Ward A is the southernmost ward in Jersey City. Its borders Bayonne and is often called “The Greenville Ward” because it includes the Greenville Rail Yards, the last reminder of the railroad dynasty that dominated the New Jersey economy in the late 1800s. The ward includes diverse neighborhoods such as the gated Society Hill and the somewhat isolated suburban-like Country Village.
It is also troubled with a high crime rate, and high unemployment rate, sharing many of the social problems that Ward F suffers, but without the potential for immediate redevelopment. Ward A also has a diverse ethnic and racial makeup with 37 percent African American, 31 percent white, 16 percent Asian, and 11 percent other. About 21 percent of Ward A’s population is listed as Hispanic.
Frank Gajewski, who currently serves as city councilman in Ward A, has declined to run for reelection, leaving no incumbent. Denise Ridley, Rick Johnson, Pamela Johnson and Joe Conte are running for the seat.
In debates hosted by Black Interest Team Enterprise (B.I.T.E.), a political action committee, and Hudson Media Group, the candidates gave their views on a variety of subjects, although crime dominated these debates as they tried to lay out strategies that might reduce violence in that part of the city.
Conte did not take part in either of the two debates. Rick Johnson did not take part in one debate and due to a traffic tie-up came in late to another and was unable to respond to a number of the questions raised.
The two debates also raised different concerns. While the B.I.T.E debate focused on affordable housing and abatements, candidates during the Hudson Media Group debate tackled the crime and violence prevalent in that part of the city.
Ridley is a marketing professional, running on Mayor Steven Fulop’s ticket.
She is a member of the Rotary Club, and the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, sits on board at Marist High School and on the Public Safety Review Board, among other organizations.
“I believe Ward A is full of people who are vested in their community,” she said, “and it is time for us to stand up and make our stance. I believe Ward A has been missing out and I think it is time for us to stand up and get those things we deserve because we are ready for a change in Ward A.”
She serves as chairwoman for an April voter registration drive each year and she has also held meet-and-greets between police officers and residents of Ward A. She is serving her third term as a Democratic committee person in Ward A.
“We’ve done voting drives and prison outreach,” she said. “I do a health fair. I believe the council is a service position. I believe your service here is the rent you pay for your room on earth,” she said, citing one of her favorite quotes. “If you cannot serve, then you cannot lead.”
Johnson, who is running as an independent, is a lifelong resident of Ward A.
“This ward needs someone to fight for us, to stand up and speak,” she said. “We have not had representation for the last four years.”
Johnson is co-founder and executive director of a Jersey City non-violence coalition, an organization looking to cure violence and address the root issues. “We do much of the work that is needed on the ground that empowers residents to do away with violence and continue the fight to make sure we have safer streets and address root causes.”
She said she’s been doing community work since she was 11 years old when she became a volunteer at Greenville Hospital.
“I’m running for City Council because I believe in better Ward A. I believe Ward A has great people but we have greatness in Ward A and have yet to tap into that greatness and develop into something we can be proud of.”
Johnson, who is running on a ticket headed by mayoral candidate Bill Matsikoudis, is a member of the Mount Calvary Baptist Church and helped reestablish the Linden Avenue Block Association.
“I’m a lifelong resident of Jersey City, and I work for the Hudson County reentry program,” he said. “I work ex-offenders and work with veterans to get better resources.”
He is also a member of the National Fatherhood Initiative. He said he would like to establish a program for ex-offenders similar to the one that is currently in operation at his church.
Conte works for the Jersey City Board of Education and serves as the vice president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Local 2262. Conte previously served five years as chairman for the Jersey City Democratic Party. He ran unsuccessfully for state Assembly last year in the Democratic Primary.
What is the role of a council person? And can you be independent?
Ridley said she believes the role of a council person is to act as part of a process of checks and balances. “As a council person, you’re there to represent your ward,” she said. “And what I would like to do if elected is keep an open line of communications with the residents.”
She said one of the first things she would like to do is set up a Ward A committee to address concerns of the residents.
Ridley said just because she is running with Fulop doesn’t mean she can’t be independent. “I’m always independent and the people on my ticket know that,” she said. “You have to vote your conscience and go with your gut to know what is right and what is wrong.”
Pamela Johnson said she is running as an independent from any of the mayoral candidates.
“But I’m not running independent from the people,” she said. “But if you don’t work with the administration you can’t get things done. I’m a fighter. I’ll hold people accountable.”
What about crime?
Ridley said the community needs to have a good relationship with police, and that this will help reduce crime.
She said she has spoken with police in and out of Hudson County, about strategies for reducing crime. Some of this involves new technology such as Shots Fired technology that detects the location of gun fire when it takes place in the city.
