IRVINGTON – Shot in the leg as he walked out of a pizza parlor in Irvington two years ago, Keith White instinctively ran for cover from the blast of the 9 mm going off next to him.
"I didn’t even know I’d been hit," says White. "I was hit an inch above my knee. No police came to the scene, no police came to the hospital to file a report. I drove myself to the hospital."
Standing on Durand Place outside the neighborhood firehouse this week, he’s wearing combat boots, a cap with the National Guard insignia on it and fatigues.
"I’ve lived in Irvington all my life and I haven’t seen the positives increase." says the 21-year old career counselor and retention specialist with the Guard who’s been stationed stateside his three years in the service.
"I tell people it’s just about as bad as being in Iraq only you don’t expect it," he adds with a grin.
Others who took fire in their hometown weren’t as lucky as White, and he knows it. There have been on average 25 murders in Irvington in each of the last five years. The Federal Bureau of Investigation Uniform Crime Report ranks the town third in the country (after Atlantic City and Saginaw, MI) for murder and violent crime among those cities with populations between 40,000 and 60,000. Crammed into 2.8 miles between Newark’s West Ward and Maplewood, the city festers in a nest of Blood, Crip and MS-13 turf wars even as the local diner fills on Sundays with families in church clothes, and block associations organize against a culture of crime.
Hoping to make his own contribution in the face of the gangs, White wants to run for City Council in the West Ward, as a challenger to Council President John Sowell in May 13 elections. "I want to be an inspiration to younger men," says White. "There’s a disconnect between adolescents and adults in this town. I think people on the council forgot who they represent."
Sowell says he didn’t forget.
"I have a reputation of calling people back within 24 hours," says the 41-year old Newark-born sheet metal worker by trade, who graduated from technical high school, went right into the industry and worked his way up in Local Union No. 25 as a draftsman, mechanical coordinator, project manager, assistant administrator and director of recruitment.
As a campaign consultant for 58 area campaigns in 14 years, he also helped build the Young Democrats, and forged key alliances with budding politicos in Newark and the environs. After serving on the town Board of Adjustment, he won election to the Irvington City Council in 2000, and re-election in 2004.
"I’m running again to continue the progress," says Sowell. "We have had tremendous growth. I believe I am doing the work of the West Ward. I have served as council president since 2002 – that’s the longest time someone has served as president in Irvington."
He cites the town’s success in enticing development – an approved $27 million retail/condominium project on Mill Road, and an International House of Pancakes on Springfield Avenue. A self-described work horse, Sowell has the respect of even his hardest critics. But he’s also a critical ally for Mayor Wayne Smith, and that could prove to be a vulnerability this season.
For in addition to the crime and gangs, the dank suggestion of public corruption hangs over this election year, as the biggest corruption bust in the state in 2007 has an unfinished plot-line implicating Irvington. Indicted by the feds last fall as part of a corruption network that extended from Pleasantville to North Jersey, Keith Reid, former chief of staff to Newark Council President Mildred Crump, accepted a payment of $5,000 from a dummy insurance company on behalf of an individual identified only as "Irvington public official 1."
According to the Reid indictment, a cooperating witness listed as CW-2 first "attempted to give Irvington Official 1 a cash payment of $5,000 in exchange for Irvington Official 1’s assistance in securing insurance brokerage business with the Township of Irvington. In this regard, the following conversation ensued:
"CW-2: But its just a pre-commission. You know, we’re this close to moving that thing along. It’s only five thousand.
"IO-1: Give it to Keith.
"CW-2: I’ll give it to Keith? Okay.
"It was a further part of the conspiracy that, shortly after the meeting with Irvington Official 1, defendant Keith O. Reid met privately with CW-2 in a car in Elizabeth, New Jersey. During this conversation, CW-2 told defendant Reid that Irvington Official 1 told CW-2 to give the $5,000 cash payment to defendant Reid. Reid accepted the $5,000 cash payment and warned CW-2 not to attempt to deliver cash payments to public officials directly."
So far the U.S. Attorney’s Office has not issued charges against Smith or any public officials in Irvington, but the mayor has caught the brunt of rumor in the political world, as when he showed up to chair the New Jersey Urban Mayors Association meeting in Atlantic City in the wake of the indictment, and the room remained virtually empty.
In Irvington, the ongoing crime wave coupled with the Reid-Irvington nexus has riled several Smith-weary challengers in each ward to pick up petitions at City Hall, in part objecting to the mayor’s salary, which from 2002 to the present shot from $55,000 to $85,000. (The council president makes $21,000 annually and council people earn $20,000 apiece).
Smith’s allies running for re-election are Sowell, East Ward Councilman Quinzell McKenzie, and South Ward Councilwoman Sandra Jones. Likewise running with the mayor’s blessing from the town’s North Ward is challenger Gene Etchison.
