ORANGE – At-large Councilman Donald Page recently received an e-mail about an upcoming mayoral candidates’ forum from one of the event’s organizers letting his campaign know where and when the event was being held.
The problem is that the woman who sent the message is also working for one of his opponents in the mayor’s race.
Now Page wants to meet with former Councilman Ben Jones this weekend to hammer out the details of the forum sponsored by Jones’ group, Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG).
“If one of your opponents is e-mailing you to notify you of a debate, there’s a problem,” said Page campaign manager Michael Vieira.
Vieira said the Page campaign this week received an email from Karen Wells notifying them of the candidates’ forum, scheduled from 1 to 3 p.m. on March 29 at the Appian Way Restaurant in Orange.
Wells is a member of Citizens for Responsible Government, Jones’ nonpartisan organization sponsoring the debate – but she also serves on the campaign committee of Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., one of Page’s rivals in the mayor’s race. Hawkins denied that his campaign committee is in any way responsible for the forum.
Page wants more assurance.
“We’re going to talk to Ben, we trust Ben completely,” Vieira said of the 88-year-old Jones, Orange’s first African-American councilman who served from 1962 to 1983.
Jones wrote two $50 checks for the Page campaign when Page first announced his intentions to run for mayor, but since the re-establishment of Citizens for Responsible Government this year, Jones said he would remain neutral in the mayor’s race.
“We understand, and we respect that,” said Vieira.
Jones told PolitickerNJ.com that Wells indeed belongs to his organization, recently restarted after a decades’ long dormant period, but he, and not anyone else, is responsible for how the mayoral candidates’ forum would be run.
“This is more of a civic than a political decision,” said the former councilman, describing how he named the Citizens for Responsible Government (CRG) after Citizens for Representative Government (CRG), the original organization that he helped develop in the 1960s.
“This is not personal,” he said. “I’m not dealing with any of the candidates. I have not screened the people. I initiated this, and the fact is ego causes me to use the initials we used in the 1960s. Donald (Page) should remember my relationship with him, and when I say it’s nonpartisan, it’s nonpartisan.”
“I have a reputation for not lying that much,” Jones said, but added with a laugh, “Being a politician, I lie some.”
Jones acknowledged that it was the coming end of the era of Mayor Mims Hackett that prompted him to want to launch a new version of the old organization. Hackett last year was charged in federal court with corruption and is awaiting trial. On Thursday, he did not file to run again for mayor.
“Hopefully we can direct the town in a different direction,” said Jones, who helped integrate the Orange school system. “Orange needs an infusion of energy. We have a whole lot of potential.”
Those candidates hoping to succeed Hackett who met yesterday’s filing deadline at the City Clerk’s office, are: Page, Hawkins, Councilwoman Tency Eason (a Hackett ally), Zoning Board Chairwoman Janice Morrell, activist Betty Brown, and Orange native Dwight Holmes.
Page’s campaign spokesman said he won’t know until his candidate meets with Jones whether they would agree to the CRG candidates’ forum. If they are convinced Jones has control, they are much more inclined to participate, Vieira said.
In the meantime, the Page campaign called on other organizations to sponsor debate forums, including the League of Women Voters, United Clergy of the Oranges, the Orange Transcript and the Star-Ledger.
“I look forward to forums as a means to expose all candidates to the public so that they may make an informed decision,” Hawkins said in a statement.
He also said he approved of the forum sponsored by Jones’ group.
“CRG is open to all and any residents of Orange interested in responsible government,” Hawkins said.