She also said Jersey City needs to set up a not for profit organization that can raise money to pay for tips from the public. She said the city also needs to employ strategies to reduce the strain between police and the community. She also suggested the department stagger district police commanders’ working shifts so that they cover a variety of times during day and night.
Pamela Johnson said she knows the city has expanded the police force to well over 900 officers. And yet the county has recently seen its 19th murder this year, 16 of which have occurred in Jersey City.
“Shootings are up 200 percent,” she said. “Simply growing the police force is not enough to deter or stop these. We need a community component. People know where the crime is occurring and often have more information about crimes than the police do. But we are not connecting the police with community and can’t get information out of them.”
She said police need to get better training in dealing with the community.”
Ridley and Pamela Johnson both agree that community policing works.
Johnson, however, said police need to live in Jersey City, but high cost of housing often forces them to leave.
Ridley said that when you have the relationship between community and police it eases tension.
“We need to make sure our cops are comfortable in neighborhoods and residents are comfortable with them. We need more cops that are engaged in our community.”
If there are meetings at schools more cops should attend them.”
Education, Pamela Johnson said, is one answer to the crime problem.
“This is not about one color as some people seem to believe,” she said.
Ridley agreed and said schools should be providing an education that lead to jobs.
“We need to catch them while their young,” she said. “We don’t do a good enough job early on.”
Drug addiction is a serious problem
Currently, the state and federal government are highlighting an “opioid epidemic,” a declaration Pamela Johnson is critical of.
She said she’s lived through various phases, but because it was always seen as a black or brown problem, it hadn’t gotten the attention it now has now that it has hit other populations.
“Jersey City needs to highlight the problem of drug addiction and bring resources to deal with it,” she said. “Media make this a black white and brown problem, not just a black and brown problem.”
Rick Johnson said there are drug addicts all over the city, especially in Ward A and Ward F
“We have open air drug markets near Bergen and Winfield,” he said. “We have signs in our park not to have boom boxes in parks or be fined or jail. But there’s an open air drug market there every day. Cops drive by, don’t do anything. We see people come up from Bayonne, walk back to the park buy drugs and get on bus and go back to Bayonne.”
He said homeless people sleep on the benches or sleep in the playgrounds at night. There are used needles in the playground.
“Our police need to be engaged and know who belongs there and who doesn’t,” he said.
Recreation is needed
Part of the problem, Rick Johnson said, is the lack of recreation programs that once existed in the city, and he is critical of the kinds of jobs that the city provides kids, such as sweeping the streets.
“Instead of training kids to be entrepreneurs, we’re training them to be janitors, and that is not acceptable,” he said. “We can do better than that.”
Pamela Johnson said many of the recreation programs are located on the other end of the city in The Heights and that kids often do not have a way of getting to them. She also said recreation should not be restricted to sports, but provide some kind of educational element, something that will stimulate the mind.
Ridley believes there are a lot of recreational youth programs, but that the city needs to find a way to engage the kids.
She agreed that many of these are located in Pershing Field in the Heights and that the city needs to develop a way to get the kids there.
“We have city buses to get them there,” she said.
Times have also changed and many of the old recreation programs no longer interest kids, and that there needs to be programs that involve technology, graphics, and other more contemporary themes that might attract the kids to them.
Mayor Fulop earlier this year said the city would develop a five-acre park in Ward A.
“I intend to hold the mayor to that promise,” Ridley said.
Ward A like other parts of Jersey City needs affordable housing, and how to provide it has become one of the central issues of this campaign.
“We need affordable housing throughout the city,” Ridley said. “But it can get tricky since a lot of people do not meet the HUD salary guidelines. We have a lot of working families that fall in the middle and do not meet the low income. But affordable housing is very necessary in Ward A.”
Pamela Johnson agreed.
“Everyone deserves safe and affordable and decent housing,” she said, noting that if she did not have her kids to help offset the high cost of rent, she could not afford the rents either.
“A lot of people don’t have kids to help them,” she said. “Affordable housing has to be a permanent agenda item.”
She said the city has to be creative in developing such housing, such as use of public/private partnerships, or tapping local banking institutions to help. She said under President Donald Trump, the nation could see HUD abolished, which would leave cities like Jersey City scrambling to find funding.
“We need to find alternative funding,” she said. “A lot of our seniors are moving out because they can’t afford to live here. We need to advocate for them.”
Rick Johnson said the city needs to establish an office of affordable housing to help residents locate available units, and would require developers to include more affordable housing in new projects.
“We need to help residents find housing where they are priced out,” he said.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.