"They’ve all been good, outstanding public servants that have done the best they can," the mayor says of the incumbents. "We brought the state police in. We’ve done weed and seed and we’re working extremely hard." Smith’s redevelopment plan for Irvington includes successfully steering a Krauser’s food store into town on 18th Avenue, which he cites proudly as the tri-state chain’s "first foray into urban New Jersey after a 30-year history in the suburbs."
"We are becoming what we really could be," says first term Councilman McKenzie, 40, who is proudest of obtaining a bus stop for seniors at the corner of Grove Street and 16th. Like Smith, he cites the incoming Krauser’s and a $6 million street paving bond for citywide renovations as key developments.
But last year, Irvington had a budget deficit of $16 million. This year it’s $6.5 million. Meanwhile, Irvington has one of the highest equalized tax rates in the state, and as New Jersey faces its own budget deficit, the Irvington schools consequently anticipate flat funding from Abbott for the next two years.
"We’ve got budget challenges, yes," Smith admits of the roughly $82 million document. "It’s easy to curse the darkness, but where are you going to light a candle?"
Running against Jones in the South Ward, former McDonald’s manager Abdel Muquaddim Abdur-Rashed, 69, serves as executive director of the Quabeck Area Block Association. "That whole slate needs to be changed even though a lot of them are personal friends; we need fresh ideas," Abdur-Rashed says of the incumbents.
Sowell clarifies that there are technically no slates in this election. There is a different ballot for each ward, and each councilperson lives or dies alone. "It’s not about the mayor," he says. "It’s about the four individual councilpersons. I’m not on a ticket with Wayne Smith."
Yet the alliances are unavoidable in this terrain, and potentially the most tenacious team of challengers is headed up by perennial Smith antagonist North Ward Councilman David Lyons, an account specialist with Commerce Bank and a 12-year council veteran who’s allied with White in the West Ward and mental health worker Mary Rowson in the South Ward.
"We keep having tax increase after tax increase," says Lyons, who ran for mayor in the last election and lost to Smith.
"Smith has been incompetent," the councilman concludes of his longtime rival. "We have officials who appear to be involved in some bribe-taking. The people of Irvington are not being served. My personal opinion about Smith is he walks around with his briefcase and he wants to be important. He's been worse than Sarah (Bost, Irvington's mayor prior to Smith, who was busted for witness tampering in a public corruption case)."
Though he grudgingly accepts that he is one, Lyons, a Georgia native who moved north in 1970, admits he doesn’t like to associate with other politicians.
"Except for Ron Rice, he’s about the only one," Lyons says of the District 28 state senator, who first made an impression on the councilman when years ago Lyons sent a desperation letter to other area politicians, seeking employment training and assistance for his wife. He cc’d Rice, who as it turned out, was the only one who responded and followed through, helping Lyons’ wife become a paralegal.
Lyons and At-Large Councilman (and Essex County Freeholder) D. Bilal Beasley stopped talking years ago after they butted heads over Lyons’ refusal to cede control of the Alcoholic Beverage Commission (ABC) to Beasley. But more recently Lyons says he was infuriated when Smith and Newark Mayor Cory Booker aligned to try to dislodge Rice with a Beasley candidacy in the Democratic primary last year.
Rice had backed Smith against Lyons in their mayoral contest two years ago, then watched as Smith and Team Irvington mobilized to bump him out of office last year, only to fail against the grassroots veteran, who’s held state office since 1986.
"If that doesn’t tell you what kind of people we’re talking about, I don’t know what does," says Lyons. "They supported Cory Booker, someone they barely even knew, over our senator, who for years has shown himself to be one of the only people who really cares."
Sowell says he intends to court the senator, whom he considers a mentor, while Lyons knows he can count on the support of Rice, and his grassroots organizing allies on the ground in Irvington.
"David Lyons tells it like it is, I back him 100%," says Frank McBee, 60, a Vietnam veteran and recovered addict who now heads up a West Ward block association with White’s uncle, Rodney White. "David gives us the facts, and as a block leader I am the same way. My father was a steel factory worker and active in Newark in the East Ward, and he taught me, you help where you can. Be a force of power in your neighborhood."
McBee also respects Sowell as "a young intelligent man with ideas," but he’s backing Lyons’ ticket with White over the Smith alliance because he believes White has a particularly important story to tell as a young man who was shot and who insists on maintaining a positive perspective.
"What’s happening in this town is out of control," says McBee, who served in Vietnam from 1966- ’69 and mustered out of the Air Force with three stripes on his shoulder as a buck sergeant. "Shootings today, it’s not beat the guy up and you walk away. Here they’re going to come back, and they’re going to come back to kill. . We’ve had six already killings this year."
"Seven," corrects Lyons. "We had another one a couple of nights ago. That’s seven in less than two months. These gangs are killing this town."
