ELIZABETH – A group calling itself Democrats for Change is running aggressively against five incumbent council allies of Mayor Chris Bollwage and state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-Elizabeth) in the June 8th Democratic Primary.
This represents the latest stanza in an old and bitter rivalry between School Board President Rafael Fajardo and his forces, who control nine out of nine Board of Education seats in the city – and the Bollwage-Lesniak-council axis.
Despite being a Democrat, Fajado endorsed Gov. Chris Christie last year as a way of jamming up Lesniak. Now he revels in the fact that the powerful state senator didn’t bother fielding a school board slate against Fajardo’s incumbents in April. Lesniak usually mobilizes against the board. This year he ‘s didn’t. That’s given Fajardo’s people more money to use against the financially well-connected Councilman Manny Grova, who buried his opponent four years ago; Councilman Nelson Gonzalez; Councilman Joe Keenan; Councilman William Gallman and Councilman Frank Mazza.
Fajardo’s Democrats for Change team includes the lone opposition incumbent among Elizabeth’s ward councilmen: Councilman Carlos Cedeno.
But sources say the candidate of promise may be school principal Carlos Lucio, a pupil of Fajardo’s and potential future candidate for mayor, who’s challenging Ward 2 Councilman Nelson Gonzalez, just barely a 2008 winner. A Columbian American, Lucio is a member of the second largest Latino community in the City of Elizabeth.
Everyone else on the Change Team has run and lost.
Lucio is seen as the future.
So far, the opposition strategy has been to tie the five machine Democratic Party incumbents to Lesniak, a tack the Democrats for Change team continue to ram in their $35,000 Cablevision ad, which shows Lesniak looming in a sinister, boss-like boss over five cronies corraled on the governing body.
“This is a fight of David against Goliath,” Fajardo told PolitickerNJ.com. “People know Goliath is corrupt and on June 8th, the political machine of Ray Lesniak may come to an end.
“I believe people are tired of politics as usual in this city,” added the Board of Education president and local real estate mogul. “People are tired of a 15-year tax abatement for IKEA and a 25-year tax abatement for the Jersey Gardens mall. These are clients of Ray Lesniak’s law firm. These are projects approved by the council, with expenses passed along to the taxpayers. We must bring it to an end.”
Lesniak said he hadn’t viewed the ad.
“They’re wasting their money attacking me,” said the senator. “I’m not on the ballot.”
Winner by a 5-1 margin in the 2008 Democratic Primary and at the halfway point of his fifth term as mayor, Bollwage issued a no-comment response to the ad and to questions about the council contest, but Keenan said he’s confident it won’t gain traction.
“They’ve have been attacking Bollwage and his supporters for giving IKEA a sweetheart deal, but guess what? IKEA was built by the toxic dump, and it’s been a boon,” said the Ward 3 councilman.
Fajardo’s effort to break up Bollwage’s grip on the council fits into a larger countywide rebellion engineered by Roselle Mayor Garrett Smith and newspaper editor James Devine. The latter still nurses wounds that resulted from running afoul of Lesniak and the local Democratic organization, and especially hopes to derail the Democratic establishment candidate for mayor in Rahway, while Smith focuses on busting up local Lesniak project Council President Jamel Holley in Roselle.
Fajardo knows the chief argument against him: that he’s as good as a Republican now that he endorsed Christie for governor. People wonder about the origin of his candidates’ money, which has enabled them to hit the wards with mail once a week every week since March.
“The money is coming from a year long of fundraising – events at $50 per ticket,” said the Board of Ed prez. “We haven’t received one dime from Republicans. We did support the governor because change had to occur in Trenton. The fact is we consider ourselves true Democrats.”
The composition of Fajardo’s ticket – all-Latino and one Portuguese in a city demographically tilted toward Hispanics, who account for 55% of the population – doesn’t worry Keenan.
“Whether you’re Hispanic or not, you want services,” said the councilman, who like Gonzalez in 2008 just barely won. “I’ve been busting my butt and people don’t care whether I’m Hispanic or not Hispanic. It’s about customer services. It marginalizes people to say that if you’re Hispanic, you’re going to vote for a Hispanic ticket.”
For his part, Smith as an establishment outcast on the periphery of Union Countys biggest city, has no problem aligning with Fajardo.
“They have an excellent track record with the Elizabeth School System,” said the mayor.