Commemorating Glenn Loved ones, colleagues look back a year after mayor's death
by Ricardo Kaulessar Reporter staff writer
May 31, 2005 | 1741 views | 0 0 comments | 8 8 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When Glenn D. Cunningham woke up on May 25, 2004, he had been mayor of Jersey City for nearly three years, state senator for over a year, and a resident of his hometown nearly all of his 60 years. As leader of the second largest city in New Jersey with over 240,000 residents, Cunningham's day was filled with legislative business, meetings and a trip to a neighborhood festival.

By 10 p.m. that evening, Cunningham was dead from a massive heart attack.

In the weeks and months afterward, his passing would have an impact far beyond his circle of loved ones and colleagues. The city's political landscape would shift radically as a special election took place in November to fill the remainder of his term.

Today, in City Hall, there are a number of people who once worked for Cunningham and saw him on his last day on the job, who still remember the man who became known as "Mayor Man" due to a municipal government comic book. The public will also have an opportunity to remember Cunningham on the one-year anniversary of his death at several events taking place this week around the city.Who was Glenn Cunningham?

Glenn Dale Cunningham was born on Sept. 16, 1943 in Jersey City's Margaret Hague Maternity Hospital. Cunningham lived with his parents and siblings on Bergen Avenue and for much of his youth at 80 Orient Ave.

Cunningham attended the Jersey City public schools, graduating from Snyder High School in 1961. He enlisted in the United States Marine Corps and was stationed at Okinawa, Japan and in Quantico, Va. until 1965.

Cunningham returned to Jersey City and in 1967 joined the Jersey City Police Department, starting as a beat cop and moving up the ranks to become patrolman, homicide detective, police-community relations sergeant, and instructor in the police academy until he retired in 1992 as a captain.

Cunningham also graduated from Jersey City State College in 1974 and went on to earn his Master's degree from Rutgers University School of Criminal Justice.

As a young police officer, Cunningham made his foray into politics by helping to get former Mayor Dr. Paul Jordan elected in 1971. He first won political office in 1975 and served as a Hudson County Freeholder until 1978.

Cunningham moved on to serve on the Jersey City City Council from 1981 to 1989, including a stint as City Council President. It was toward the end of his time on the City Council in 1989 that Cunningham ran for mayor for the first time, losing to Gerald McCann.

Cunningham continued working as a police officer until 1992, when he became the Director of Public Safety for Hudson County. Then in 1996, he was nominated by President Bill Clinton for U.S. Marshal for the District of New Jersey, winning appointment and becoming the first African-American to serve in that capacity.

In 2000, he stepped down as U.S. Marshal to run again for the Jersey City mayor's office. In 2001, Cunningham became the first African-American mayor elected in Jersey City's history. In 2003, he also won the State Senator's seat in the 31st District.

Cunningham also was an amateur historian who created the documentary Hidden Footprints about the African-American history of Jersey City, and was working on book that continued to explore than history.

He was married to Sandra Bolden Cunningham, the director of the county Bar Association, and they have no children. Political impact

Cunningham's death caused a change in the county's political dynamics. For several years, there had been a rift in the county Democratic party, with Cunningham and his allies on one side, and U.S. Rep. Robert Menendez and his allies on the other. The two men had differed on their choice for county executive in 2002, and Menendez's choice, Tom DeGise, who eventually won.

City Council President L. Harvey Smith, who had been at odds with Cunningham, became the acting mayor the day after Cunningham passed away, on May 26. Smith moved to replace much of Cunningham's staff, as well as the directors of several city departments.

That created more friction between pro-Cunningham followers and Smith, continuing the animosity that had existed between the onetime political allies. The council had blocked of a number of Cunningham's initiatives, such as his refinancing of the city's debts.

Stan Eason, Cunningham's spokesman at the time, said last week that there was anger over the personnel changes, in tandem with the sudden shock of losing a dynamic leader like Cunningham.

"People were in zombie-like state," Eason said. "They really didn't know what to do. You are losing a chief executive only three years in office, something that never happened before."

Willie Flood, who had been dismissed by Smith from her position as a mayoral aide to Cunningham, was one of the 11 candidates who ran in the election to replace Cunningham last November. Flood received the endorsement of widow Sandra Bolden Cunningham, who for a time was expected to run for office herself, and finished fourth with 9,286 votes.

