IRVINGTON – A political pragmatist who insists his insider knowledge of how government works does not diminish his closeness to the community, Council President John Sowell says an aggressive opponent in the West Ward doesn’t know enough about the process to serve.
An executive with the sheet metal workers union, Sowell originally thought he was only going to be running against 21-year old Keith White, political acolyte of North Ward Councilman David Lyons.
Now he’s also trying to stare down an old contemporary.
It’s a three-way race in Irvington’s West Ward with Sowell intending to fend off not just National Guardsman White but one-time ally turned vocal detractor, security guard Cedric Hunter.
Hunter and Sowell fell out after Hunter, a leader of the Irvington Alliance, failed to spirit the council president away from Team Irvington, a group founded and run by At-Large Councilman (and Freeholder) Bilal Beasley, who was wounded in an unsuccessful challenge last year of Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex).
"Bilal Beasley’s run of victories at the county level are over and soon the people who so openly supported him will besiege him to rid themselves of his disgrace," Hunter wrote to Sowell soon after Beasley’s loss. "As one of his most obedient cohorts, your name is closely aligned with his. Hopefully, you will see that the handwriting is on the wall and Bilal Beasley’s career in politics will (not) last for too much longer."
A veteran of Irvington campaigns and a student of political science whose heroes include Talleyrand, Henry Kissinger and Machiavelli, Hunter appealed to the well-connected Sowell – who’s friendly with Newark Mayor Cory Booker in addition to Beasley – to consider aligning with the ragtag Irvington Alliance, which has tried to scratch out an existence against Team Irvington.
"Despite hubris on my part, I think they’ll (the county’s power players, including Booker) choose the organization in Irvington that demands the lesser political price, and right now that’s the Alliance," Hunter wrote.
Sowell turned him down, and now Hunter’s running against Sowell as part of an organization weakened in part by the lack of a leader like Sowell, the council president argues.
But the once powerful Team Irvington also bears signs of fissure, as Hunter foresaw.
His strategy seems pretty much the same as it is for White, member of yet another faction led by Lyons. Hunter wants to tie two-term incumbent Sowell to the administration of Team Irvington product Mayor Wayne Smith, which he says has become complacent and probably corrupt as the feds continue to examine Smith’s role in a statewide corruption case.
Smith’s critics are not limited to Irvington.
"The only Essex County mayor who hasn’t endorsed Sen. Frank Lautenberg is Wayne Smith of Irvington,"state SenatePresident Richard Codey (D-Essex) told a crowd last Tuesday at a rally for Lautenberg on the steps of Newark City Hall. "We don’t know who he’s endorsed."
In fact, the Lautenberg campaign had issued a press release several days earlier trumpeting Smith’s endorsement of the U.S. senator. But Codey’s public dismissal of the troubled mayor made it clear he’d prefer Smith not to be on the team.
Hunter maintains that Sowell, who was first elected in 2000 as a labor-backed candidate independent of Beasley’s Team Irvington organization, has since become too much of a team player on the council, and too close to Smith and Beasely.
"John knows what’s going on, but he hasn’t spoken out against it publicly," Hunter told PolitickerNJ.com. "He’ll grunt and groan behind closed doors, but he’s more or less kept his mouth shut like a good soldier."
Sowell doesn’t apologize for working with Smith and Beasley. He said he’s always been independent, but he won’t make a public spectacle if he disagrees.
"I don’t believe in infighting," he said as he went door to door in his West Ward on a recent Saturday afternoon, a regiment that he says will put him in contact with 200 voters per week up until Election Day on May 13 when he expects an average of 12% or roughly 1,000 residents will vote.
"If it’s not good for the community it doesn’t come out of committee," said the council president. "There’s a lot of stuff we don’t agree on, but it doesn’t make it out of committee. If you can’t agree on something it doesn’t make it to the council. That’s what the public doesn’t see."
As far as Hunter’s concerned, Sowell hasn’t worked hard enough to bring in better rateables, or taken the necessary steps to reduce Irvington’s high crime rate.
"You have to fight crime in Irvington the way Churchill fought the Battle of Britain," said Hunter. "You need a camera system going 24 hours a day 7 days a week, targeting the drug gangs, which operate openly in Irvington."
The challenger said if elected he would fire Police Chief Michael Chase.
"You’ve got to get rid of the top spot, the chief," Hunter said. "He’s barely competent, and he’s more inclined to fight battles inside the police department than fight battles outside the police department."
Sowell said crime in Irvington has gone down in the last four years, and points to the fact that the town swore in two new officers last month.
"Can we do more? Of course," he said.
Hit from White’s campaign through the very vocal mouthpiece of Lyons on what Lyons says is a budget deficit of $6.5 million in Irvington, Sowell said, "We do not have a deficit. Our budget has not been finalized yet. We’re trying to sell (Irvington) hospital for $3-$4 million. If that deals go through we’re in better shape financially.
"It’s sad that people want to mislead the public," Sowell added. "David Lyons’s style of informing the public is just completely negative. He’s not doing anything but dividing the community. If it’s that bad, he should move out of town."
He feels Hunter is a similar personality, one who can criticize, but who has no ability to actually work within the system to solve Irvington’s problems. Evidence of his rivals' essential rancor, he says, is their failure to unify against him. As it is now, they're splitting the opposition vote and givinghim a decided advantage.
"I’ve been very, very aggressive in supporting the township’s redevelopment efforts as a member of the planning board," said Sowell. "We’ve had some major construction projects in town (most significantly Krauszers and an International House of Pancakes) that are going to put some under-producing properties back on the tax rolls. We’ve been fortunate in keeping the tax base stable, and the most important thing is really being responsive."
Hunter said the township’s draw of International House of Pancakes doesn’t impress him.
"You’re talking about an African American community here where heart disease and diabetes are prevalent," he said. "We don’t have Irvington Hospital any more but we still have Irvington diners and restaurants to block people up. To me it makes no sense to go around crowing about greasy spoons."
As for the new Krauszers, Hunter said it’s also a liquor store, which is counterproductive, in his opinion.
"Most Krauszers I know don’t sell liquor," he complained.
Sowell shot back, "We don’t decide what kind of businesses come to town, businesses do," referring specifically to the International House of Pancakes franchise.
"That’s why the town is zoned a certain way," he added. "That’s why experience counts for something. If Mr. Hunter came onto the council and made those types of statements, he’d be the laughingstock of the county."
Hunter said in this campaign he will depend on his community outreach and his experience as an operator. He’s been on the street, in touch with the same community he says Sowell abandoned to maintain relations with Smith and Beasley.
"At this point you have nothing to lose but Bilal’s sinking reputation," Hunter wrote to Sowell last year. "And trust me, my friend, it is sinking. I know it is."
Failing Sowell’s political friendship, he now strives to beat him, and searches for other star allies.
As he nurses his grassroots operations, which Sowell contends can’t be very extensive, Hunter this month examined the possibility of reaching out to U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews (D-1), in hopes of forging a relationship with the insurgent U.S. Senate candidate and strengthening his own chances locally.