In what many see as a hotly contested race for control of the City Council, eight candidates are seeking to fill three at-large seats. (At-large seats represent the entire city, while the other six seats on the council are ward seats). Incumbents Rolando Lavarro, Joyce Watterman and Daniel Rivera are runningmates of Mayor Steven Fulop. Michael Winds, Esmeralda Trinidad and Esther Wintner are on a slate headed by mayoral hopeful Bill Matsikoudis.
Sean Connors and Brian Lane are running as independents.
In a forum hosted by BITE (Black Interest Team Enterprise) earlier this month, seven of the eight candidates responded to questions about some of the most significant issues. Nearly all agreed that changes needed to be made to some programs, such as in affordable housing and the city’s approach to policing. In some cases they disagreed on how to curb crime and make level the playing field for residents living in the poorer neighborhoods.
After unsuccessfully seeking a Ward A council seat in 2009, Lavarro won an at-large seat in a special election in 2011. He was the first Asian-American in the history of Jersey City to serve on the municipal council. He won his second term as an at-large candidate on the 2013 ticket headed by Steven Fulop.
Prior to serving on the City Council, Lavarro was the director of Constituent Services for Assemblyman (now State Senator) Robert Gordon in New Jersey’s 38th District, and was an aide to Councilwoman Mary Donnelly in Jersey City’s Ward B.
Rivera, a former clinical coordinator of Research Projects at both Newark’s Beth Israel Medical Center and St. Barnabas Health Care, won his seat on the council in 2013 on the Fulop ticket and is seeking his second four-year term. In the past he has served as president, coach, umpire and safety director for Jersey City’s Roberto Clemente Little League and has also served as the assistant director for District 7 Little League for the past seven years.
Watterman is also seeking her second term. She is the founder of The H.O.P.E Summer Program for children. She has served as a volunteer at Rahway State Prison for over 20 years and Clinton State Prison for eight years.
Along with her husband, the Reverend James Watterman, she founded the Continuous Flow Christian Center in Jersey City. She has organized and serves as the current president of the Women’s Political Caucus, Hudson County Chapter. In addition to her volunteer and political activism, she also serves as a zone leader of Bergen Community United, is an active member of the NAACP, and also is a chaplain for the Hudson County Sheriff’s Department.
Born in the Dominican Republic, Esmeralda came to Jersey City at the age of 10. Dominicans make up one of the largest ethnic groups in the city, and if elected, she would be the first Dominican to serve on the City Council. A Democratic committee woman from Ward F, she served as vice chair of the Jersey City Democratic Organization from 2010 to 2014.
Wintner, formerly director of activist group Civic JC, has been a staunch critic of the Fulop Administration. She ran unsuccessfully for the Ward B City Council seat in 2010 and 2013. She is employed in the finance industry and has often questioned issues involving the budget. She is also a strong advocate for transparency in government.
Michael A. Winds
Winds has worked as a classroom teacher for over 15 years, served as the principal of Abraham Lincoln High School, and is currently the director of the Division “A” schools for the Jersey City Board of Education. An avid golfer, Winds is a proponent of Jersey City’s diverse youth recreational opportunities. He was twice nominated to contend for Hudson County Teacher of the Year, and received the Dr. Charles Epps Sr. Educator’s Appreciation Award. This year he served as the grand marshal of the African American Freedom Parade.
Connors was rumored to be considering a run for mayor this year. He has previously served as a state assemblyman. A one-time ally of former Mayor Jerramiah Healy, Connors switched sides and ran with Fulop in Ward D in 2013, losing to Michael Yun.
Since 2013, Connors, a Jersey City police detective and former Board of Education trustee, has been very active in community events in Jersey City and reportedly has strong support from the North Bergen Democrat Party.
Lane is a Hudson County sheriff’s officer. He previously ran for council in a 2011 special election. A minister at Full Will of God Christian Ministries in Ward F, Lane is an outspoken critic of Gov. Christopher Christie, who raided funds from the state’s various Urban Enterprise Zones and imposed other cuts in state aid on Jersey City.
Candidates speak out on housing stress in Jersey City
With rents rising throughout Jersey City and gentrification beginning in areas away from the waterfront for the first time, where do the candidates stand on issues such as affordable housing, rent control, and the use of building codes to protect residents?
