After running as a local Obama, Hawkins runs early into the hard edge of Orange

ORANGE – In the city a little over a year, young Eldridge Hawkins, Jr., ran as the Obama of Orange – a new messenger intent on change in the wake of another public man’s wreckage.

As he observed his older opponent on Election Day, Hawkins brazenly likened the campaign of At-Large Councilman Donald Page to a shopworn Hillary Clinton, and compared his own to that of the hard-charging, inspirational Barack Obama.

But more than five months into his term of office as mayor, Hawkins’s critics object to what they call the 29-year old executive’s early failure to deliver the city convincingly from the era of Mims Hackett, who’s soon to be serving time in a federal pen for corruption.

A proposed $57.2 million budget is up $3.6 million from last year’s, and residents face a significant tax increase. Meanwhile, even new furnishings at City Hall can’t camouflage an entrenched cast of old regime characters.

This, they ask, is change?

“Business Administrator Jewel Thompson-Chin is hiding the fact that the city must raise property taxes in order to ‘balance’ the budget,” says Bruce Meyer, chair of the Citizens Budget Advisory Committee. “The mayor’s budget proposal shows expenditures by the city will exceed revenues by at least $5.65 million, an 18.6 percent tax increase.”

No one expected Hackett’s successor to open the vaults at City Hall and find evidence of good stewardship.

“This is not my budget,” says Hawkins, quick to distance himself from the crumbling last days of Hackett. “This is something that has been inherited. My administration hasn’t run away with expenditures. Part of this is debt service that the prior administration had hoped would be absorbed by redevelopment.”

Concurs South Ward Councilman Ed Marable, Jr., “When someone bails out the way Mims bailed out, they leave a funky residue.”

But Orange residents say the problem with Hawkins in his early days in office – at the very least – is the perception that he fails to feel the people’s pain, and remains a high-rolling carpetbagger from West Orange with a power speed dial that fails to connect with the city’s struggling working class.

It started on Inauguration Day when the mayor-elect pulled up in a limo to a red carpet welcome, a piece of symbolism meant to convey the rolling out of a new day in Orange.

Sources say the overblown prop mortified Hawkins’s benefactor, state Sen. Richard Codey (D-Essex), a dedicated purveyor of the politician as blue collar everyman, whose maxim in politics is “never do anything that makes it appear that you think you’re better than anyone.”

The perception problem worsened.

Backing off of an initial attempt to secure for himself $120,000 a year, Hawkins scrapped the mayor’s salary and settled for $76,000 in a job he created as fire director. Then he took in additional $3,700 as emergency management coordinator, a gig that in Orange comes with a free car and gas.

When asked if he would consider trimming his own public salary as a demonstration of shared sacrifice in a town where the median family income is $40,000, the mayor backs away from the suggestion.

“I think that is something I can’t necessarily anticipate at this point,” he says. “We will have to listen to the council and see if that is feasible. The priority should not be me and my salary, the priority should be how we get relief to the citizens of Orange. We shouldn’t go straight to laying off employees. We’ll look at everything, including cuts in programming. We’ll have to do our due diligence.

“The administration is and will continue to scrutinize the budget,” he adds. “It’s not final. If there are things we can cut or merge, ways we can reduce costs without severely compromising the citizens of Orange, we will craft and retool.”

As for the car, “The job of authorized emergency management coordinator comes with the vehicle,” says Hawkins in a telephone interview from the League of Municipalities Conference in Atlantic City. “You can’t always anticipate where you’ll be if an emergency arises. If the City of Orange blows up, and I’m down here, for example, I need to get back there in a timely manner.”

Then there’s the mayor’s chief of staff, Tai Cooper.

She makes $50,000 – a salary Hawkins justifies as consistent with the past administration’s chief of staff’s salary – in addition to $20,000 as the city’s affirmative action officer. Moreover, Cooper’s sister landed a $39,000 job as a secretary at the police department, and sources say she’s already filed a workers’ comp. complaint.

“Cronyism is certainly a negative thing when it comes to putting friends or family on the payroll, but if you employ people who are qualified, that’s another matter,” says Hawkins. “Who you know may get you there, but what you know keeps you there. Jamilah Copper has payroll experience in her previous employment.”

Beyond an immediate circle of friends, like the Coopers, whom he has known for years, and heading off a potential resurgence of the man he defeated on Election Day, Hawkins employed Page as a police aide.

“Donald Page has prior experience in fingerprinting at the county level,” the mayor explains. “If there’s any positive political impact to having Donald Page at the police department, that’s a plus.”

Page’s allies say he told them he doesn’t intend to run for mayor again, although he continues to express interest in a possible North Ward run against old foe Councilwoman Tency Eason.

If an indulgence in perks dogs the Hawkins administration, that carries a certain irony, for the 11th-hour, coup de grace mail piece the Hawkins campaign dropped on Page chastised the veteran councilman for trips he took to various conferences. Page argued at the time that he merely tapped travel expenses the council allocates by resolution.

Now some taxpayers gape at an Atlantic City Hotel bill of $270-per night for Hawkins, $170 for Cooper and $111 for Councilwoman Donna Williams, as the trio from Orange attends the League of Municipalities Conference.

Hawkins’s counter argument?

“The council gave me the money to attend a longstanding and reputable conference,” he says. “I am here to network and to bring additional resources to Orange. This trip was authorized by the council. When I attended a Congressional Black Caucus event, I paid for that out of my own funds.”

