EDISON – Mayor Jun Choi walked out to a mound on Sunday and threw a respectable toss in the vicinity of the plate to launch the little league season here in front of dozens of teams that in this sprawling suburban torque point looked like child armies mobilized in the name of world order.
Running as a renegade again, the Choi campaign’s internals in the Democratic Primary show him ahead of Councilwoman Toni Ricigliano, the local establishment candidate, who’s going for the jugular with a mail piece that shows a car belly up accompanied by the tag line, “Choi has turned Edison upside down.”
Walking off the field, Choi said he takes it as a point of personal pride that he turned the town upside down. He upset the old order and gradually is attempting to replace it with a new one. In that vein, to date he’s handled Ricigliano’s candidacy as the final try trumpeting of a mastodon organization he thinks he can topple utterly on June 2nd as he fields a full slate of local committee candidates.
Not surprisingly, Ricigliano sees the mayor as youthfully arrogant, a cerebral automaton who clams up if he’s unable to immediately ramrod his initiatives.
A third candidate, union carpenter Willie Araujo, has pledged to run a campaign with under $1,000, which in this enormous area with multiple, diverse neighborhoods doesn’t bode well for him, particularly considering the fiercely accelearated campaigns of his competitors. The Ricigliano ticket may be old school, but that may not be a negative in a street fight.
Choi flipped over the opposition glossy and smiled grimly as he studied a picture of his own face superimposed on the torso of what appears to be a business executive in the back seat of a limo on a cell phone, apparently designed to make him look like the Gordon Gecko of Edison.
“I’m running against a ticket purporting to be for change, which was affiliated with the people who ran Edison from 1990 to 2005, during which time the average tax increase was 12.1% and there was huge exponential growth of government,” said Choi, who during his nearly four years didn’t hike taxes past the rate of inflation.
A child approached with a baseball and squinted up at the mayor from beneath a cap. She wanted the ball signed. Choi obliged.
“We’re in the southern part of Edison, this is not what you might consider my strongest area, and yet still the people here are very receptive,” said Choi, who lives in the northern part of town. “Our reception is very good today.”
Now officially a fulltime mayor making $75,000 in this fifth biggest New Jersey municipality, Choi breaks down the primary in the simplest possible terms. He’s the taxpayer advocate running with a team that has no connection to local government, while Ricigliano runs on a ticket that includes Charlie Tomaro, a former councilman, confidante of former Mayor George Spadoro and son-in-law of local party chairman Doc Paterniti; and Tom Lankey, a former Spadoro stalwart who’s now resurfaced as a self-styled throw-the-bum-out good guy.
Ricigliano initially ran and won with Spadoro in 1997, then broke with him in a 2001 family fight. This year she went back to the older fold when Paterniti affirmed her candidacy, but Choi maintains she has been a member of the local party committee through all the drama and can’t possibly position herself as the embodiment of anything other than a change-time impediment.
“Charlie definitely ran with Spadoro and is Tom Paterniti’s son in law, but he went before the party committee, same as everybody else,” Ricigliano admitted. “This is what we are. Lankey has never run for office before. He is a very nice guy. He’s very thoughtful and introspective. I value his opinion. I believe his degree is in finance.”
Her point is Choi brings in too many people from out of town.
“The message I’m trying to get across is when you are entrusted by the people and they entrust you with their tax dollars it’s important to look after their tax dollars as you would your own money,” the councilwoman added. “We have to tighten our belts. I’ve been called frugal or cheap. I have nine children and I’ve been married 53 years. We don’t agree on everything, but we learned to make it work.”
Ricigliano thinks Choi’s too calculating to run the town she loves.
“It seems to me, with him, everything is politics,” she said. “Politics is fine when you’re running, but once you’re an elected official, you represent every person in the community. Politics has no business in government.”
In the middle of this political campaign, Choi worked through the crowd of kids in uniforms of all colors coming off the field, slapping high fives and saying hello to the parents and hobnobbing where he could, not overdoing it, backslapping isn’t his style; in fact, for the most part, he appeared mostly business before he climbed into his sport utility vehicle and headed for the next event.
And all four tires were street level.