Morning News Digest: January 5, 2010

Booker and team of nine councilmembers pick up petitions to run again

City Hall: a hammered out homage to rustbelt royalty with Corinthian columns hoisting four stone and stucco stories uplifting a rotunda that shapes and centers the whole relatively squat structure, cast on the exterior with gold leaf to shame any statehouse. There’s Mayor Cory Booker on the top floor, smiling in the glare of the camera crew that hustles with back steps down the hallway, chronicling the mayor’s movements as he makes his way to the clerk’s office to pick up petitions to file to run for a second term. Accompanying Booker – as part of an entourage that looks like a space shuttle crew roll-out – are the nine sitting city council members, all running as members of the Booker Team. “Look, I’m not going to say things are the greatest in the world in Newark,” says At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana, a remnant of the Sharpe James era who made the transition to the new look Booker Team in 2006 and stuck, despite his ongoing antagonism with the North Ward Democratic Committee. “I support all my colleagues,” he assures, when asked about North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, who’s also part of the Booker behemoth. “Am I closer to some of my colleagues than others,” asks South Ward Councilman Oscar James II. “Yes, but this is my team, and I will work as hard for this team as any other team. I was taught at a very young age that politics creates strange bedfellows.” James, of course, is facing arguably the stiffest test down in the sprawling South Ward, where activist (and son of poet Amiri Baraka) Ras Baraka plans to mount an aggressive challenge in front of this year’s May 11th municipal contest. But there are other challengers to the Team. “I was the first one down here picking up petitions today,” said optometrist Peter Pantoliano, who’s running against East Ward Councilman Augusto Amador. Amador walks in with Quintana and Booker. “He says he’s proud because he’s not corrupt,” says Pantoliano, standing there with petitions under his arm to one side of the Booker political bulk that’s just arrived, and which now dominates the hallway outside the clerk’s office. He’s talking about Amador. “To me it’s corrupt when you on the job and continue to collect a pension when you’ve passed the point of being effective, that’s corruption,” adds Pantoliano, who, like Amador, must collect 151 petition signatures in the East Ward in order to qualify as a candidate. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

East Ward challenger admits college designation was a ‘horrible mistake’

That Ironbound contest between Councilman Augusto “Augie” Amador and optometrist Peter Pantoliano has gotten ugly early, with both men pummeling each other on petition pick-up day and the latter apologizing for what he says was a “horrible mistake.” Pantoliano equated demonstrable “ineffectiveness” from Amador’s 12-year term in office with a kind of corruption, swiftly prompting Amador’s allies to specifically point out the challenger’s factually faulty website and self-promoting flyers. Pantoliano distributed handouts noting the PhD he received from “Raritan Valley University,” apparently a nonexistent variation on Raritan Valley Community College, provoking a backwash of Amador criticism. “The girl who did my bio was confused,” admitted Pantoliano. “My degree was not Raritan Valley, it was from an online accrediting firm. “I’ve never claimed to be a medical doctor,” Pantoliano added. “The degree I have is from an online accrediting firm, often frowned upon by people who haven’t received an education. It’s the Board of Online Universities Accreditation. Anybody can go there and verify it.” The candidate said when someone brought the mistake to his attention over the weekend, he corrected his website. “Immediately,” said Pantoliano. “That’s the kind of person I am. I apologize.” Amador, who stood beside Booker at the city clerk’s office about an hour and a half after Pantoliano picked up petitions for his own race, shrugged at the corruption charge leveled by his challenger. “That’s absolutely absurd,” said the councilman. “I’m very proud of my record of the last 12 years. We have built new schools, we were able to save the hospital and create new parks. If that’s a sign of ineffectiveness… Let the people decide. I’m putting my record before the people, who in the past have returned me to office with 69% of the vote.” Pantoliano in turn groused about the councilman taking credit for work accomplished by others. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Mack: ‘If you want to work for Trenton, you have to live in Trenton’

Trenton mayoral candidate Tony Mack today tried to get out in front of the pack with a five-point policy presser at the library aimed at bolstering home control of New Jersey’s capital city. A former freeholder whose onetime alliance with Mayor Doug Palmer turned sour, Mack said out-of-towners have twisted the “Trenton Makes, the World Takes” slogan into routine exploitation of a community in which one in six eligible people are unemployed and one in five families live below the poverty line. “Trenton makes, but outsiders do not just take, they exploit,” argued the candidate. “They exploit the jobs, exploit the residents, they exploit City Hall. I am putting the exploiters on notice: as Mayor, those days will be over.” Mack vowed to work to create special legislation for Trenton that would impose residency requirements on all new hires within the police and fire departments and school system. “If you want to work for Trenton, you have to live in Trenton,” said the candidate. “One of the most fundamental efforts we must embark upon isto: attract, rebuild, and retain a middle class. I have the temperament to negotiate with the state government to make this happen. And as the former President of AFSCME Local 2281, I am also best qualified to sit down at the table with union leaders to make this a reality.” Mack promised, too, to fight and resist privatization of city departments whenever possible. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Crump says this will be her last run for council

