Its geography just above Newark’s North Ward makes Belleville look like a natural complement to the political kingdom of Steve Adubato, who nevertheless denies he’s personally backing anyone in nonpartisan municipal races in this hardscrabble town, with a population that hovers around 34,000.
“Belleville’s always worried about me going over there,” said the North Ward Democratic leader. “I was looking for a place for a charter school once. I went over to Belleville. That would have been great for Belleville, but they weren’t interested.”
The specter of Adubato in Belleville’s May 13th elections comes in part as a result of Assemblyman (and Freeholder) Ralph Caputo’s support of three candidates who have teamed up to try to unseat Mayor Ray Kimble’s slate. Adubato and Caputo go way back, to when the latter lived in Newark before moving to Belleville. And, of course, it was Caputo who was part of the district 28 ticket that last year ousted Sen. Ron Rice’s running mates, Oadline Truitt and Craig Stanley.
“Change is in the air,” mused the new assemblyman, consciously invoking the clear-the-decks campaign slogan currently most associated with presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama.
At issue are three seats, for which Deputy Mayor John Notari, Councilman Steve Rovell and P.J. Mac Donald (a substitute for outgoing Councilman George Ritacco), are competing with Caputo allies Thomas Salzano, Mario Drozdz and Elvin Pereira, in the fourth, second and third wards respectively.
Droz, a former councilman and mayor who served in the 1990s and lost his re-election bid in 2000 by 19 votes, is vice chairman of the Belleville Democratic Party and Caputo’s administrative aide in Caputo’s freeholder office. Bluntly, he says the Kimble allies are ineffective and unresponsive.
“I feel no matter who the person is, they should give people a phone call back, but you don’t get that here,” said Drozdz, 57, a retired teamster and former Kiwanis president. “What you’re looking at is out of control spending. You’re looking at a major development project, Loews, which has been bogged down for several years. No senior housing. I mean, what is the problem? You’re looking at a town – my town – with no economic redevelopment and no direction. It’s a failure on their part.”
Mac Donald, 67, strongly disagrees. The first to pick up petitions on Jan. 2, and the first to return them to City Hall two days later, he’s lived in Belleville his entire life, which means he’s also been in politics his whole life, albeit never as an elected official.
“I ran for freeholder back in 1976, and lost,” said the candidate, who claims the mostly friendly dynamic he now sees on the council attracted him to want to run. If Droz and Salzano see the Kimble years as a prolonged slump, McDonald sees them as part of Belleville’s recovery.
A Washington Avenue tavern owner in the 1960s whose uncle, Cappy Barnett, was a clerk in town and whose brother was a cop, Mac Donald recalls taking a half an hour to walk to work back then, even though his family’s home was just a block and a half away.
“You’d meet so many people in the street; you’d talk to everyone, that’s the way it was here. Now you’d take that same walk and you wouldn’t run into anyone. It would take you a few minutes, because it’s desolate,” said Mac Donald, whose father worked in the Sears on Washington Avenue before his mother took his job when the elder Mac Donald went to war.
“That was life here,” said the candidate, who he has no allusions about recreating the neighborhood as it was, though he applauds the $50 million mixed-use plan for Washington Avenue, championed by Kimble, which includes residential and retail construction.
“Ray runs a very good meeting,” said Mac Donald. “He’s been showing leadership without yelling and screaming, or pushing his chest out. He clearly has the town’s best interest at heart. I’m not going to comment on the back and forth that’s bound to ensue in this campaign, or who’s behind the opposing slate of candidates, but when you see someone putting a ticket up against you like this, that’s someone looking for control.”
Fellow Belleville native Salzano insists his challenge contains no draconian motivations, simply a desire to get the numbers right.
“I don’t want to embarrass the tax assessor here but I like my people here,” said Salzano, 68, who served as Belleville’s tax assessor for 16 years before retiring six years ago.
“For a lot people, the recent revel did not go as well as they thought it should have,” said the opposition candidate. “People started calling me, asking for advice. In some ways, I saw great inequity in the tax assessments, which were 11% here compared to the state average of 7%. In fairness, the gentleman who owned the company that did the revel passed away during the revaluation. But the people who took over to do the job – they weren’t qualified. There were quite a few mistakes, and nobody seemed to be doing anything.”