Criticism of the new mayor’s spending habits hit him not only on the road with the car and trips – but close to home, as in, at City Hall, where he adorned his office with new furniture when he moved in, slapping the bill into the fiscal year 2008 budget.

To his adversaries – and his even his friends -all of this adds up in the public eye. A negative, bloated image starts to form.

Yet the mayor steadfastly defends his record, and gives numerous examples of where he is focused on saving the taxpayers money and improving the city.

He estimates that internalizing the city’s legal costs will save the city $200,000 over the next five years, centralizing police dispatching out of University Hospital in Newark will result in $150,000 in overtime savings, and shifting some police duties to special or part time officers will result in savings of $50,000.

Plus, he says he’s blended some jobs together to save money, including the city’s projected new engineer and director of public works, instituted directors’ forums with the public and televised city council meetings. A West Orange cop before becoming mayor, he’s paid particular attention to public safety, he says, and during his time in office the Police Department has made 700 more arrests than a full year’s worth of police work before his time. Insiders say the new police director is indeed a great improvement over his predecessor.

Still, big angst-inducing issues in Orange remains the stalled redevelopment of the abandoned factory district on the South side – a trackside ghost town where there could be a juicy city ratable – and another stalled project in the East Ward.

These were supposed to bail out Orange, an Abbott District with a roughly $80 million schools budget.

But a pump station problem coupled with hard economic times have relegated a grand scheme of artists’ lofts and upscale development in the Valley to the stuff of dreams, while the enticement of tax abatements for developers simply means boomeranging a bigger tax burden onto the shoulders of already-strapped local residents.

Amid the gloom, Hawkins projects optimism.

“Developers continue to knock on Orange’s door,” he says. “We have two train stations in town and close proximity to New York. There’s no reason Orange can’t be another Hoboken. The market will recover, as real estate has its ups and downs. We want to be in the right place when it does recover.”

Meanwhile, at a Monday Night public hearing in City Hall, residents trudge to the microphone to address the tax crisis, when inevitably, someone mentions the elephant in the room, or more accurately, the mayor’s chief of staff, Cooper.

Hawkins takes a later question about Cooper – former U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-Cliffside Park) staffer and native Newarker – in stride. Yes, he’s known her for years, but he insists she’s a critical part of the work he’s trying to accomplish.

“People jump to conclusions on different things,” says the mayor. “But the fact is, you wouldn’t have been able to find anyone else more qualified. If it were a male counterpart, people wouldn’t mention it. She worked for a senator. She can pick up the phone and put me in front of people with whom I wouldn’t otherwise have contact. Because of her involvement, I met with (Department of Community Affairs) Commissioner Joe Doria. She is a very valuable resource to the city.”

Sources close to the the mayor say there have been several handwringing sessions regarding Cooper, and at least one trusted Hawkins ally advised the mayor to dump her. Still others say her presence in a long faded Orange just adds to the Hawkins glam factor.

As chairman of the Democratic County Committee in Orange, Hawkins naturally delighted in the Nov. 4th victory of Obama, now the president-elect. Voter turnout in the city tripled over the last presidential election, with 10,000 citizens engaged in the polling booths.

“I’m very happy Obama won the presidency,” says Hawkins. “Obama’s national policy for urban and middle class people will get us the funding for programs that haven’t existed for Orange.”

A core of city watchdogs say the Hawkins campaigns’ efforts earlier this year to link their candidate to Obama have proved with hindsight a feeble and finally harmful act of political imagination.

“The fundamental difference is Hawkins didn’t do his homework, nor did he take the time to feel out the times,”explains community activist Nicole Williams, who supported Page for mayor. “Obama had an exploratory committee and two years of running in which the public got to know him. Hawkins with a very short time of living in the city went very suddenly from running for council to running for mayor. He hadn’t prepared himself, nor had he prepared the residents. The colossal question then as now is 'Who?' He remains a mystery.”

Marable, who backed Hawkins for in the election, continues to believe in the mayor and uses terms like “total package” when he describes his potential, but also concedes that the "hard-working" Hawkins has been ill-served by the older government superstructure that still exists at City Hall.

“What we have is a new coach with many of the same players,” says the councilman. “The question is how much impact can the coach have on the game? I suspect we’re going to have to change more of the team to effectuate more positive change. Front and center is Jack Kelly, the city’s CFO. I have no confidence in him. He’s been unresponsive to my requests of him, and if he isn’t serving me as a councilperson I don’t believe he’s serving the citizens of Orange.

“So far the changes have been more by addition, but there needs to be some subtraction,” Marable adds. “Perhaps that’s not the way to effectuate change. That presupposes Eldridge is Vince Lombardi to start with – and yes, he’s an unproven commodity in that regard.Yet for Orange to succeed, we need to helpEldridge succeed."

No one would argue the city’s problems started with Hawkins, but right now more than a few residents wonder with increasing skepticism and alarm if his administrationcan deliver. The mayor hears the criticism on the streets and at the city council meetings every two weeks, and says it goes with the territory, he never expected the jobwould be easy.

He likes the job.

“I don’t have the luxury to buckle under the pressure,” Hawkins says. “People do want change, but it takes time to bring about change. You cannot undo many fiscal issues overnight.”

If Hawkins apologists take his lead and continue to cast him as the Obama of Orange while his critics see him as a hopelessly ambitious and presumptuous interloper, the mayor’s emerging – to Marable at least, as the Cory Booker of Orange: a young man with tremendous promise, who can’t go anywhere politically until he does something substantial in this troubled city he now calls home.

After running as a local Obama, Hawkins runs early into the hard edge of Orange