17 Candidates in Historic Race for Two At-Large Council Seats

For the first time in Jersey City history, according to the city clerk, two at-large vacancies are up for grabs on the city council in today’s special election. A whopping 17 candidates are vying for the seats.

The reward? Short job security. The winners will only serve the remaining 18 months of the three-year terms vacated by Mariano Vega (ousted following a corruption arrest and conviction) and Willie Flood (who left because of illness).

But it will give the eventual winners, including 14 challengers in a field with appointed Democratic incumbent Councilmembers-at-large Ray Velazquez and Kaliimah Ahmad, and Ward F Councilwoman Viola Richardson, time to build a political base throughout Jersey City.

One challenger, city veterans affairs director Jaime Vazquez, is looking to return to the council after serving from 1985 to 1997. Five-term school board member Suzanne Mack, elected citywide in her current capacity, is eyeing the same results at the municipal level.

Others in the crowded field are: Richard Boggiano, Ihor Ed Ciolko, Melissa Alexander Clark, Brian Lane, Rolando Lavarro, Patrick Leonard, Dan Levin, Juanita Lopez, Omar Perez, Adela Rohena, Imtiaz Syed and Nabil Youssef.

Bracketed together as slates on the ballot are Ahmad and Velazquez, Mack and Perez and Lavarro and Richardson.

Even as outsider Lavarro has bracketed with a councilwoman, much of the election dialogue has seen those candidates looking to enter (or re-enter) the City Council criticizing the administration of organization-backed Democratic Mayor Jerramiah Healy and the nine-member council. Most of its members, like Healy, have won with backing from the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO).

Anti-Organization Councilman Steven Fulop of Ward E, eyeing a challenge to Healy for the mayor’s chair in 2013, has officially remained neutral.

Themes from the anti-incumbents have included allegations of continuing corruption and abusive patronage, long associated with Hudson County, coming at the expense of taxpayers and bloating the municipal budget.

The three current council members, along with Clark, have been no-shows during the last two debates. This has caused some challengers to harshly criticize anyone who might purposely skip the forums in trying to avoid greater scrutiny.

And in recent weeks, complaints have arisen concerning confirmed inaccurate statements in campaign fliers. Ahmad and Velazquez were taken to task for claiming the city imposed “no layoffs” in 2011 when it issued 366 pink slips. Mack and Perez were accused of purposely deceiving voters in the north end of Jersey City with literature claiming they had been endorsed by popular State Sen. Brian Stack, who represents the area, even though Stack denied endorsing anyone. The candidates have said they do not know who produced the flier.

JCI is providing a sketch profiling the candidates individually, in alphabetical order. Most of the information is based on comments made during the Nov. 2 forum held at Ferris High School. In the case of no-show council members Ahmad, Richardson and Velazquez, information was obtained from their official biographies listed on the Jersey City Web site. Attempts to track down Clark have been unsuccessful.

Views expressed by candidates during an Oct. 13 forum at PS 28 in the Heights are online here. Polls are open until 8 pm tonight.

Kalimah Ahmad
The Democratic incumbent’s official bio says the assistant Hudson County counsel is active in a number of legal professional organizations and has raised monies for lymphoma research by competing in a triatholon and to send youths to summer camp. She is thought to be Jersey City’s first Muslim council member. She has also volunteered her time to numerous civic organizations.

Among the cited accomplishments in her bio is writing “Where Have All My Brothers Gone?: An Exploration of New Jersey’s 1000-Foot of a School Zone Statute,” a review of the law’s sentencing policy banning drug possession within the zone. Ahmad was also a three-time recipient (2002-04) of the Hudson County Bar Association Scholarship Award. She is bracketed on the ballot with Velazquez.

Melissa Alexander Clark
Clark, who missed at least the last two forums, could not be reached by JCI for comment.

Richard Boggiano
Retired from the Jersey City police force after 37 years, the longtime president of the Hilltop Neighborhood Association prides himself on fighting for residents’ interests against city government and regional agencies, such as the Port Authority (PA) of New York and New Jersey, over the years. He called the decisions of the two incumbent candidates to miss the final debate “disgraceful,” and has promised to serve, if elected, for a salary of $1 per year. In his campaign, Boggiano has emerged as one of the loudest critics of the HCDO.