No, she doesn’t like it. But in the meantime, Council President Mildred Crump intends to woman up and run as the only female on the Booker Team. “Don’t think that doesn’t bother me at all,” Crump told There were rumors that the veteran councilwoman wouldn’t pursue re-election this year, and she hovered at the edge of that idea before pulling the trigger on another run. But this is going to be it, she insists. “This is my last run,” said Crump. “I’m bringing along ten young ladies and when I don’t run again, several will be ready and I will not accept them being dismissed or marginalized, as has gone on in the past in this city.” Former Central Ward Councilwoman Dana Rone was on the ticket four years ago, before getting bounced off the governing body by a judge who concluded that Rone went overboard in trying to exert her influence at the scene of a traffic stop involving a family member. Central Ward Councilman Charles Bell’s replacement of Rone now makes Crump the only woman on the ticket. “I love my job,” said the council president, “but I also have a community mandate to run.” A vigorous Booker ally, Crump said of the mayor’s tenure, “He inherited a nightmare. What is going on in Newark didn’t happen overnight. I expect him to make a serious effort to improve the image of the City of Newark and help us rise above the unfortunate impression people have of this city.” A mother figure for much of the council whose personal integrity has never been an issue, Crump’s office nonetheless took a hit two years ago when a federal complaint surfaced against her then-chief of staff, Keith Reid, who’s since pleaded guilty to accepting $15,000 in bribes for influence he said he could secure over an unsuspecting Crump. “Nobody’s asked me about Keith Reid in two years,” Crump said. “It’s a non-issue.” One prospective at-large challenger, Victor Zamora of the North Ward, picked up petitions to run against Crump, Councilman Carlos Gonzalez, Councilman Luis Quintana, and Councilman Donald Payne, Jr. At-large candidates must submit 1,342 signatures to the clerk’s office before March 18th in order to qualify to run. (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Zamora targets Booker administration – and Quintana – in council bid

Victor Zamora doesn’t like the trajectory of his city since Mayor Cory Booker took the reins from Sharpe James, but he has more personal issues with at least one member of the city council who’s running with Booker. A veteran of the recreation department going back to 1969, Zamora bemoans what he sees as past boneheaded decisions to cite a skating rink in the Central Ward’s JFK Recreation Center, worsened during the Booker years by the inclusion of a tennis court. “This is a mostly black ward, and the people here don’t want a tennis court, anymore than they wanted a skating rink years ago, which they ultimately had to make into a basketball court,” says the 62-year old Zamora, who today picked up petitions to run for an at-large seat in this year’s municipal contest. “They’re making decisions based on their connections, not based on the will of the people. Changes for the big shots, not the little people.” A Zamora at-large candidacy would pit him against At-Large Councilman Donald Payne, Jr., At-Large Councilman Carlos Gonzalez, Council President Mildred Crump, and At-Large Councilman Luis Quintana. It’s the last of these, a proud fellow Puerto Rican immigrant and onetime ally – who stands out as a Zamora political target. Zamora says Quintana once promised him he would help get the recreation department employee transferred from the Central Ward to a facility in Zamora’s home North Ward. “He told me he’d do it, it never happened, and if you lie, you fry,” says Zamora. “I’m not afraid of these guys,” he adds. “I’m not afraid of retribution. If they want to punish me, I don’t care. I’ve been punished enough anyway. My father taught me never to hold my tongue. If they want to crucify me for telling the truth, here I am.” Quintana said of his frenemy, “He has his troubles with the administration, I know that.” (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Newcomer White picks up petitions to run for mayor of Newark

