With the 2013 mayoral election more than six months off, and the national presidential election taking center stage next week, the little-watched special election for the City Council seat in Ward F has slipped under the radar of many people.
The winner of this special election, which will take place on Tuesday, Nov. 6, is guaranteed a seat only through next May and will have to run again in the citywide municipal election set for May 14, 2013 if he or she wants to remain in the position.
Still, the election is significant since it will be read as a bellwether of what’s to come next year.
Four candidates, all African-American, are running for the seat – incumbent Michele Massey, Diane Coleman, Rev. Tyrone Ballon, and Debbie Walker – but the outcome will be as much of a reflection on mayoral candidates Jerramiah T. Healy and Steven Fulop as it will be on the winner in a ward that is predominantly African-American.
Healy appointed Massey to the seat in December 2011 after longtime Ward F City Councilwoman Viola Richardson ran in another special election held last November. Last year, Richardson won an at-large seat on the City Council, which left her Ward F seat vacant. Massey was appointed to the position until a special election could be scheduled this year. The winner of next week’s race will serve out the last few months of Richardson’s term as the Ward F representative on the council.
Crime and the lacks of job opportunities are the issues most cited by Ward F residents and the candidates.
Last year, two Healy appointees who were at the time serving as at-large city council members, were soundly defeated by Richardson and current At-Large City Councilman Rolando Lavarro Jr. Indeed, Healy’s appointees, who he endorsed in the 2011 special election, finished fourth and fifth in that race behind Richardson, Lavarro, and Suzanne Mack.
The loss of Healy’s incumbent candidates was at the time viewed as a sign of the mayor’s weakness and waning clout among voters.
While neither Healy nor Fulop have openly backed a candidate in the Ward F race, most voters see Massey as allied with Healy since he appointed her to the council and she has often voted with the administration. Some people close to Fulop say he is considering Diane Coleman as the Ward F candidate for his slate next year, although he would not confirm this himself.
Ballon and Walker are running independently.
A Coleman victory could be a further signal of Healy’s slippage with voters, and could help Fulop attract a large segment of the city’s African American voter base next year. If Massey wins, however, that could mean Healy’s base of support among black voters is rock solid. This could spell trouble for Fulop, whose inroads into this community might not be deep enough to help him defeat Healy next May.
It’s the crime…
Not that any of these political calculations are weighing on the minds of Ward F residents, or even the minds of the four candidates running in the special election.
While waiting for the No. 87 NJ Transit bus, Ward F resident Denise Dash said she has never heard of Michele Massey, Diane Coleman, Debbie Walker, and Tyrone Ballon – or Healy and Fulop, either, for that matter. But she has heard of an alleged gang member who, she said, she tries to steer clear of whenever she sees him in her neighborhood.
“My brother don’t live here right now,” said Dash. “My mom sent him to live with my aunt in Virginia to get him away from here ‘cause she didn’t want him around all this. There’s nothin’ but crime. That’s the way I feel. I’m trying to leave Jersey City myself.”
It was a refrain echoed by at least four other Ward F residents waiting at various bus stops recently. When asked what the main issue was facing their community everyone – even if they mentioned other issues among their concerns about the neighborhood – mentioned crime first.
“What I’ve consistently heard is that the crime issue is the chief concern of our residents,” said Massey. “It’s not a quick fix. The people are frustrated. They want to see the foot patrols. They want better lighting in their community. They want to see an end to public drinking, the loitering and individual groups and gangs sitting on abandoned property taking them over.”
Massey said that as a result of a City Council subcommittee that she is part of, the Jersey City Police Department (JCPD) has started a “park and walk” initiative that now has some officers walking the beat in Ward F. While Massey said it isn’t enough, it is a start.
Admitting that crime is the top concern voters mention to her when she is campaigning, Coleman said she has seen the “park and walk” cops, but has also noticed a pattern.
“When the officers come through, a lot of the loiterers and people who are just hanging out on the street move along. But after the officers leave the area, [the loiterers] come back. So, that’s something we need to look at when we talk about the effectiveness of foot patrols.”
Many residents in recent months have specifically requested that the JCPD assign officers to walk their beats to deter crime.
Walker, a longtime community advocate whose organization, Save Our Children, offers mentoring services to youth, agrees that crime is a problem, but said there can an unintended downside to more cops in the community.
“When we talk about bringing in more police, we have to understand that these officers sometimes don’t treat us with respect and sometimes can endanger members of the community,” Walker said. “I really want to establish a [civilian] complaint review board so the community has a way to monitor the police they want to place in our neighborhoods.”
New York City has a similar civilian complaint review board which over the years had been instrumental in documenting cases of alleged police brutality.
…and the economy
The candidates acknowledged that the economy and jobs were probably the second most important issue facing Ward F residents.
Massey said the ward suffers somewhat from an image problem, brought on, largely, by the perception of Ward F as a high crime area in the city. This perception, she said, needs to change.
“Ward F has a lot of great things about it. Those great things need to be spotlighted and highlighted more by the city, and we need to build our commercial corridors to make them more attractive,” said Massey. “If we can bring in 5 to 10 new businesses a year, that’s a small number, but that would mean jobs created in the community.”
Coleman, who founded the nonprofit social service agency Building an Empire, which she has run for the last 13 years, said getting young men off street corners and into jobs will be crucial to attracting businesses, large and small, to the community.
“Jobs are one of the solutions to the crime problem,” said Ballon. “The answer is jobs. We have to get to the core of the problem. Many of our young men right now are not conditioned to hold a job. Some of them will say, ‘Why should I work a job making minimum wage when I can hang out and do what I want?’ And many of them don’t have the skill sets needed to get a job, so training comes into play.”
He added the city should do more to leverage training, internship, and mentoring opportunities from businesses based in the city that are given tax breaks and other incentives.
Ballon and Coleman also listed the lack of quality affordable housing for low wage workers among the other top concerns facing residents in the ward.
Candidates’ forum this week
On Monday, Oct. 29 at 6 p.m. there will be a forum with the candidates running for Ward F at the Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center at 140 Martin Luther King Dr. The forum is being cosponsored by the Hudson Reporter.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.