Bell and Osborne dominate the field as Booker weighs the battle

NEWARK – The crowded race for a vacant Central Ward Council seat features a veteran with the stalwart backing of Newark’s gray-haired fathers, versus a labor-cash infused newcomer who may or may not receive support from a wobbling Mayor Cory Booker.

Thirteen candidates hope to fill the seat an assignment judge separated from Central Ward Councilwoman Dana Rone after Rone this summer exhausted her appeals process going back to a 2006 obstruction of justice case.

But apparent frontrunner Charles Bell sees his chief challenger – both for Obama affection and for the local council seat – as fellow labor brother Eddie Osborne, whose billboards and signs laden with Obama iconography have hit the Central Ward like an orange blizzard.

The Osborne campaign sizes up the contest similarly.

In their sights, they see Bell, a former councilman, school board member for nearly 30 years and retired labor official with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers Union, who combines name ID and an alliance with time-tested political infrastructure.

For his part, Bell’s out there early every day, shaking hands, making and renewing contact.

Style-wise, he’s straight up old school Newark.

“I always vote for you, Charlie,” a woman calls back to him on Hill Street when he points at her through the passing sidewalk crowd and beams friendly recognition.

Slowing at the sight of Bell, a member of Bikers for Obama tells the former councilman he’s voting for him and Bell smiles.

“Bell and Obama, baby,” he says. “Bell and Obama.”

Inside a downtown community pantry, he takes a break from distributing bags of food.

“The people of the Central Ward need someone who’s ready on day one,” Bell says. “I know where the bodies are buried, I have the experience.”

The easy-going former councilman doesn’t look like the embodiment of Booker-backlash, but in many ways he is, as he runs with the support of North Ward Democratic leader Steve Adubato, state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), other council people displaced by the Booker Team in 2006, and Central Ward Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Brown, a close Adubato ally who knows ground-level organization.

“We’re going to have a small but highly effective and well-trained GOTV effort on Election Day made up of 250 soldiers,” says Brown, who goes back with Bell to when they used to work together on the Newark Housing Authority.

There’s someone else who’s known Bell a while, too, but he’s not standing with him in this campaign.

That’s Osborne, whose considerable labor support puts him at the top of the cash heap ($40,800 so far, according to last week’s ELEC filing, compared to $33,424 for Bell), but who faces the considerable challenge of emblazoning his brand on the voting public during a short-burst run, in a field where not just one but 12 other candidates are scrambling to distinguish themselves.

At least two others in addition to Bell are generating break-from-the-pack interest: Nikea White – who has the backing of Council President Mildred Crump, and whose signs smother the ward – and Mary Rone, mother of the displaced councilwoman.

If he cansustain his new guy-change time messaging, a potential Osborne advantage is the flood of newly registered presumptive Obama voters in Newark, who could play havoc with the classic urban machine operations of old hands Bell, Brown and Adubato.

Of course, Bell, Osborne – and everyone else in the race for that matter – want to prove that they are the natural homespun versions of presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (D-Il.).

Osborne’s signs go for subliminal connections by borrowing heavily from the Obama campaign’s font styles and imagery, while Bell’s campaign insignia shows him flanked by two smiling photo portraits of everyone’s favorite presidential candidate.

It’s as if the former councilman’s graphics people scrapped the usual angel/devil dichotomy in favor of two glorious Obamas, one on either of the candidate’s shoulders.

Twenty-two large-scale Bell signs rose around the Central Ward last week to counter the billboard mania coming out of the Osborne camp, and almost overnight three of the Bell signs were plastered over with white paint and shoe polish.

“We’re going to find out who did it,” says the candidate.

Meanwhile, the younger Osborne – an ally of Booker’s going back to the mayor’s days as a Central Ward councilman, argues outright that he is “Obama’s change in the Central Ward.”

“I respect Charles Bell and what he’s done for workers in the past,” says the candidate, sitting down between events in his headquarters on the eastern edge of the Orange Street business district. “He’s a good man, but when I talked to him in the lead up to this campaign, he was golfing and relaxing and I looked at him – looked into his face – and I got the sense that he was happy with the way his life was.

“My view is there are coaches and there are players, and Charlie Bell is in the coaching phase, while I’m ready to charge out there onto the field to make the plays,” Osborne adds.

If the Osborne campaign packages the contest as youthful energy versus aging warhorse from the Sharpe James years, Bell’s people see in the Bell-Osborne showdown an equally compelling narrative: pure Newark versus powerful outside interests.

Although a native of the Central Ward and former district leader here, the 45-year old Osborne has statewide connections that make it easy for his opponents to deride his candidacy as a sleek, 11th hour instrument of big money. The candidate serves as the business manager of Laborers Local 1153, an affiliate of the Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), and he works for Ray Pocino, LIUNA’s vice president and Eastern Regional manager.

Pocino has close ties to the South Jersey Democratic Organization, and donated in the mid five figure range to Booker’s 2006 mayoral campaign.

Osborne knows his operations have ruffled the parochial old guard, and he knows the charge out there that he’s a drone for Pocino. But Bell’s roots, indeed nearly his entire public formation comes proudly from the labor movement.Moreover, Osborneinsists the fact that his connections and lifelong membership with the laborers only strengthens him locally.

“My main goal on the council would be job creation,” he says. “I want to create jobs related to all trades in the Central Ward.”

In between campaign duties, one of Osborne’s chief advisors, Pastor Thomas Reddick, Jr., executive director of the Renaissance Church of Newark, says in two years the Booker administration has made some strides.

“Crime has gotten a little better,” Reddick says. “We’re excited about our new prisoner re-entry program, which has really gotten started in the last few weeks. But when it comes down to it, people need jobs, and that’s what Eddie does.”

Nowa significantquestion in the ward is whether the globetrotting Booker, easily the most energetic Obama surrogate in the state but badgered by his critics who say he’s not sufficiently Newark-centric, decides to back Osborne.

He may yet back another candidate.

As Rone’s chances of staying on the council crumbled, the mayor said initially that he would prefer a woman to take her seat.

So far only Osborne has shown sufficient campaign muscle to take on Bell, andOsborne wants Booker’s support.

The double edge on that, though, if the mayor backs the Pocino connection, is it stokes the argument advanced by his most determined local foes that he can only win with a big money channel, whether it’s his own candidacy or that of a potential ally like Osborne.

It also threatens to unite some of the lesser-known grassroots candidates in more bitter opposition. Many of them already smarted at Booker’s increasingly icy relations with the headstrong Rone before the judge dumped her. Booker/Osborne/Labor against the old Democratic Party establishment in addition to the “Remember, Dana” movement might not bode well for the mayor in the lead-up to 2010.

Both Bell and Osborne agree the judge was too hard on Rone when she relieved the councilwoman of her seat, and Booker has made the same public statements.

“In my mind, Dana Rone should be finishing out her term,” Osborne says. “She made a mistake, but her penalty was kind of harsh.”

“I felt that it was a little severe, and I was hoping in her appeals process that she would have prevailed,” says Bell.

Of course, if the mayor picks no one in a let-the-people-decide show of magnanimity, his critics will say Booker’s running away from a fight – and that too has its disadvantages.

Whatever Booker does and with Obama love the Election Day wildcard, Bell and Osborne are already in the thick of it with less than three weeks to go – and they’re not the only ones.

Bell and Osborne dominate the field as Booker weighs the battle