ORANGE – There are no smiles cast across a cold ten feet of space where North Ward Councilwoman Tency Eason faces her rival At-Large Councilman Donald Page as the City Council considers giving Berg Development Corp. a 20-year tax abatement to redevelop and occupy the old Berg Hat Factory in the valley.
The project was supposed to be completed in January, or a few months after Mayor Mims Hackett marched into federal court in handcuffs on a charge of taking a $5,000 bribe from a phoney insurance contractor.
But the old building with broken windows still juts over the neighborhood and question marks abound about the status of that project and others meant to kick-start this city at the edge of gangland crisis, and now staggered by the Hackett scandal.
"It’s been six years and no major projects are finished," resident Shirley Hendricks reminds the council. "At least five to six buildings should be done over there."
Another resident, Harold Johnson, wants to know if the city has planned appropriately for the impact of 600 condo units – 500 in the historic Valley section, and 100 on Main Street.
"We’re hoping they’re empty nesters," frets Johnson.
In the May 13 race to succeed Hackett, Eason has emerged as the apologist for the Hackett years. With his longstanding opposition to the mayor, Page runs as the "I told you so" candidate, while Janice Morrell, apolitical in her role as chair of the zoning board, presents her educational credentials and reputation as a tough, meticulous problem-solver.
Giving a cautionary tale about ceding too much to developers, candidate Dwight Holmes argues the importance of an Orange native running the city, and Betty Brown runs as a longtime activist alternative to the Hackett power structure.
Then there’s newcomer Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., a West Orange patrolman who last week surprised no one when he collected the endorsement of Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex), who served with Hawkins’s father in the General Assembly in the early 1970s.
Having already been endorsed by 1960s songstress and East Orange native Dionne Warwick, Hawkins says his big issues are redevelopment and crime fighting.
"People are being taxed out of their homes," he says as he plants yard signs and goes door to door. "I’ve talked to thousands of people. We’re very visible. Yes, Janice Morrell (a retired director of minority affairs and special assistant to the dean of Rutgers Business School) has a nice resume. But I’m the only candidate with law enforcement experience."
A resident of Orange for just three years, Hawkins can front the muscle of Codey and the voice of Warwick, but he must also be wary of appearing to be the obvious establishment choice, according to his critics.
"He’s the young face of an old boys’ network," says Page spokesman Michael Vieira.
Page says Hawkins is a candidate being outrageously force-fed to the community by the power brokers.
At 28-year old, Hawkins in fact runs as the antithesis of Page, the aging activist who never saw a community fight he didn’t dive into headlong, and who isn’t the only one objecting to Hawkins’s background.
"He’s been a police officer for two years, and he wasn’t an Orange resident until only a few years ago," complains Morrell.
Hawkins argues that his youth has particular value – not only on the campaign trail where he keeps a frenetic work rate going door to door – but as a leader on the heels of an arguably decrepit Hackett administration.
The candidate holds the attention of not just Codey, but of Newark Mayor Cory Booker and West Ward Councilman Ron Rice. Codey nudged Hawkins in their direction for consideration, and early they liked what they saw in the way of energy from the son of noted civil rights attorney Eldridge Hawkins, Sr.
Hawkins hopes his youth will serve as a counterweight to the longstanding war between the two most powerful North Ward candidates in the race.
North Ward War
Page and Eason ran against each other before in the north, where Eason got the better of the lone-gun citizen legislator in 2002. Page went on to win an at-large seat against the Codey and Hackett-backed Anthony Williams in 2004.
The trick for Page now will be how far he can chew into Eason’s base, which the Hackett scandal may have softened considerably. Hackett and Eason never made any secret of their alliance and with the mayor entangled in legal troubles, at least some of Hackett’s money is on the North Ward councilwoman.
Having carved out his role on the council as an anti-Hackett partisan, the councilman wants to capitalize on the Hackett-Eason connection.
His three giant-sized billboards – two on Scotland Road and one on Main Street – trumpet "a new beginning," an energy burst message that also targets Hawkins. Page’s campaign has repeatedly reminded voters that Hawkins last year made a goodwill tour of the Valley section with Hackett in anticipation of running on the mayor’s ticket as an at-large candidate. The implication is that despite the glossy packaging, Hawkins can’t be new if he intended to run with the mayor.
Page’s supporters are diehard.
"Donald is not a political punk," says community activist Nicole Williams. "What I mean is, he puts his money where his mouth is. We met when he was liaison to the housing authority and I was a resident in the housing project. We had concerns with the housing authority and the nightmares they were putting us through. We put the dare out there to the council to come spend the night. When everyone else was mum, he said ‘I’ll do it.’ And he did."
After witnessing the ragged living conditions in the projects, Page went to the Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offices in Newark and Washington. Thereafter, says Williams, the local office made a leadership change and there was some improvement in the management of the buildings.
"Any time there’s an issue involving the downtrodden or the dispossessed, here comes Donald, head down, heart on his sleeve and unorthodox, but getting results," Williams says. "He’s not afraid of taking chances, and he’s not averse to risk."
