HILLSIDE – A Union County township bordering Elizabeth and Newark, Hillside is remembered by some as the final resting place of The Red Badge of Courage author Stephen Crane, who is buried at Evergreen Cemetery. In the run-up to Election Day, the three mayoral candidates seeking to govern the 20,000-person township are getting help from three well-known politicos who will try to keep them out of New Jersey’s political graveyard.
In one corner, independent incumbent Mayor Joe Menza has Republican Gov. Chris Christie behind him. The governor has provided Menza with help in the past, including a personalized robocall during the 2009 mayoral campaign. Christie is hoping to prove that he can continue to cross over with voters of an urban/suburban battleground in a largely Democratic area. He shares with Menza, a real estate agent, the mantra of the characters in the same business from the film Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Closing.
“The case for my re-election is very simple – property taxes drive the foreclosures. I delivered two municipal tax decreases without compromising police and fire, and 70% of your budget is payroll for police and fire. You have to control spending,” Menza said.
Menza claims that he cut $3 million out of the police/fire and public works payroll, mostly by attrition, but also by making tough decisions and building a consensus.
“I put together a layoff plan which I submitted to about 50 civil service people. The intention was to get them back to the table, because they had skin in the game. They came to the table,” Menza said.
In the other corner, Angela Garretson, a Hillside councilwoman, says she brings more to the table than Menza. Backed by U.S. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-10), Garretson cut her teeth in Newark politics, waging a street fight with Cory Booker during his first, unsuccessful mayoral run against Sharpe James in 2002. Serving on the Hillside council since 2009, Garretson says this race is about the need for new representation.
“We have a small community that desperately needs good services,” Garretson said. “My priority is public safety, and I’m an avid supporter of making sure that we don’t just talk about stabilizing taxes, but that we also stabilize government. Services have been reduced, and we do not have a fully-staffed police department. Business are relocating, and we don’t need to lose any more.”
Garretson noted that she was grateful for Payne’s support and that the congressman knows Hillside well.
But also in the mayoral election stands Jorge Batista, who is backed by Charlotte DeFilippo, the Hillside Democratic chairwoman and the former Union County Democratic chairwoman.
According to DeFilippo, all Essex “interlopers” involved in the Hillside race should stay on their side of the county line.
“There are people in Essex who have nurtured Garretson’s candidacy for their own enhancement,” said DeFilippo, who served as county chairwoman for almost two decades until she stepped down earlier this year. “They can’t come in here and hold our government hostage.”
As for Menza, DeFilippo listed a litany of quality-of-life issues on which she believes the mayor has failed, including cuts to the police and town hall staff, closing the library and an attempt to place an unwanted radio tower in the Westminster section of town.
“Menza doesn’t have a mandate. What he has is chutzpah,” DeFilippo said. “Chris Christie is an amazing chess player – he is determined, good at his craft, and his tactics are formidable. But if these were normal times, he wouldn’t be any place near Joe Menza.”
But with the election in less than a week, Menza stood his ground against all comers.
“Most people in Hillside see the end of machine politics in one way or the other. Garretson is trying to bring Newark into Hillside. As a resident of Hillside I am very fearful of that,” Menza said.
“Even DeFilippo stood up against that incursion. On the other hand, Charlotte DeFilippo has run Hillside into the ground as one of the highest-taxed municipalities in Union County, right behind Roselle.
“I’m not cocky enough to predict. I only won by seven votes last time, which is far from a majority,” Menza added. “You run on your record and you own it. We do it with normal taxpayers, not Donald Payne and Charlotte DeFilippo. I’m knocking on doors. We don’t want to go back. It’s resonating on the doors.”
Christie is scheduled to campaign with the mayor a day before Election Day.