So it comes down to this on Nov. 4th in blue collar – heavy on Polish and Eastern European pop. post WW2 with African-Americans entrenched too – Linden: a rematch between two men who ran against each other four years ago.
Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka won that contest by fewer than 200 votes, besting 4th Ward Councilman Derek Armstead in a race where Armstead had the full backing of those establishment Democrats whom he had licked in the primary – Democrats tired of Gerbounka’s independent brand name.
A Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War and retired police captain of detectives, Gerbounka annoyed Democrats whenever he dragged a podium out in front of city hall and endorsed the likes of Senator John McCain for president or Chris Christie for governor.
But for his part, Armstead left Democratic Party electeds with a headache in 2010, say sources.
He has another version of events, but his independent streak conjured cowboy impressions of a 4th Ward Gerbounka more than a willing ally eager to be a constructive team player.
In the lead up to this year’s June Primary, Armstead stuck to the same script as last time. The local establishment Democrats propped another candidate in front of him and he beat her in a close contest.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Rhashonna Cosby-Hurling impressed Democrats by working her butt off, but she ultimately came up short by 150 votes.
Keep this in mind about Linden: the city has ten wards. Cosby-Hurling had to go live citywide against a candidate in Armstead who’s run before.
It didn’t happen, as Armstead won off the line.
Gerbounka was on the sidelines laughing the whole time.
In the process of his rivals fighting a civil war, it got very ugly and very gnarly and when it came time in the aftermath for the winner of the primary to huddle up with local Democratic Party Chairman Chris Hudak, Union County Democratic Chairman Jerry Green and state Sen. Nick Scutari (D-22) to figure out how they could save a dysfunctional marriage from ruin, Armstead let them sit for an hour rehearsing speeches about family and unity before the three establishment figures decided to leave.
The meeting never happened.
PolitickerNJ asked Armstead how it’s gone since with the party.
“I can honestly say it hasn’t gone too well,” admitted the independent Democrat. “It would be nice if they came on board.”
If they don’t, he shrugged, “I am confident I can carry my message to the people of Linden.”
Hudak finds himself in the uncomfortable position of not only being the local party chair – but of running for re-election as freeholder on Line A, the same line occupied by Armstead in his quest to unseat Gerbounka.
“I’m on it, and I’m supporting the Democratic ticket,” Hudak said. “I tell people I think they should be supporting the Democratic ticket from Cory Booker to the municipal council.”
He doesn’t stop to advertise Armstead.
However, “At the end of the day we were trying to work with Derek to put a ticket together,” said the local party chairman/freeholder. “The irony is we have the ticket we wanted.”
Part of what establishment Dems sought in the lead-up to the primary was a slate of their selections to run with Armstead, including a hand-picked candidate to run for his council seat, which he’s giving up to pursue the mayor’s seat.
Armstead, they said, refused, insisting on his picks.
The councilman’s candidates lost, the establishment Dems’ choices won; even as Armstead won the party nod for mayor and Cosby-Hurling lost.
All the intra-party entanglements added up to one thing: Gerbounka’s continued amusement.
But the mayor – now in pursuit of his third term – sees a real contest.
Even if Democrats like Scutari and Hudak aren’t out there glad-handing for Armstead, the structure of the ballot forces an alliance.
Gerbounka knows that.
“Derek and I had a close race four years ago and we have a close race again this year,” said the mayor. “He ran against the Democratic Party as a victim, but he can’t run against me as a victim.”
Gerbounka says he’s running to see fulfilled numerous projects he initiated over the course of seven years.
“You don’t have $350 million’s worth of projects overnight,” he said.
In his state of the city speech earlier this year, he gave a detailed rundown.
“We finally cleared all the legal hurdles on the South Wood Avenue development project between Linden and Morris Avenue and in a years’ time we will have a beautiful 176 unit apartment building,” said the mayor. “This will be the spark that ignites an explosion on Wood Avenue. Why? Because young professionals will inhabit this complex and use the Train Station to commute to Newark and New York. Upon returning home they will want quality restaurants and stores in their neighborhood. This will stimulate further growth and I predict in 5 years a dramatic change to the entire Wood Avenue area around our Train Station. And… we will also receive $350,000 a year in taxes as an added incentive.
“On the other side of the Railroad Trestle Forty-eight condominiums on E. Elizabeth Avenue behind the Linden Towers have been built,” he added. “They are selling so quickly that the developer intends to build 48 more.”
It’s been tough to get to this point, he admits.
Part of what saves Gerbounka is the fact that he doesn’t control the council.
But state pressures have complicated local politics.
Linden lost $7,149,100 in actual tax dollars since 2008. In addition, State law requires all municipalities in 2013 not to exceed their previous year’s budget by more than 2%. This mandated budget cap was a 50% reduction from 2012’s mandatory cap of 4%. State law does allow pension, health costs and debt to be outside of this cap but when all was said and done, Linden’s 2013 budget was $5.2 million above this 2% state mandated cap, he noted in his state of the speech this year.
Even after strenuous negotiations with the city’s eight unions, Linden still found itself $1.2 million above the 2% cap law.
“For three months every avenue to reduce spending was explored, but no alternative was found,’ Gerbounka said. “The only way to offset this $1.2 million short fall was a further reduction in services or circumvent the cap law by including a separate garbage tax. We chose the latter. Although this was an unpopular decision and a bitter pill for everyone to swallow including your elected officials, it was the right decision. This tax was the lesser of all evils.”
Since the 2010 election, the city police force went down to 113 from 135. It’s now at 123 with another six due back on the force on Jan. 1st.
“We are lean and mean,” the mayor said. “Since my administration came in we cut 86 fulltime and 15 part time worker. I can’t cut anymore without reducing services.”
The fire department is at full force, thanks, Gerbounka noted, to a $2.5 million grant secured by U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
It’s a Democratic town.
He has a lot of nice things to say about Menendez.
“I never looked at it as me against them,” said Gerbounka. “Just because I’m an independent doesn’t mean Democrats are my enemy. I’m a firm believer you should vote the person not the party. To vote the line is not a smart thing to do, in my opinion. Part of my longevity is I have built alliances.”
Senator Menendez among them.
Democrats off the record admit they d
on’t hate Gerbounka.
At times the intra-party feuding has created more bitter wounds than anything the mayor ever inflicted.
In the words of one Democrat, speaking on condition of anonymity, there has been too much stalled development under Gerbounka, but his heart is in the right place. It’s a Democratic town, it should be Armstead’s to lose, “But Derek has not reached out.”