Matched up against Deputy Mayor Notari, Salzano cites the incumbent’s two teaching jobs in addition to his duties on the council and suggests Notari doesn’t have the time to govern.
A resident of the town since he was six years old who served on the School Board for eleven years before winning a seat on the council in 2004, Notari, 49, has taught English and American literature and writing at Clifton High School for 25 years. He teaches a college English course one night per week.
“I have done my job,” said Notari, who during his tenure has supplemented Council meetings by sending postcard invitations out to 2,200 registered households, and hosting his own casual fourth ward forums.
“I’ve built up a very large following in the ward,” said Notari. “I make house calls. The suggestion that we’re out of touch simply is inaccurate. I have been very active getting Loews here in Belleville, and that’s a project that’s progressing very nicely.”
The deputy mayor says it’s a question of when not if, and anticipates a Loews groundbreaking ceremony on the site of the old Finklestein Estate in the summer of this year, which is one of the reasons he wants another term.
“I want to see that come to fruition,” said Notari. “As for Washington Avenue, I don’t know what these guys complaining about. We have worked with a top developer – George Jacobs – who will be putting two condos in there, and on the ground level, quality businesses and stores. This is the start to revitalizing Belleville. This will be a reality.”
Notari said as part of his accomplishments he oversaw the paving of 14 streets, including Salzano’s street. “His street was in deplorable condition, now it’s not,” said the deputy mayor.
Caputo underscores Salzano’s case that the revaluation wasn’t done correctly, and despite Notari’s arguments, “Economic redevelopment hasn’t occurred, high school kids don’t have a track, the Loews development hasn’t come to pass, and seniors still don’t have any housing,” the Assemblyman insisted.
For his part, Rice is alert to the Caputo-Adubato connection, and says he remains happily in Notari’s corner, including on the issue of the Loews project, which the senator says has been delayed because of site mediation undertaken by the state Department of Environmental Protection. That’s a point backed up by Councilman Michael Nicosia, another Kimble ally.
“The DEP is taking forever to give us an NFA action notice so Loews can close on their contract,” said Nicosia. “But we’re very close. I would say sometime in March.”
In the meantime, “I’m working real hard to keep Bloomfield and Belleville together and away from the politics of the Newark,” said Rice. “I don’t have the Machiavellian mind-set or the money but I have the will, and I am committed to Kimble and to seeing that Notari and Rovell get re-elected, and that McDonald gets elected. You know, Kimble doesn’t get a lot of publicity because he’s a humble guy, but he’s a good mayor.
“The mayor and council don’t have to love each other,” the senator added, “but what these guys have shown is that they know how to work together to take the town where it should go.”
The two slates of likely candidates sizing each other up aren’t the only people in the race. Incumbent Councilwoman Marie Strumulo Burke is seeking another term. Although Drozdz said she’s welcome to join his ticket, she’s so far stayed in the independent column. Two other potential candidates – J. Bouker and Peter Zangaria – have also picked up petitions at the clerk’s office.
Proud of their heritages, organizers of area Columbus Day and St. Patrick’s Day parades respectively, Drozdz and Mac Donald said they both plan to keep focused on Belleville, and the voters.
“It’s not personal,” said Drozdz. “I’m not happy with my last tax bill. When you’re out of office, you’re apt to hear a lot more, and that’s what I hear people saying. These guys promised to lower taxes, stabilize taxes. They didn’t do that.”
Taking issue with that, Notari said he voted against two of the last three town budgets – the two that weren’t zero-based. He also said he chopped $1 million out of a failed school budget without disturbing key programs. In addition to what he says is his commitment to constituency services and sense of fiscal restraint, “John Notari is his own man,” the deputy mayor noted pointedly.
Deflecting the Adubato angle, Drozdz told PolitickerNJ.com, “I do not know the guy personally. I don’t think I’ve ever even had coffee with the guy. Ralph is backing my candidacy. He’s a good friend.
“Yeah, I grew up in Newark,” the candidate acknowledged. And then with a laugh, added with the exclamation point, “In Downneck, not the North Ward!”