation Patersonian Kisha Manning and immigrant Wilkin Santana. A third opponent, Donald Whitaker, could not be reached for comment.
Born and raised in Paterson’s Fourth Ward, Manning graduated from William Paterson University with a major in political science and minor in African American studies. A former employee with the City of Paterson, she works as a revenue officer for the Internal Revenue Service and sits on the city Board of Adjustment.
"The Fourth Ward is leading the city in crime," said Manning. "The tax burden is unbearable due to the revaluation. The drug activity is unacceptable. People are hostages in their own homes, including my own grandmother. Drug activity surrounds senior citizen community. These are people who have worked hard, who have spent their lives here, and now they can’t even retire and live in peace."
Manning said if elected she would like to focus on reducing police response time. "People call the police, but by the time the police arrive – if they arrive – everything is done by that point, and it’s usually a negative result," the candidate said.
Santana has the same concerns. Originally from the Dominican Republic, he moved to Paterson when he was 15, graduated from tough Eastside High School and received undergraduate and advanced degrees from Rutgers University. He teaches Spanish in Paterson’s public school system, and points out that Paterson’s town father, Alexander Hamilton, whose statue stands over the Great Falls, was like himself an immigrant.
"I am a product of a hard working single mother," said Santana. "No disrespect to the councilwoman, but the Fourth Ward is in desperate need of change. The Fourth Ward is the step child of the city. We have a serious gang problem here where drug-dealing is going on in the open. This is a place that is not suitable for children, and I believe it’s going to take someone else to do the job."
Ames-Garnes said she has been that positive force on the council that the Fourth Ward needs. The numbers of drug dealers out in the open on Rosa Parks Boulevard have been reduced over the past four years to about 100, she said. If that sounds unacceptable, it’s better than what it was, when children were actually rubbing elbows with the dealers, she maintains. While she’s literally taken fire through her porch door she said, "I could name you on one hand those who have fought to solve problem. I live in the midst of everything because I want to be hands on."
Looking back on her last four years in office, the councilwoman said her work on a resolution to bring large-scale commercial development to Route 20 was her most significant achievement.
"Even though it’s not in my ward, the people in my ward will benefit because it means jobs," said the councilwoman.
Manning promised if elected to donate half of her $34,000 city councilwoman’s salary to create scholarships for youth and single parents. "Education contributes to financial independence, and I want to help afford people in my community a chance to pursue self-sufficiency," she said.
Santana also emphasizes his educational background as a professional plus, and speaks forcefully about improving educational opportunities for the youth.
"I’m the first member of my family to have a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in this country," said the candidate. "We need a city council person to work hard, to work hard with others, to lower the crime here for a better quality of life. The councilperson in our ward must create an upgraded business district. Right now, businesspeople are afraid to keep their businesses open after 8 p.m. in the Fourth Ward."
Both Manning and Santana have helmed aggressive campaigns early. Santana announced his candidacy in August, and has hosted several events, including a Halloween Party fund-raiser and coat and turkey drives. Manning said she is the only candidate who has been certified, and claims she has received a "tremendous response from residents, who just want change."
Serving over two decades on the council, Ames-Garnes has for almost as many years taken Paterson children to Disney World, an 18-year tradition that started when she heard some youths talking after they witnessed a shooting..
"It was on 12th Avenue," she recalled. "This young man shot another young man, and I heard these children say, ‘That’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen,’ and my heart just dropped. I told them, ‘If that’s the most exciting thing you’ve seen, child, we need to take you away so you can have a vacation like everybody else.’ They told me, ‘Miss Ames, you must think you’re in Disney World.’ And that’s when we started going to Disney World every August, just to give these children some sense of excitement beyond what happens here too, too much."