Connors admitted that housing is an obvious issue in Jersey City this year. He said the city needs to help people seeking to buy and upgrade dilapidated housing, but should put stricter burdens on those who do so for investment. He said rent control should be strengthened, and the city needs to establish some kind of affordable housing board.
Rivera, who grew up downtown in Ward E, said that area was “bad to live in,” when he grew up. He said he welcomes changes, but as a councilman, he has worked to increase the amount of affordable housing that is required in new developments.
“I would love to make it easier for first time home buyers, and to make it easier for people who are struggling to cope with high rents,” he said.
Trinidad said she has watched development progress in the city, and that maintaining affordable housing is a big issue.
“I would like to implement policies that require a developer need to sit with the community to do what’s best for Jersey City,” she said. “People being pushed out of homes needs to stop.”
Lavarro also agreed that affordable housing is a pressing issue, but points to the fact that the current administration has started requiring developers to build affordable housing on the site of each new development. The rules require that 20 percent of units in abated properties be affordable.
“One of these is almost complete and will be available shortly,” he said, noting the city is seeking to reopen agreements with two of the largest developments in the city that would ask for similar affordable percentages.
Wintner said the city needs to do an affordable housing audit.
“We don’t know what we have, and for all we know we might have enough affordable housing and that it is not being used in an appropriate way,” she said, also saying the city needs to have an office of Affordable Housing to help people connect with these units. Winds said there needs to be someone who can help people find these units, someone, he said, who is not “abrupt and abusive” or gives people misinformation.
Where do candidates stand on job creation?
Many traditional manufacturing jobs which did not require specific skills have vanished. Many jobs available are in the financial district, which require skills and educational degrees. While downtown has an unemployment rate of about 3 percent, unemployment in Ward F and other areas is as high as 16 percent. Many kids hang out on street corners for lack of jobs. Since crime is also related to lack of employment, as a council person, what would these candidates do to find jobs for residents?
Winds said the answer starts in school, and he is an advocate for technical training as well as college prep.
Wintner said it is a complex issue. But part of the answer is attracting new and different kids of businesses that provide jobs.
Lavarro said the city has partnered with JP Morgan for job training and the city is doing a study to look at gaps in the work force, and to align training to meet those needs. The city also has a good reentry program and provides up to 1,000 summer jobs to kids each year.
Trinidad said jobs are few in Jersey City despite the massive development, and that those getting tax abatements need to be creating jobs as well.
Rivera said families and others need to engage their kids, show them where to fill out applications of jobs.
“This is something I do all the time,” he said. Connors said education is important and that the city needs to provide vocation training somehow tying local unions and high school training program.
“We don’t just want to provide them with a job, but a career, we want them stable in their lives,” he said.
Lane said he agrees with Connors, and that they have to go into the neighborhoods and help the kids find jobs.
“We as a city have to come together,” he said. “These are our kids, our future, we have to show them by example.”
What about the reval?
Some sections of the city have been overtaxed, while others, under taxed. The reval currently underway is supposed to correct this. But what can be done to keep it from happening again? “I’m a victim of over taxation,” Lane said. “My house is worth a half million, the mayor’s house is worth $750,000, but I pay more taxes. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Because of the disparity in assessments, people in poorer neighborhoods are sometimes paying higher taxes than those living in new or upscale development. Lane suggested that the city offer abatements to all the residents in the city, not just a select few.
“This is not a tale of two cities, we are all in the same city,” he said.
Connors said he supports the reval. “It is something we need to get done,” he said. “Mayor Fulop said he would get it done in his first two years. He wavered on that. It’s getting done now.”
Rivera said Jersey City needs to assess property on point of sale. But he said this would require changes on the state level.
Trinidad agreed some people are being unfairly taxed.
“This reval must be done and quickly, but moving forward, we can’t wait 20 or 30 years, we need to do it every five years,” she said.
Lavarro said he would support giving abatements to homeowners who need it, but current state law doesn’t allow it. He also said he favors a legislative change that would mandate a reval every five years.
Wintner said it is the county tax board that orders a reval, and she is critical of the Fulop Administration that canceled the reval started under Mayor Healy in 2013.
“Over the past four years, people have been robbed of hard earned money” [because it wasn’t done earlier] she said. “That’s taking from the poor to pay for the rich.”
Winds said Jersey City really is a tale of two cities.
“Greenville paying more tax than it should pay as compared to downtown,” he said, also supporting the reval as a way to modify this.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.