First Mayoral Forum Reflects on 9 Years of Healy Mayoralty, Future of City

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If it wasn’t one criticism of Mayor Jerramiah Healy’s tenure as mayor at the Heights Mayoral Candidate Forum – say, allegations of political patronage – it was another – public safety. But through it all, Healy, the number one target of the four candidates, fended off the piled-on criticism of his 9 years in office from his three rivals – Ward E Councilman Steve Fulop, nonprofit-head Jerry Walker, and advocate Abdul Malik – while highlighting the city’s progress. Crime stats are trending down, he noted, and public park maintenance can only happen “one park at a time,” but the the city is making progress.

Hosted by a slew of neighborhood groups including the Riverview Neighborhood Association, Inc. and the Washington Park Association of Hudson County, Inc. (and JCI), to name just a few, the forum was the first time all four mayoral candidates shared a stage.

It was well-tread territory for the city’s political observers, as Healy managed to give as good as he got despite the longest record of anyone on stage. Indeed, he was often able to turn attention to the record of Fulop, his main rival — or in the words of one audience member, “Healy is dealing body blows tonight.”

Still, Fulop – with the bigger campaign coffer and with slightly more supporters in the audience – wrapped up the night by getting the final closing statement (moderator Craig Hanlon used a smartphone random number generator application to determine the order candidates spoke).

“The city is at a crossroads, and it’s not just about the next four-to-eight years, but for a generation,” said Fulop. “We have an opportunity to make Jersey City the best mid-sized city in the United States.”

Journal Square, he noted, was much the same as it was 9 years ago, when the promise of skyscraper development looked to be a thing of the near future – much the way it looks now, but with little evidence the near future is any closer. The police force has shrunk, and taxes may have remained stable the past three years, but they tend to hike after election years (Healy countered that Gov. Chris Christie cut $70 million from the budget, something that could only be addressed by raising taxes).

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If the issues were familiar, the context was different. Fulop’s vote against switching retirees’ health insurance to what the plan’s critics described as a significantly worse plan – but that saved the city $3.4 million – was a talking point for Healy, who questioned his tactics for lowering taxes. At the time, Fulop – who was joined by At-Large Councilwoman Viola Richardson, now a candidate on Healy’s ticket – had said it was “unfair to balance the budget on the backs of retirees.” But instead of responding during the closing remarks (the only time available for candidates to respond directly to what a rival said), he opted to explore what could be.

“We have things here that can’t be replicated elsewhere,” he said of the city’s mass transit options and the benefits that come from Wall Street West. But these advantages have not reached their full potential, he maintained.

There were plenty of opportunities for Malik and Walker to better introduce themselves and their ideas to voters, but the long-shot candidates appeared less prepared. Ideas ranged from reaching out to the public for ideas, working long hours, and ensuring dollars are more equitably spread to non-profits, all of which are laudable. But when it came to zoning issues, encouraging economic development, and finding new sources of revenue, there was a notable gap in the answers.

The questions led to few surprising answers, and many of those who came in leaning one way left more certain than when they arrived. Indeed, Miriam Mendez, a homeless advocate and member of the Jersey City-focused Facebook group Political Insider, said the forum cemented her vote. While she wouldn’t identify who she preferred, she did agree with some of the criticisms of the administration. “There are redundancies,” she said of allegations of wasteful city management. “There is more money to be found.”

Some of that money, she said, should be used to shelter the homeless. Healy, who fielded an audience-written question on the subject, noting that the Armory was used to shelter the homeless during Hurricane Sandy, said the problem was counseling more than shelters. “Some people on the street don’t want to be in a shelter, as strange as that sounds,” he said, suggesting with proper counseling that might change.

Others, including small business owner Mara H (who wouldn’t give her full name) agreed with at least one criticism: there’s too much corruption and too much red-tape to open a small business in the city. “I own a business in New York City, but when I went to open one here my lawyer told me not to bother.”

Yet for all of the disagreement, the candidates all agreed: the city isn’t where it should be. That includes parks, which Malik said needed significant improvements in safety if not in repairs. “It’s too dangerous to take your kids there,” he said.

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And Walker added that while crime may be down in numbers, for some residents in some areas of the city, that simply isn’t true. “It begins with the police,” he said. “When I was growing up there was community policing, we knew the police on the corners. We looked up to them.” Now, he says, there is a gulf between residents and some officers.

But the problems facing the city come from the former well-springs that have since dried up, largely from the state. Indeed, the line of the evening came from Healy, who told Malik, “If you can find a way to get more money from Trenton, I’d vote for you for mayor.”

The difference, said John Lynch, a Fulop supporter and one of the leaders in a failed movement to recall Healy, was that while all of the candidates handled the questions well, Fulop had more ideas. “He had plans, no one else did,” he argued. In fact, many of Healy’s plans were retreads of what was already being implemented by the city, particularly when it came to addressing public transit issues in the Heights. “There are not enough fares for the big bus companies,” said Healy, who added the city was “talking to” NJ Transit about improving certain bus routes. Other than ensuring jitneys follow traffic laws, he did not have a firm plan for improving transit issues. Similarly, he added that 22 police officers are now deployed to walk the streets, tacit acknowledgement that calls for community policing were well-founded, if difficult to implement.

And Fulop did often refer to his platforms, which cover everything from public safety, education, jobs, and public transit solutions. He also said he stood by his “track record,” which called for plans to consolidate autonomous agencies (a plan Healy once supported but has since backed away from) and for affordable housing money to be directed away from areas of the city where it is heavily concentrated. This, he said, would allow more seniors and low-income residents to find affordable housing downtown. Healy previously rejected this plan, noting that more could be done with less money elsewhere in the city than in Ward E, where land is more expensive.

Yet Healy said when funds stopped coming in from Trenton — notably the Urban Enterprise Zone grants, which allotted $12 million to the city — he didn’t see any support from Fulop down in Trenton. “Where were you then?” he asked.

Records were misrepresented and facts confused, which is par for the course for forums. Healy slammed Fulop for taking credit for implementing the so-called Restaurant Row in Newark Avenue, but according to articles at the time, it was the Councilman, not the mayor, who sponsored the idea. For his part, Healy allies maintained some of Fulop’s ideas were unworkable, including forcing police brass to live in the city.

If at times it was testy – Fulop and Healy were the main targets, both from each other and the other candidates – it was a civil evening but for the occasional heckler. Perhaps more direct questions of a candidates’ work and record might be needed to get past the veneer of calm exhibited by the big names in the race.

Photos: Steve Gold

Matt Hunger

is a former staff writer for the Jersey City Independent.