Michele Massey Loses to Diane Coleman in Ward F Special Election

With more than 96% of precincts reporting, Diane Coleman, founder of social service non-profit Building an Empire, will become the next Ward F Councilwoman after she defeated mayoral appointee Michele Massey by garnering about 1,500 more votes than the incumbent. While some ballots remain to be counted, Coleman, with 3,453, or more than 55 percent of the vote, is all but certainly the winner in the closely watched Ward F election.

Now Coleman will complete the final six months of the Ward F Council term started by At-Large Councilwoman Viola Richardson in 2009 before she faces re-election in May 2013.

But with such a short time to work with, Coleman already has her first priority set.

“Immediately after getting sworn in, I’m going to contact the Chief of Police [Tom Comey] to discuss how to make a better Ward F,” she says.

“This is just the beginning of cleaning up our streets and crime in the city,” said Coleman, who commended her supporters for their work.

But Coleman will have to spend the next six months efficiently if she wants to make a political dent before the city’s campaign season goes into full swing. After all, in Massey’s 10 months in the seat, the soon-to-be former Councilwoman said it was a challenge to make the differences she envisioned when she was sworn in.

Massey recalls one resident she met along the campaign trail who questioned her accomplishments, to which Massey replied, “What’d you expect me to get done in 10 months? I haven’t had this job for 10 years. You’re an Obama supporter and say he needs another term, that the first four years wasn’t enough. Why is it any different in local politics?”

Adding to this challenge is the next half-year will be focused on Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s bid to become the longest sitting mayor in 60 years, a campaign that already held too much sway in this election, says Massey.

The shadow cast by that campaign, she added, sullied the Ward F election’s main goal: shining a light on Ward F’s needs.

This campaign became about the mayor against Fulop rather than “what is needed in Ward F,” she says.

“Unfortunately it was other parties, and the press included, that turned my [campaign against] Coleman into a culmination of the mayoral race,” says Massey. “The real issues of Ward F were not really discussed” — among them, economic development and crime. Another major issue for Massey was the departure of yet another bank from what is quickly becoming a banking desert for certain sections of the city.

While crime is often cited as a citywide, At-Large Councilman Rolando Lavarro has noted it is a problem that appears to be more severe in the south and west areas of the city, including Ward F. Three of the four candidates for Ward F had cited crime as the Ward’s biggest challenge, including Massey, Coleman, and Debbie Walker (254 votes). The fourth challenger was Tyrone Ballon (542 votes), who in his second campaign for the Council seat called “unity” the key to addressing the Ward’s needs– though that unity was cited as a means to stop crime.

These were some of the local concerns that were drowned out by the political commentators, says Massey.

Bruno Tedeschi, a spokesman for Fulop’s campaign, said the Councilman agreed that the mayoral race might have been a distraction. Tedeschi maintains Fulop made an effort to “distance himself” from the race until the end in order to avoid conflating the two elections.

“He didn’t want to make this race about him,” Tedeschi says. “This race was about [Coleman] and Ward F.” That is why Fulop only endorsed Coleman a few days before the race, Tedeschi says.

While Fulop’s presence in the race may have been in the background at first, as of late October it came to a head in a confrontation with Massey at a Council meeting when he called her a “rubber stamp” for Healy.

At the time, Massey had changed her vote from supporting Fulop’s pay-to-play amendment to rejecting it in the course of two hours, after which Fulop reminded her of what happens to Council appointees who line up too closely with the administration.

The “last two rubber stamp [mayoral-appointees] are no longer on the Council,” Fulop had said— and now a third councilperson Fulop levied the charge at is on her way out.

In fact, the plan was to endorse a week sooner, adds Tedeschi, but Hurricane Sandy shifted everyone’s attention away from the political to the practical.

Yet Fulop had more to lose by endorsing a candidate than by not. And by throwing his weight behind Coleman so late in the game, his fingerprints were much less prevalent on the race than in other campaigns he’s influenced, such as the past three Board of Education races when he was much more active.

Fulop has already endorsed three candidates for his 2013 slate — Ward E Council candidate Candice Osborne (far left of the photo), Current At-Large Councilman Rolando Lavarro, and former Police Chief Frank Gajewski . Two out of three of those candidates joined Fulop at Coleman’s party, as the picture above, taken at Nostalgia, shows.

Loath to call it a “distraction,” both the Coleman and Massey campaigns described Hurricane Sandy as a higher priority that took attention away from politics.

When the storm flooded basements and wiped out power to most of the city, Massey said her “job first was as a council person,” not as a campaigner. That didn’t stop Coleman from campaigning, she maintained.

Whether this is a bellwether for six months from now may remains uncertain, but the Fulop campaign certainly wants it to be.

“There is good indication that this organization was helped out quite a bit by this race,” adds Tedeschi. “It shows [Fulop] has the organizational support where people didn’t think he had the support.” Fulop’s critics in the Ward have described him as an outsider to Jersey City and only concerned with Downtown’s growth. That charge came loudest when he led a the failed effort to merge the Jersey City Incinerator Authority with the Department of Public Works early this year.

Massey, who called the work she did for her constituents her proudest moments of the job, acknowledged she’s already hearing from supporters that her campaign should now look ahead to May when she can focus on just campaigning and not also being a politician.

“They keep telling me this isn’t over, that we’ve got six months to try again,” she said, before adding, “I need to sleep on it but I see potential.”

Yet the Jersey Journal is reporting that Massey has not in fact conceded, though calls to Massey have not been returned and in a conversation late last night she all but did end her campaign.

Added Tedeschi, “The message from the voters was clear. We hope there is no delay as we know Diane wants to start working for residents of Ward F right away.”

Whether Massey runs again, she says she’ll keep working for her Ward, even if not as its political representative.

When Massey was first approved by the Council to fill Richardson’s vacancy, “it was the same night the city approved the Jackson Hill Main Street Special Improvement District.” Massey says she helped make this a reality through her work as the former head of the Monticello Community Development Corporation, which eventually became part of the SID.

To further complicate the Ward F political dynamics, both Massey and Tedeschi claimed Richardson was supporting the other campaign. Richardson, who recommended Massey to Healy in December, could not be reached for comment in time for this story.

Lead photo of Diane Coleman courtesy of the Coleman Campaign; photo of Michele Massey by Steve Gold. Photo of Fulop, Osborne, Lavarro, and Coleman by Bruno Tedeschi

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.