Political observers noted that many votes that went to Flood were protest votes against Smith. Smith complained after the election that Flood and her political consultants, longtime Cunningham allies Bobby Jackson and Joseph Cardwell, did this to spite him by intentionally splitting the African-American vote. Smith would finish in third place with 13,672 votes, nearly 4,000 less than eventual winner Jerramiah Healy.

Cunningham's passing also had an impact on the May 10 municipal election, as several City Council candidates who were close to Cunningham won their respective seats.

Ward E City Councilman Steven Fulop, who just upset incumbent E. Junior Maldonado in the council race this month, was a protégé of Cunningham's when he ran for his political office last May as a challenger to Menendez.

Other Cunningham allies who were successful in this year's election were Viola Richardson and Steve Lipski for council. Richardson, a former Jersey City police officer like her longtime friend Cunningham, easily won re-election for the Ward F council seat. Also, Karen DeSoto (see story at right), the former corporation counsel for Jersey City from 2002 until June 2004, who will be contending for the Ward A seat in a June 14 runoff against Michael Sottolano.

"He was a wonderful role model," DeSoto said last week. "He taught you to stick to your convictions, and he worked very hard. I hadn't met many politicians that wanted to use government to help the people, and he had a very clear vision, since it was obvious that he devoted his life to helping." The emotional impact

Carol Pasquale doesn't need the anniversary of Cunningham's death or birthday to remember the man that she considered one of her best friends.

Pasquale, a city employee who worked at the front desk at City Hall when Cunningham was alive, now works the front desk of the city-owned 325 Palisade Ave. office building. Behind her desk are photos of the late mayor that cherishes, just as she cherished the man.

"I love that man. He had the best heart of any person I ever knew," said Pasquale. "I knew for about 20 years, he always had a kind heart. He made you laugh when you were feeling down."

Ada Sanchez was Mayor Cunningham's secretary from December 2002 until his death.

Sanchez had worked for Sandra Cunningham when she was the executive director of the Hudson County Bar Association, when Sandra recommended her as an employee for City Hall.

"Sandy had a nickname for me, Pebbles, because I would usually have my hair in a bun, and Mayor Cunningham soon started calling me that," said Sanchez, who was choked up while doing a phone interview last week. "One of the last things I remember was Mayor Cunningham asking me if I wanted to join him on the bike ride that he was taking later afternoon. But I said I had to go somewhere."

That bike ride was one that Cunningham took with a number of city employees and with then candidate for U.S. Congress, Steven Fulop, to go to a block party at the Five Corners Branch Library on Newark Avenue. It is believed that the effort exerted helped contribute to his untimely demise.

It was hours later that Cunningham was home with his wife and complained of chest pains. She drove him to Greenville Hospital, but by the time they arrived, he was dead. A vigil slowly assembled outside the building. Tribute video

Stan Eason, who had been a Jersey Journal reporter before Cunningham hired him in 2001, has found a way to help celebrate the life of his former employer and a man whom he also considered his friend and a mentor. He has been working on a Cunningham tribute video than he will show for the first time this coming Wednesday at a ceremony taking place at the old CRRNJ Terminal in Liberty State Park (see sidebar).

"It's an honor, almost a privilege to do this kind of tribute," Eason said. "He had so many different chapters in his life, and people need to see those chapters. People can see his impact on the little people, how he gave everyone their minute."

Sandra Bolden Cunningham could be not reached for comment for this article before it went to press. However, the emotional impact of her husband's passing is obvious. If you call their home, you are greeted by an answering machine message including his voice and hers. Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at rkaulessar@hudsonreporter.com. Sidebar Events to remember Glenn

The Glenn D. Cunningham Library and Community Center already exists on Martin Luther King Drive, but there will soon be streets in Jersey City that will bear the late mayor's name as well.

On Thursday morning at 10 a.m., a ceremony will be held on the corner of Montgomery Street and Grove Street, near City Hall, where a sign will be placed giving the street the honorary title of Glenn D. Cunningham Way. At 11 p.m. on the corner of Orient Avenue and MLK Drive, near Cunningham's childhood home, there will be a renaming to Glenn D. Cunningham Place. After the street dedications, there will be a reception at the Cunningham Library starting at 12 p.m.

Also, on Wednesday, the exact day of Cunningham's death, there will be a block party in his memory from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the old CRRNJ Terminal in Liberty State Park where a tribute video from the city's communications department will debut.

For more information, call (201) 547-4788. - RK
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