If New Jersey is a state of parochial municipalities, you might think it follows that Newark – the biggest city in the state – nurses its own case of parochialism. Just ask Mayor Cory Booker, who toiled as the Central Ward councilman and activist before making his 2002 mayoral bid, and who now, seven years and nearly a full-fledged term in office later, still suffers the Johnny-come-lately tag alongside those members of the born-and-raised Newarkers who see Booker as a suburbanite from Bergen County with an Ivy League spoon in his mouth. Onto this political landscape steps Mirna White, an attorney who’s lived in the Central Ward for a little over a year and has been “in and out” of the city for some time. “I’m running for mayor,” she tells There are several older timers in the vicinity of White’s public appearance here and they’re immediately questioning her intentions. “She’s got to be a stalking horse for somebody,” mutters one of them. “Not at all,” insists White, who recites crime statistics that clash with the mayor’s stats. “Cory Booker and I were never allies,” she says, resisting a line of questioning that tries to link her with the mayor. “The difference between the mayor and myself is my personal story reflects the story of a lot of people in this city,” says White, who was born dirt poor in Panama, she says, and came to the United States speaking no English, but managed to grit her way up through St. John’s University and New York Law School. “The fact that I’ve been on my own since the age of 14 gives me a direct connection with the people of Newark,” White argues. “I’m not a spoiler and I’m not connected with the old regime. Crime and unemployment continue to rise.” (Pizarro, PolitickerNJ)

Odds Against Gay Marriage Grow With Setback in Trenton

With just two weeks before New Jersey changes governors, gay-rights advocates are facing lengthening odds — and they have been long for some time now — of winning approval of a law that would grant legal recognition to same-sex marriages in the state. Supporters of gay marriage have been lobbying frantically to win legislative approval of a marriage equality bill before Jan. 19, when Gov. Jon S. Corzine, who has promised to enact it, is replaced by Gov.-elect Christopher J. Christie, who opposes it. But advocates of the bill were rebuffed on Monday, when the Judiciary Committee in the General Assembly met and did not take up the proposal. That setback, which comes two weeks after the measure stalled in the State Senate, means that the legislation has now become bogged down in both chambers. Despite the growing odds against it, however, gay-rights advocates say they are still hopeful that they will win approval before the change of governors. At a rally on the State House steps Monday afternoon, more than 150 demonstrators voiced equal measures of frustration and resolve, saying that Democratic legislators who had pledged to pass the bill would be held accountable if they reneged on their promises. “Either we will be able to march up the aisle and have marriage equality, or we will march across the aisle and have political independence,” said Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, which has led the lobbying effort. As recently as October, Democratic legislative leaders gave assurances that the measure would be passed and enacted during the lame-duck session. After Governor Corzine lost soundly to Mr. Christie in November, however, some Democratic lawmakers began voicing misgivings about the bill, most notably Stephen M. Sweeney, who will become Senate president this month. So many Senate Democrats began to waver that after the bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee last month, supporters feared it would lose in the Senate and instead began focusing on winning in the Assembly. That has set up a standoff between leaders of the two houses, because many legislators who favor the bill do not want to go on record casting a controversial vote if they fear the measure will be defeated anyway. The Assembly speaker, Joseph J. Roberts Jr., declined to put it up for a vote in Monday’s Judiciary Committee hearing, and said he would allow the Assembly to vote on it if it passed the Senate. “People are being politically expedient, so no one wants to go first,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Democrat from Princeton, who sponsored the bill. “But I’m still hopeful that people will see that this is a civil rights issue and vote their consciences.” (Kociniewski, New York Times)

Big perks, challenges in store Sweeney as next New Jersey Senate president

When Stephen Sweeney is sworn as the next president of the New Jersey Senate later this month, he will have risen to the top of that legislative body in less than a decade. With the added responsibility comes some added perks. The president gets a higher salary than his colleagues Ð one-third more than the $49,000 compensation for the rest of the Senate Ð or a total of $65,333. He also will have access to a vehicle driven by a state police officer for added security. “This is all kind of new to me,” Sweeney, D-3rd Dist., said in a recent interview. “Being Senate president of the State of New Jersey is a pretty big privilege. It will also be a difficult task for Sweeney, a Democratic leader who will be working with a Republican in Gov.-elect Chris Christie. “My focus has been planning on how we’re going to move forward with the Senate,” said Sweeney who represents all of Salem County and parts of Gloucester and Cumberland counties in the upper house. Although the Legislature remains under Democrat control, a middle ground will have to be sought with the new governor, Republican Chris Christie. “I’ve been spending time trying to find areas where we can come to a compromise,” said Sweeney. “We have to come to an agreement on getting things done. … I have a very good relationship with him, but my role is even more important now.” The two sides will have differences, Sweeney said, but “they’re going to be honest differences.” (McCarthy, Newhouse)

