Counting on grassroots support, Rone runs against the power

NEWARK – As the juggernaut campaigns of Charles Bell and Eddie Osborne hit each other at full speed in the Central Ward, Mary Rone mounts a grassroots operation from below that she hopes will knock both of the bigger operations to their knees on Nov. 4th.

“I’m going to win it for the people,” says the community activist, who with her late husband, James Rone, advocated for fair housing in the city going back to the late 1960s. “I’ve had enough of the ring-kissing style of politics, and I know the people of the Central Ward have too.”

She comes at the campaign with an extra burst of motivation.

Thirteen candidates are vying in a special election to fill the seat of Rone’s daughter, former Councilwoman Dana Rone, whom an assignment judge removed in August after determining that the councilwoman used her office to impede the work of Rutgers University cops in a Dec. 2006 traffic incident involving her nephew.

“You could say Dana losing her seat was my fault,” says the older Rone. “I instilled in her what my family instilled in me. If a family member is in distress, you help them. That’s all it was. It’s not about her improperly using her authority. My daughter is very protective, both of her community – and of her own family.”

That said, Rone doesn’t believe Mayor Cory Booker protected her daughter, and she thinks he didn’t because Dana Rone’s advocacy for more low income affordable units in the redevelopment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. corridor landed her on Booker’s permanent pain in the neck list.

“Dana grew up on her father’s knee while he was organizing the Newark Tenants’ Council, grassroots, from the bottom up,” says the Central Ward Council candidate. “This stuff is innate with her.”

Rone used to be a Booker backer, and helped organize for him when he built his change ticket in back-to-back elections: first in 2002 and then in the over-the-top campaign of 2006.

But like others she soured on the mayor as she watched him appoint people to key positions who in her view don’t understand – or more fundamentally – don’t care about the residents here and their specific problems.

Rone says the backing of labor leader Osborne by Booker; and North Ward Democratic leader Steve Adubato’s support for Bell make the Osborne-Bell candidacies little more than a Booker-Adubato weigh-in stare-down in preparation for the 2010 mayoral election.

Her supporters drive that point in conversation.

“My mother used to tell me when two elephants fight, they step on a lot of ants,” says Rone-ally, Georgine Ransom.

If Adubato, who’s aligned in this election cycle with longtime nemesis state Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), can topple Booker’s candidate, he will be better positioned to advance North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos as a candidate for mayor, Rone says.

Even in the face of a presidential victory by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Il.), whom Booker backed vociferously from the beginning, Adubato , Rice and his allies would use a Bell win as a message to Booker that he’d be better off lobbying for an Obama cabinet position or running statewide rather than risk running locally again.

If Booker can win with Osborne, he flexes his muscles mid way to re-election, while delivering a council seat to Ray Pocino, the powerful vice president of Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA), who backed Booker in 2006 and is Osborne’s boss with the Laborers.

“Should Osborne lose, Booker can at least make the argument that by putting himself out there, he took care of his IOU to Pocino,” says an Essex County insider.

For her part, Rone laughs at what is perhaps the inevitability of finding herself, the grassroots Newarker who once pounded doors for Booker, now face-to-face with one of the powerful statewide sources that propelled Booker into office on the money side of the political equation.

Despite her lack of cash and organization, and the presence of 12 other candidates in the race, ten of whom are also positioning themselves as the grassroots alternatives and five of whom are women, she likes her chances of being the one to beat Bell and Osborne.

“No one here knows Armstrong,” she says.

Osborne, she’s told.

“Osborne – no one knows him,” she says. “If you look at what he said on the issue of affordable housing the other day when Booker endorsed him. He said, ‘ditto what the mayor said.’ What kind of a candidate is that?”

As for Bell, an old friend, she says, “He’s a nice guy, but by going with Adubato, he’s showing that he’s willing to be used. I’m not. That’s what it comes down to. I won’t be used. Not by Adubato. Not by Booker.”

Bell’s rawboned Newark support isn’t limited to Adubato, Rice and a smattering of naysaying Newarkers, such as former council members Gayle Cheneyfield Jenkins and Ras Baraka.

In the desperate race for bucks to keep pace with the Osborne money machine, Bell’s supporters acknowledge that part of the former councilman’s funding includes $5,000 from former Mayor Sharpe James, a Bell ally who’s serving time on federal corruption charges.

“Charlie doesn’t have the money that Osborne does,” explains Central Ward Democratic Committee leader Dwight Brown.

Let the power players do what they will, Rone says. She’s only too happy to fight them.

Counting on grassroots support, Rone runs against the power