“Let’s get rid of the hacks who have been serving in Jersey City,” he demands, referring to highly-paid political appointees he alleges serve on a number of boards which serve no real purpose other than padding the budget when the public’s money can be put to better use. Boggiano maintains granting the Jersey City Parking Authority an annual $4 million budget is an extravagance, while at the same time, he feels the city has dangerously attritioned the police force from a high of about 1,200 officers during his tenure to a level “in the 700s.”

Ihor Ed Ciolko
A retired construction inspector for the city, Ciolko says he is the right person at the right time because the council needs someone with expertise in real estate development to promote responsible growth while attracting ratables. He has even floated the seemingly radical idea of trying to get back at least a substantial part of Liberty State Park from New Jersey to replace green space with more ratables. Ciolko also wants to pursue more tax abatements.

“I can make a difference. I can make change,” Ciolko has said. Given the Port Authority’s plans to eventually raise the Bayonne Bridge to accommodate more commercial shipping, Ciolko recently proposed making the city’s portion of the Hackensack River a “port entry zone” with financial incentives. Ciolko recalled the waterway’s days as “a vibrant shipping area” he wants to see revived.

Brian Lane
The Hudson County sheriff’s officer vows to be in the vanguard of the fight against Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s fiscal policies, which he says have devastated Jersey City. At the last candidates’ forum, he harshly criticized Lopez’s defending Christie for revoking various forms of state aid from Jersey City since taking office.

From the governor’s prior efforts to revoke school aid to his floating the idea of possibly terminating New Jersey’s Urban Enterprise Zone program, Lane says, “I believe the governor has been a stand-up guy and now it’s time for him to step down.”

Rolando Lavarro

Rolando Lavarro, New Jersey City University’s assistant director for grants and special programs, is among those in the anti-Christie chorus when it comes to the governor’s urban policies. Yet he also maintains the mayor and council share the blame for some of the city’s own fiscal problems. Lavarro wants the budget examined under the process of “priority-based budgeting,” which would require that an independent firm come in to weed out any waste and abuse.

“I believe this governor, with cuts to school aid, has basically declared a war on our teachers and public schools in Jersey City,” says Lavarro, a former state legislative and council aide who grew up in Greenville. “All of my adult life has been dedicated to public service, whether working in non profits or in government,” he says with pride.

Patrick “PJ” Leonard
Did not attend the Nov. 2 forum, but at the Oct. 13 event he noted that he grew up on Sip Avenue. He feels he has developed good insights on how to improve the city in part by living here over the many years. He has called for the city to make a greater commitment to offering youth programs in trying to prevent juvenile delinquency.

Leonard cites as a priority reviving the Journal Square neighborhood, starting with renovating the historic Landmark Loews Jersey Theatre. “If we work together, we can make Jersey City what it used to be, not what it is right now,” he has said.

Dan Levin
The Downtown resident was the founder and past president of Civic JC, a good government organization, and believes the current city government encourages a culture of “corruption” that must be fought to get Jersey City back on track.

Levin, the owner of a small business in Hoboken, insists the city must do more to take “stakeholder” concerns into account in crafting policy. He also wants it to create “a strategic plan to see where we want to go in the future.” Included in that, he says, is incorporating policies to encourage putting “light industrial uses” in either vacant or underutilized buildings while de-emphasizing building more “market-rate housing.” He says the latter tends to consume services rather than generate ratables. He also wants to see a complete revamping of the building department, saying, “Plans stay on shelves for four months, six months, eight months, nine months.”

Juanita Lopez
A substitute teacher in the city active in groups in her Heights neighborhood, Lopez describes herself as an average taxpaying homeowner with an associate’s degree in urban policy.

Lopez defended Gov. Christie at the Nov. 2 forum, saying she believes the governor rescinded much of Jersey City’s aid because “it wasn’t being used right.” Lopez says she wants the council to engage in “research and studies” aimed at lowering property taxes to help small business flourish. She explains, “I believe it all comes down to lowering property taxes. And if you lower property taxes, it will encourage building owners to bring down their rents.”

Suzanne Mack
Sue Mack is the school board’s most senior member and a licensed professional planner who serves as an unpaid liaison for commuters with NJ Transit’s executive board. She wants to implement a comprehensive recreation program, and slow down the process of initiating an upcoming revaluation so residents better understand what’s at stake.

One of her first priorities on the council “is to have a summit by the end of 2012” to bring in groups such as the Hudson County Boys Club and other non-profits to explore what they can do in helping the city provide recreational and social services. Further, Mack says, “We must end the who-you-know culture that governs Jersey City politics.” She maintains business development can be further promoted if the city eases restrictions on its entertainment ordinance, to allow more such commercial uses.