Even some of his own backers, however, were disappointed when Page backed out of a community forum in the South Ward a few weeks ago, citing worries about the forum’s sponsors and their connections to the Hawkins campaign.
"I think Donald is paranoid," says former Councilman Ben Jones, one of the organizers of the event.
The Orange Transcript also dropped a story in the second to last issue, which gave Page another bad news day. Vieira says the campaign stared it down.
"The Orange Transcript got an anonymous call that Page owes the city $3,000 going back to 1996," says Vieira. "(Chief Financial Officer) Jack Kelly said to his knowledge Page doesn’t owe the city anything."
Says Hawkins, "I found the story alarming, but we shouldn’t rush to judgment. The proper authorities will act on it accordingly."
A Morrell-Hawkins run-off?
Observing the race from the South Ward and professing no empirical data but only a sense from the ground, Councilman Ed Marable predicts that Page and Eason will knock each other off in the north with their fellow North Warder Holmes also draining some votes. That would leave the other full court press candidates, Morrell and Hawkins, both of the South Ward, to face each other in a run-off.
"I think a substantial number of people are drawn to maturity," admits Marable, who describes Morrell as a "public servant and longtime resident, who presents very well."
Still, like his fellow councilman Hassan Abdul-Rasheed, Marable likes Hawkins.
"He has the biggest upside," Marable says. "When you’re picking a talented college player with one year under his belt, you do so because you gamble on what he will grow into. Right now we know who the other candidates are and what they will be, but I think Eldridge will grow into the best."
The others, of course, take issue, with the councilman’s scenario.
"I live in the North Ward, but I was born in the projects in the West Ward, and I have relatives in the East Ward," says Holmes. "When you grow up in the city, you can go to any ward in the city and be at home."
Page’s camp doesn’t project concern when it comes to Holmes. "Holmes is homegrown, but he’s unknown," says Vieira. But it’s not only Page’s people who believe Marable is downplaying Page’s candidacy.
Community activist Bruce Meyer backs Morrell, whom he believes has smarts and integrity. Saying he never heard of Hawkins until only recently, he believes Page poses the biggest threat to his candidate.
"He’s got lawn signs everywhere, and he’s running a very professional campaign," says Meyer, who fears Morrell may have entered the contest too late. "Donald has the name recognition, and he has a big heart, which has endeared him to a lot of voters, particularly seniors. He’s there when the elevator breaks down."
Trying to turn the Page
The other candidates in the race hint that Page might not have the temperament to be mayor, and argue, for example, that his reaction to news from the Essex County Sheriff’s Office that Orange is now the breeding ground for 188 gang members, amounted to knee-jerk over-correction.
Citing shootings on Lakeside as recently as the last three nights, Page wants to bring in the state police to crack down on burgeoning gangs. Morrell, Holmes and Hawkins all believe he’s wrong.
"I agrees that it needs to be addressed now so that it doesn’t become a major problem, but I don’t think going to the state police is an appropriate action," says Morrell. "We have not exhausted those areas where we can partner locally. I think folks are running around here like little lone rangers, and that doesn’t accomplish anything."
Hawkins notes that the presence of state police could scare off potential developers, and seizes the moment to talk about his own police background and what he could do locally in the way of bolstering those local and county partnerships.
"Bringing in the state police would send the message that we’ve lost control of the city," he says. "We want to push redevelopment."
Morrell agrees with her younger rival about development, but does not like the 20-year tax abatement that Eason and a majority of the city council favor for Hands, Inc., in the case of the Berg Hat Factory redevelopment project.
"I asked the developer if the city council denied the 20-year tax abatement would he discontinue the project, and he looked at me and said ‘no,’" she says. "I asked the city council why they didn’t instead consider a five-year tax abatement and they looked at me blankly."
Page says he doesn’t draw a blank on the issue at all, and agrees with Morrell that a five-year tax abatement would be most appropriate.
"We’re dealing with people – the developers – who have money," says the councilman.
Knowing the local name recognition might work to Page’s advantage but also quick to point out that his father has built up years of street credentials in the Oranges, Hawkins works double time with three weeks left in a neighborhood where by the looks of the yard signs, Page has more than made his presence felt.
Hawkins goes door-to-door with the sun going down in Orange, and the light on the Watchung range to west of the valley makes the name of the town stand out starkly. Kathy Dichiaro opens her door and sees the young man on her front porch, pulling a leaflet out of a stack and handing it to her.
"I’m running for mayor," Hawkins says.
He’s caught the resident close to the dinner hour and she squints up into Hawkins’s face and her mind evidently is adjusting to the pitch he’s making against the backdrop of what she’s heard about politics in her city.
"The other mayor got arrested," she says.
"Yeah, he got himself in some trouble," says Hawkins. "I believe I have the background and the ability to make change."
Change indeed, says Page. As he works his cellphone and a room of supporters at the same time, the at-large councilman, who himself ran with Hackett before their bust up many years ago, will not let people forget that Hawkins the interloper, as far as he’s concerned, recently planned to run with the mayor.
"The only reason things changed," says Page, "was because of the mayor’s arrest."