In Elizabeth, old feuds die hard

In December 2007, James Devine, a Union County political operative/newspaper publisher, was arrested for owing $20,000 in child support and alimony.

It was the latest fall from grace for Devine, a former Union County Democratic insider. Devine had been, as recently as a few years ago, a somewhat important operative in local political circles, running three weekly newspapers in Union County that depended heavily on financing from county advertisements and legal notices. But when that revenue stream abruptly ended, Devine was out of business and out of luck – a turn of events he blames on Elizabeth Mayor J. Christian Bollwage, a former political ally who he had a falling out with in the early 1990s.

Now he’s working to beat Bollwage, who is seeking re-election in the June 3 Democratic primary.

But Devine’s detractors hold nothing but venom for a man they characterize as a charlatan who has mucked up the political scene in Union County for decades, and who recently had his bank account frozen for owing tens of thousands in back taxes – something Devine blames on bad legal advice and child support payments.

Some public officials who are used to choosing their words carefully don’t hesitate to go on the record slamming Devine.

“He’s a sleaze ball, the worst in politics,” said Democratic State Chairman Joseph Cryan, who also represents Union County in the State Assembly. “If they pay him anything, I hope he used it towards his child support.”

After helping political newcomer Wilda Diaz topple eighteen-year incumbent Mayor Joseph Vas in Perth Amboy, Devine has set his sights on ousting Bollwage, who’s held the office since 1993.

Devine is helping run the campaigns of a slate of four candidates against Bollwage and three at-large council members: Edward Jackus, Frank Cuesta and Patricia Perkins-Auguste. The team is led by political neophyte Edward Bryant Koon, a juvenile detention officer. Running for council-at-large on Koon’s slate are Board of Education President Armando Da Silva; George O’Grady, the board of education’s community-attendance liaison; and former councilman Samuel Rodriguez, who ran for mayor in 1988.

“I regret the mistakes that I made. I am sorry for them and I hope to make good,” said Devine. “I plan to straighten things out. I didn’t file tax returns for several years. Why? Because I had no idea what my financial picture was. I don’t have enough money to hire accountants to untangle the web that the courts and politicians have conspired against me with.”

Devine’s feud with Bollwage goes back to 1991, when Devine challenged then-Elizabeth Mayor Thomas Dunn for his Assembly seat. Bollwage, Devine said, never came through with promised support for that campaign, and a year later – after Bollwage won his first term as mayor – he wouldn’t support Devine for the 5th ward council seat.

The three community newspapers that Devine later picked up — The News Record and The Patriot — had essentially been mouthpieces Democratic Establishment in Union County (he also ran the The Adams Tabloid & Citizen Gazette in Middlesex). But after running some critical stories of Bollwage, Devine said, the mayor conspired with Union County Democratic Chairwoman Charlotte DeFilippo and State Sen. Raymond Lesniak to take away the county’s business.

Devine admitted that the papers leaned towards favoring his clients, but said that it’s typical of small community papers.

“Before my eyes had been open, I probably was more sympathetic towards the government in Union County,” said Devine. My papers were a lot smaller than The Star-Ledger or any other paper that might make claims of journalistic integrity and objectivity, but these were probably no different than any other weekly papers in the state. Clearly there will be a difference when there’s an iron wall between people who do advertising and editorial. In weekly newspapers it’s the same guy, and it’s the same guy who makes corporate decisions and takes out the garbage.”

By 2006, Devine unloaded the papers. Broke and beaten down from a divorce and car accident, he ultimately found himself missing child support payments, which he traces back to his papers’ ruin.

Lesniak, for his part, denies Devine’s claims of a “criminal conspiracy.”

“That never happened. The county was, quite frankly, looking for ways to cut taxes, and that was an extra expense that wasn’t really required,” he said. “Also, there was a dispute as to whether he was charging the correct amount for the ads. He lost the Rahway ads as a result of that if I’m not mistaken. I was very resentful of that because he was overcharging for the type sizes. So it was a combination: a dispute over his fees and looking to cut costs, and he took it personally.”

Koon, for his part, said that Bollwage doesn’t acknowledge a gang problem that plagues the city, and has made crime and property taxes the top issue of his campaign.

“I believe that our city needs a change,” said Koon. “Taxes have increased , we have serious gang problem and crime going on in our community, and I believe City Hall should make an effort to deal with crime. Instead of sitting back and doing nothing I‘ve decided to run for mayor.”

But the stronger denunciations of Bollwage come from Devine. The city has lost its well-paying manufacturing jobs, replaced by low wage part-time employers who don’t provide benefits, he said. Bollwage ushered in a wave of development during his four terms as mayor and ten years on the council, like the Ikea just off the Turnpike and the Jersey Gardens Mall.

“There is no Wal-Mart in Elizabeth, but Chris Bollwage did Wal-Mart Elizabeth,” said Devine.

Devine sees a similarity between Bollwage’s tenure as mayor and Vas in nearby Perth Amboy. They’ve both been in office since the early 1990’s, both remain personally popular, but may be vulnerable to a nationwide mood for change and complaints about tax increases.

“People know the mayor and like him, but nobody should be mayor for 20 years,” said Devine.

Lesniak disputes similarities between Bollwage and Vas. First off, unlike Vas, Bollwage never canceled a Puerto Rican Day Parade – something that put Vas at odds with his city’s large Latino community. Moreover, unlike Diaz, Koon has little name recognition.

“Mayor Vas had a credible opponent. Nobody knows Mayor Bollwage’s opponent,” said Lesniak.

While some local politicos cast doubt on just how integral a role Devine played in the Perth Amboy upset, Diaz said that he did indeed help.

“I thought that he did really well with us,” she said.

Bollwage defended his accomplishments as mayor, but refused to address anything having to do with Devine.

“I’m not going to comment on him in any way shape or form. I’m not going to comment on anything he has to say or do. He’s not a candidate,” said Bollwage. “I’m not going to comment on why political consultants do things. I always think it’s because they’re getting paid.”

Bollwage dismisses his challenge as another aspect of the historically tense relationship between the city’s school board and mayor’s office, which began with Mayor Dunn’s opposition to an elected school board. He argued that Koon was fielded to run for mayor because of an old association with the Superintendent of schools, and that two of Koon’s running mates are affiliated with the school board.

“They’d like to show me out and run the whole show,” said Bollwage.

Bollwage also says he has not ignored the city’s crime problem, arguing that he’s presided over the institution of after-school programs, expansion of the D.A.R.E. program and is working with prosecutors to make them a frequent presence at community meetings.

He points out that he can’t be blamed for the city’s loss of well-paying jobs, a condition far from unique to old industrial cities. Instead, he points to an unemployment rate that was somewhere between 11 and 12% at the beginning of his term, and stood at only 6.4% as of last year.

“It’s kind of interesting that they would blame me for bringing in jobs. I find that a novel political argument,” he said. “The blue collar jobs already left the community when I became mayor, so my choices were how to put people in the city of Elizabeth to work. What we did was take advantage of our location near Newark airport and other transportation, created a service economy where people that live here will have access to work and employment.”

In Elizabeth, old feuds die hard