Omar Perez
Mack’s running mate is an administrator for a Latino fraternal organization. He previously served in various governmental and political posts at the city and state level, including the New Jersey Legislature.

“I’m definitely against tax abatements in Jersey City unless it’s for affordable housing,” he says. Perez is also calling for implementation of new “community policing” initiatives, and expressed concern that the city government is “working at cross purposes” with the department. He says he’s no fan of Christie, noting, “I do not agree with him on any of his policies thus far, and I don’t think I will agree on his policies in the future.”

Viola Richardson
According to her official city bio, she was first elected in 2001 and is the youngest of 12 children. She is described there as being “well-known in the community” and “a strong advocate for social change.”

“She believes that every individual must assume responsibility for making the community better if we are to survive,” the bio says. Further, Richardson insists, “We must take control of our lives. We cannot turn our backs on our youth and expect that the social agencies will take care of them.” She warns youths will become “unproductive” as adults unless society “pays now,” and commits the proper investments in helping them develop into responsible citizens.

At a recent public meeting on the progress of chromium cleanup at 900 Garfield Avenue and Berry Lane, she spoke on behalf of residents concerned about possible water contamination issues.

Adela Rohena
Like Lopez, she is active in her Heights neighborhood. Rohena also serves as a teacher’s aide in the Jersey City district. While she has been critical of Christie, she says the council must be more directly accountable for its actions.

Rohena describes herself as a reformer. “Many times, I have been invited to join the boat of corruption involving Jersey City officials, and I’ve refused,” she has said.

Rohena is demanding police implement a more aggressive policy to combat gang violence. She also would “add more police to the streets of Jersey City,” and says, “The reason we see violence, especially every week in our public schools, is because we see in the streets the gangs of Jersey City.”

She also says she will be a “fiscal watchdog” for taxpayers.

Imtiaz Syed
He cites prior challenges, including then-Gov. Christie Whitman’s appointing him to the school board upon the state’s initial takeover, and helping develop 250 affordable housing units in Lafayette while chairman of the Jersey City Redevelopment Agency, as helping prepare him for the council.

Syed promises to be “a full-time councilman,” and will install “an action line” in his office so residents facing problems get calls returned quickly. While not ruling out tax abatements, the candidate says he would take a tough approach. He suggests possibly imposing an 18-month window where applicants would need to “prove you’re committed” to creating jobs benefiting Jersey City. “We have to give them the chance to show they want to keep their business in Jersey City,” Syed says.

Jaime Vazquez
The candidate says he will make a key priority re-establishing the city’s youth and family services division in all six wards to promote more recreational programs. To try enhancing the city’s coffers, the former councilman says he will propose trying to push the Port Authority to impose a “25 cents levy on every vehicle that passes through the Holland Tunnel” into Manhattan. He estimates this could generate up to $3 million in new revenues annually.

Like Syed, he stresses providing full-time service, but notes he’s already been there. “You have to be here. You have to be available,” says Vazquez. “People come to City Hall to look for someone to help them.”

Radames “Ray” Velazquez
Ray Velazquez is a litigation counsel for the Hudson County Counsel, a former city municipal court judge, former county freeholder and the city’s first openly gay councilman.

The attorney’s official city bio describes him as being “known for his straightforward approach to life,” as evidenced by his coming out while in public service. Velazquez, whose brother, Hector, is a Hudson County Superior Court judge, also says in his bio, “I am proud to represent all of the people of Jersey City, but I am particularly proud to represent those people who need a voice to advocate on their behalf on those issues that affect them in a unique way.” Velazuez adds he is “glad that my voice speaks for so many people, including those often underrepresented in a position of authority.”

Nabil Youssef
The city high school teacher, who ran unsuccessfully for the school board in March, promises every decision he makes will be first and foremost in the interests of taxpaying Jersey City residents and not special interests or political bosses.

Without offering details, Youssef has issued as a key position the idea of getting the school board and council to “share” one budget, saying, “We can reduce taxes, (improve) education and clean our streets.”

“I had run in the school board election to take (Charles) Epps out,” says Youssef, who at the time called for the ouster of his boss, the controversial schools superintendent who is expected to retire in January. “I am now running to take Healy and his whole cabinet out.”

Photo: Steve Gold

Chris Neidenberg

a freelance reporter with extensive experience covering municipalities throughout North Jersey.