On Wednesday night in the firehouse on Durand Place, neighborhood guest Police Chief Michael Chase prepares to talk about the police department’s response to the crisis to a crowd of about 20 residents, including Sowell, who sits on one side of the room, and Lyons, who sits on the other. White sits in the back, slouched down in his chair under his ballcap. McBee hovers nearby. He looks out for White.
The young National Guardsman’s uncle, Rodney White, stands in front of the room, and he’s also a young man, legally blind, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap and laughing with a what else can you do but laugh demeanor as he shares a story about getting robbed at gunpoint in Irvington with Lyons and McBee.
Lyons shakes his head, laughing at the memory. McBee and White were returning from a Super Bowl party on Yale Avenue in the winter of 2005 when they walked into a group of men with their guns trained on Lyons.
"They were taking his wife’s medicine off of him," recalls McBee, "and they ended up getting a broken cellphone off of Rodney. We didn’t have any money."
"That’s when we met him," says White. "We had heard of him, Councilman Lyons, but that’s the way we met him."
Now Chase is up, a slim, middle-aged man in a SWAT-style long-sleeved sweater with a gold badge stitched into the cloth, and the people want to know about the murders.
"Four of the seven were domestic violence," the chief says. "The three that weren’t…" He hesitates. But he refuses to hold back. "The three that weren’t… well, most people getting shot on the street are gang bangers and drug dealers," he says. "People are obviously selling drugs. Coke. You’re talking about an attitude and a culture. ‘You’re on my turf.’ You understand?"
There’s a rumble through the crowd about East Orange, where a few years ago the feds helped shut down the infamous Double ii set of the Bloods and obtained 68 convictions in cases that U.S. Attorney Christopher J. Christie refers to as a model of what his office has been able to accomplish.
"East Orange is held up as a model," the chief acknowledges. "But understand, their population is bigger. We’re 58,000 in Irvington. They’re 68,000 in East Orange. They have 100 plus police. They’re entitled to more grant money. They got 50 cars in one shot and I was champing at the bit, saying ‘Just get me ten.’ East Orange Police got better raises through union negotiating."
He explains that Irvington PD’s patrol cars are on Springfield Avenue and not on the side streets because they’re operating with grants specific to commercial zones.
"They need to be more visible on the side streets," a man tells the chief, and the small crowd starts to work respectfully but skeptically against Chase again, pushing back against the explanations that don’t hold, and the words "East Orange"are heard in disgusted murmurs. Why can’t they just do that in Irvington?
"All right," says the chief. "I live in Irvington. If I didn’t move to East Orange, I’m not asking you to move to East Orange."
Sowell in a suit and tie, patient and apparently relaxed, tries to give Chase the courtesy of a full presentation without interruptions. Lyons, meanwhile, is all animated energy, breaking in when he can to pin the crime problem on mismanagement wrought by the Smith administration.
"I would like to see the Irvington Police Department become more like East Orange," he says. "The average police response time is 4 minutes in East Orange. You know what it is in Irvington? 90 minutes. The police department is not proactive." As for inflating the police budget, Lyons says as long as Smith is in charge, he’s wary of giving the administration any more money.
Sowell takes issue with that.
"There are other factors," says the council president. "The cost of business goes up. The utility rate goes up 20%. Sewer usage rate goes up. I vote for many of the things David doesn’t support because I understand the real world and how our town is impacted.
"Show me the mismanagement, don’t just say it," Sowell says later.
Keith White doesn’t say a word, but toward the end of the meeting, his and Lyons’ ally swings around in her chair in the front row in the middle of the verbal melee, and expands on a comment by the chief about how he’s seen Irvington change and become more apathetic.
"My whole thing is don’t complain if we’re not at the meetings," Rowson says. "The school board meetings are empty while our students are suffering. If we’re not at the council meetings in their face, they’re not going to make a change. If we’re not on the corner saying get your ass off the streets, then we’ve got to blame ourselves."
Afterwards, Lyons huddles up with Rowson and White, and before the end of the evening, there’s a brief, terse exchange between the challenger and the young man double his age, something along the lines of: "You didn’t call me," with White answering back, "Nothing to say."
Sowell leaves on his own.
Crime and corruption are the focus of newspapers and public conversation, Smith the subject of private ones, and the council president knows he is linked inevitably with the mayor, the man he defends, but he reiterates his belief that only through work does a man remain of public value. His critics can focus on the negative, but allowing himself one rare glimpse at the past, he remembers when the New Jersey Performing Arts Center was a hole in the ground, and now in the present, it stands there in Newark, and Sowell says he’s proud knowing that immediately out of high school he went to work on that project, doing detailed drafting for the sheet metal duct system in the building, and he claims all he can think to do in Irvington is build.