IRVINGTON – Gene Etchison approaches a sprawling old house on the corner of Clinton Avenue and tells the resident when he steps outside, "I love your grass. It’s cut real nice. I love to lie down in the grass, that’s why I always notice it when I go by here."
The man shakes the candidate's hand. He knows it’sthe day before Election Day.
He confesses he has a problem with the way Mayor Wayne Smith’s administration is running the town, and he tells Etchison he’d like to go to Town Hall and tell them they need to improve the sanitation department – and everything else for that matter, but he just doesn’t have the energy anymore.
"I’ve been here for 26 years," says Dr. Dave Hammond, a drug counselor. "When I moved to Irvington there were no shootings. It was a beautiful town – close to Newark. But I bought me two and a half acres in Pennsylvania and I’m about ready to make my move."
Etchison looks for the right moment to make his pitch.
Message delivery is tricky in his case because although he’s not an elected official, he’s affiliated with Team Irvington, the organization whose allies now dominate the council. So he’s not exactly running on a mantra of let’s all get down there and throw the bums out of office.
But in a year when Sen. Barack Obama has successfully employed the idea of "change" in his campaign, the North Ward council candidate does sprinkle his speech liberally with the same word, and in this case what Etchison wants is Councilman David Lyons out and himself in.
The lone man on the council voting "no" on nearly every initiative, whose last mailer refers to his own record of voting against tax increases and tying Etchison to the same team that hiked them, Lyons runs as the perennial outsider even though he’s the incumbent.
So when the challenger urges change he makes sure to emphasize Lyons’s obstructionist tendencies, and punctuates his argument with, "Let’s put an end to the in-house fighting."
Lyons calls Etchison a rubber stamp waiting to happen.
The challenger walks the North Ward streets with Kiburi Tucker, son of former Newark Councilman the late Donald Tucker, who was Etchison’s political hero along with Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex).
Rice is with Lyons in this election – again – a painful fact for Etchison considering he moved to Irvington 16 years ago to live close to his political mentor, a resident of Newark’s West Ward.
To Hammond’s complaints about crime, Etchison reminds him that he’s a Newark police detective who’s unafraid of engaging people on the street who could pose a threat but in many cases are just striving for human contact.
While stopping to speak to a voter at another house, a van blasting both sound and moving video images of Lyons into the neighborhood travels past on Laurel Avenue, drowning out Etchison’s attempt to connect.
All that can be heard from the traveling sound system are the words "Councilman David Lyons."
The intrusion of the rival campaign truck underscores Lyons’s precarious reality in the face of Etchison’s vigorous efforts. Former Irvington Mayor Michael Steele won’t be on the ballot tomorrow to drain votes from Etchison. In 2004, Lyons received 450 votes, followed by 370 for Etchison and 200 and change for Steele.
Now it’s just Etchison and Lyons.
The latter hopes additions to his campaign battle plan, including Team Irvington’s blunders in office these past four years, the van, a more organized call bank, Rice GOTV soldiers from Newark’s West and South wards, cable television ads, and a glossy mail attack strategy will offset Steele’s absence and sink Etchison.
"People know what I stand for," says Lyons, a three-term incumbent. "I have a record to stand on, and Gene doesn’t. He’s putting lies out there, but people will see through the lies."
The money muscle from the Lyons-Rice camp enables Etchison, the candidate in the race who is backed by the city’s one behemoth political organization, to actually look like a big underdog.
That’s the one role the self-styled people’s champion Lyons figured no one could take from him, but Etchison is trying.
Out on the streets, the challenger’s campaign allies treat the Lyons TV van like a pariah on wheels, but when he sees it double back and head in his direction again he runs out in the middle of the street and pretends to plaster one of his campaign pieces on the driver’s side door as the driver laughs and the candidate tells him, "Vote for Gene Etchison!"