Union County and the politics of pie-eating

LINDEN – The stage stood over Wood Avenue downtown, in that business district sprinkled heavily with Polish butcher shops as a more permanent matter, today enhanced by a ZZ Top lookalike rock band, barbecue grills and a block stocked with old cars, as two men got ready for a showdown surging with political optics.

“We’re friends – but today we’re adversaries,” announced Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka, who stood beside Roselle Mayor Jamal Holley in front of a tableful of apple pies.

Both men had their hands behind their backs, as though preparing to face a firing squad together.

Actually, in a few moments, they would receive the order from a timer to plunge face first into a pair of pies.

A handful of other competitors likewise stood at the ready.

The playful public gesture was the kind of dagger that sends a local campaign staggering, and so it must have looked to anyone in that crowd who is a friend of Councilman Derek Armstead.

In June, longtime renegade Armstead won the Democratic Primary against a candidate backed by the establishment over here, and now he’s on the line with them against Gerbounka.

And today in downtown Linden at a mobbed September to Remember, there was Holley, the young rising star of the Union County Democratic Party firmament, gleefully indulging in the role of pie-eating Papageno alongside an independent mayor who hardly appears to be in the dogfight he was in four years ago when the party put itself behind Armstead.

Holley’s ready to undertake a run for the 20th District Assembly seat presently held by Joe Cryan, who’s running for sheriff this year.

While respectful of the process, in his words, “I’m looking forward to going back to where I got my start,” said the mayor of Roselle, the former chief of staff of former Assemblyman Neil Cohen (D-20), who in the meantime has his eye on a local mopping up exercise.

The mayor and his allies control 5 out of 4 local Board of Education seats.

They want to win three more on Nov. 4th, including the one occupied by Donna Obe, the unsuccessful 2013 Democratic Primary challenger to state Sen. Ray Lesniak (D-20).

Holley’s Lesniak political protégé.

Dispatching of Obe would finish an old feud that re-erupted when Obe and her allies on the board awarded the school insurance contract to Garrett Smith, whom Holley beat four years ago to become mayor.

Holley has his own job outside of elected office in Irvington, where he heads the Public Works Department for Mayor Tony Vauss.

“The mayor of Irvington reminds me a lot of me,” said Holley. “His heart is definitely in the right place.”

PolitickerNJ walked from one end of the fair to the other and couldn’t find Armstead.

But onstage when the timer yelled “Go,” Gerbounka and Holley both high dived into their respective apple pies.

They had decidedly different styles.

A Marine Corps Vietnam veteran, Gerbounka positioned his face slightly above his pie and employed constantly bulldozing jaws, while Holley, half the Linden mayor’s age, simply buried his face in the tart desert and for a few moments appeared motionless, his teeth apparently doing more precise, surgical, unseen work – unless, unless he had drowned in the pie – as people craned their heads to try to see what was happening.

Holley came up out of his crouch finally and took a couple of miserable steps away from the table, looking like a whipped deep-sea diver with a face-full of jellyfish.

Gerbounka appeared undaunted and the Linden crowd exulted.

But seconds later Holley took a second dive and this time didn’t come up, and it was neck and neck, Gerbounka and Holley, the mayor of Linden and the mayor of Roselle, committed, holding onto their pie plates like bulldogs refusing to part with their favorite chew toys, and the time wound down, the time scorer calling off the seconds, the crowd roaring, exhaustion visible on what one could see of the pie-covered faces of the performers before the clock stopped and the winner…

The winner, whooping uncontrollably, was Hans of Linden, a big-limbed – but for the dominance of his two public combatants – unobserved object onstage, having steadily chomped for five minutes at Gerbounka’s right elbow, and, with the mayors now shaking grandly, wiping their faces, embracing and hilariously absorbing the goodwill of the street audience and Hans taking a broad bow, someone in Linden government circles ran around the crowd whispering frantically, eyes wide with local intrigue, “Where’s Derek Armstead?”

Union County and the politics of pie-eating