Fisher most likely to stay Ag chief when Christie takes over

There are a lot of changes expected to occur when Republican Chris Christie is sworn in as New Jersey’s new governor. At least one state official – who’s a Democrat – can more than likely rest easy knowing he will retain his post when Christie takes charge. Former Third District Assemblyman Doug Fisher is expected to remain New Jersey’s secretary of agriculture when Christie takes over Jan. 19 from outgoing Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine. Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-3rd Dist., who served with Fisher in the state Assembly said last week that “there’s no unhappiness with Doug as the secretary of agriculture.” “I have not heard any bad words about the performance of Doug. He’s a real asset. I got that from Democrats and Republicans,” Burzichelli said. The secretary of agriculture is appointed by the New Jersey Board of Agriculture with approval from the governor, according to New Jersey statutes. Other state Cabinet officers and any other heads of departments serve at the pleasure of the incumbent governor. With the change from a Democrat to a Republican administration, many at the top levels of state government will be replaced. Fisher was first elected to the state Assembly in 2001 representing the Third Legislative District which includes all of Salem County and parts of Cumberland and Gloucester counties – most all rural areas. While in the Assembly, Fisher served as Deputy Majority Whip and Chairman of the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, working closely with the Department of Agriculture, New Jersey Farm Bureau and various trade groups on issues impacting the agriculture industry in the state. As a state legislator, Fisher sponsored numerous farmland, open space, and preservation bills. He was there at numerous ceremonies marking agricultural milestones in the district. (Dunn, Newhouse)

N.J. lawmakers return to Trenton to debate on bills in lame-duck session

State lawmakers return to Trenton today to close out a lame-duck session with debate on bills to legalize medical marijuana, relax prison sentences for some drug offenders in school zones and allow towns to stave off property tax hikes by postponing pension payments. Although chances are dwindling for Democrats to enact laws before Republican Gov.-elect Chris Christie takes office Jan. 19, lawmakers said most of their grand plans — with the exception of medical marijuana — have fizzled, many with gut-checks over the state’s fiscal crisis. In addition, the transition from Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine to Christie has focused more Corzine’s nominations of allies to state entities than last-minute legislative moves. “Lame duck’s becoming so anticlimactic,” said Senate Majority Leader Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester), who will become Senate president when the new session begins Jan. 12. “There are very important pieces of legislation that are going to move through, but the energy level in past lame ducks seems different.” Many bills faded because they would have required new spending without the state revenue to support them, Sweeney said. Other bills have generated controversy at the expense of votes. Same-sex marriage legislation seems unlikely to pass at this time, and another politically charged issue — changing the way New Jersey fills vacant U.S. Senate seats — was dropped after Democrats failed to agree on a way to ensure Christie would appoint a Democrat if either of the state’s current senators resigns. Christie dismissed the notion as “garbage” and Senate President Richard Codey (D-Essex) ultimately killed the move. But lawmakers are clearing a path for seriously ill residents to legally use marijuana to ease their pain. The qualifying illnesses are cancer, multiple sclerosis, HIV/AIDS, seizure disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and “any other medical condition” approved by the state Health Department, according to the latest version of the bill (S119). Although legislators still need to reconcile the Senate and Assembly versions — which differ over restrictions such as whether patients can grow their own marijuana — top Democrats predict New Jersey will become the 14th state to legalize the drug’s medical use, with safeguards in place. “We won’t have what’s going on in California,” Codey said last week. (Heininger, Star Ledger)

New mayor ‘takes back’ Secaucus

There’s a new mayor in town. Mike Gonnelli and fellow members of his Take Back Secaucus team were sworn in Saturday at a reorganization meeting of the Town Council held at the Crouch Performing Arts Center. Roughly 300 people attended the ceremony, which also saw incumbent Second Ward Councilman John Bueckner take the oath of office and be appointed deputy mayor and First and Third Ward councilmen Rob Constantino and Bill McKeever sworn in. Gonnelli and the council voted unanimously to appoint Secaucus High School social studies teacher Jim Clancy to fill Gonnelli’s unexpired term in the Second Ward, leaving Third Ward Councilman John Shinnick the only person on the council who ran on the Secaucus Democratic Organization line. Everyone else ran as independents. Clancy had previously served on the council under former Mayor Paul Amico. The Take Back Secaucus team handily won November’s election after former Mayor Dennis Elwell was arrested on corruption charges in July. Gonnelli ran for mayor unopposed after Elwell’s arrest and subsequent resignation left a void in the top spot of the Secaucus Democratic ticket. Referring to his political feud with Elwell, Gonnelli told the crowd, “Life has been somewhat turbulent” over the past five or six years. “Thank you for putting up with that nonsense, but you know what? That nonsense is over and the town is going to move forward and we’re going to do what’s right for everybody,” he added. Ticking off challenges his administration faces, Gonnelli spoke about the current financial climate, tax appeals, development, and traffic congestion. “What I can pledge to you is that before we take any action, any move will be well thought-out, will be discussed with the entire council and will be done by a majority, not by a single person,” Gonnelli said. (Klein, Jersey Journal)

Morning News Digest: January 5, 2010