ROSELLE –City Hall or the gallows.
This is it for Mayor Garrett Smith, who’s fighting charges of falsifying an insurance claim as he runs for re-election to a third term. Told to get out of the race or go to jail, Smith mobilized church leaders and pleaded not guilty, trusting voters would recall his opponent’s own troubled legal history.
“I haven’t seen one negative piece of mail from them,” Smith told PolitickerNJ.com as he mobilized campaign workers out of his Chestnut Street headquarters on Saturday.
The Union County Democratic Committee-backed Council President Jamel Holley entered a pretrial agreement in 2009 after tampering with absentee ballots. Smith’s allies also point to Holley’s alliance – and chief of staff affiliation with former Assemblyman Neil Cohen, dislodged from the Assembly after the AG’s Office found child porn on his computer – as another reason why their opponents won’t go negative.
“It kind of balances things out,” said Smith, whose operation appeared energized.
For his part, “There is no reason for our campaign to go negative,” said Holley. “The voters are tired. They want to see results. In seven years of Mayor Smith’s non-leadership, there have been no results. The residents don’t want petty back and forth politics. We are running a high energy, spirited campaign to ensure voters that help is on the way.”
As for the absentee ballot case, “That case is over,” said the challenger. “There was no fault found on any level. I went in front of the electorate last year and they dismissed it.”
While Holley organized out of HQ on the other side of town, Smith surveyed the sidewalk outside of his bunkered-in basement-level domain where allies hustled with hot plates of food.
“We’ve been doing this every week now for several weeks,” explained the mayor. “We have breakfast together and then we go campaign.”
For months, the well-connected Holley has circulated with his fellow new generation allies from other towns: Jersey City Councilman Steve Fulop and Newark North Ward Councilman Anibal Ramos, Jr., all mutually drinking from the same money pool and cobbling together a donor base flexible enough to have tentacles in all three of their towns.
Smith’s allies say the mayor’s core base is Roselle’s most entrenched African American vote, which lends interest to the presence of a third candidate in the mayor’s race, former Councilman Joe O’Halloran, the proprietor of an Irish goods store in Cranford that recently burned down.
“On paper, I’m the best candidate in the race,” said O’Halloran. “Just look at the resume. I have a master’s in administration. Look, if I were to get in there, you would see well-run meetings. I would institute Robert’s rules of orders. Right now, it’s a free for all.”
As mayor, Smith runs the meetings.
As for Holley, a local ally of state Sen. Ray Lesniak’s, “I do think the voters have serious questions about independence, and I have no ties there,” said O’Halloran.
“They tell me I’m a spoiler, I say elect me and spoil me rotten,” he added. “No, not all. I’m in this to win.”
He stood on the sidewalk on Chestnut across the street from Smith’s campaign HQ and in the vicinity of a store front with a giant “Holley: Mayor” banner stretched across its façade above a “Coming Soon: Subway” sign.
“You’ll find my campaign signs in those neighborhoods where people vote,” said O’Halloran. “I’m going after Holley voters and I’m going after Smith voters.”
Holley backers said that with the exception of his support for a lone council candidate – Councilwoman Sylvia Turnage – Smith hasn’t won an election in four years. Support has eluded him in municipal and board of education elections, making his allies’ claim of having the black vote a desperate case, at best, they say.
“It’s completely absurd to suggest that anything in Jamel’s past is remotely close to the criminal allegations and potential ten-year prison sentence facing Mayor Smith,” said Philip Swibinski, spokesman for Holley campaign. “The Mayor should focus on sorting out his serious legal and personal problems instead of slinging mud, especially when Jamel’s campaign has been totally positive thus far.”