PERTH AMBOY – Billy Delgado’s genuine concern for people, specific plans to revitalize the economy and decades of experience showed. Incumbent Mayor Wilda Diaz’s lack of readiness was painfully apparent. Robert McCoy, Miguel Morales, Frank Salado, and Sharon Hubberman seemed content to watch the principle contenders battle for undecided voters.
The debate at Perth Amboy High School was moderated by Toni Zimmer, president of the state League of Women Voters, and hosted by the local branch of the NAACP, one of America’s oldest civil rights organizations.
Diaz, who was once considered a likely victor because so many challengers seemed likely to divide disappointed voters, appeared to be in a panic in recent weeks. Throwing barbs, insults and spurious accusations exclusively at Delgado, the Mayor removed any doubt about which one of her five challengers has a chance to stop her re-election.
Still, McCoy, Morales, Salado, and Hubberman were eager to point out that Diaz doubled taxes and since she was elected, the city’s unemployed population doubled as crime mushroomed out of control.
Appearing calm and in command of the facts, Delgado responded to few Diaz digs, saying he “would not justify such distractions with more than a warning that voters should ignore them.”
Instead, Delgado proposed a $50 million train station improvement that could attract up to $1 billion in private investment in a transit village, rejuvenating the city’s downtown area along Smith and Market streets.
Diaz acknowledged that her administration never applied for a transit village designation from the state but seemed unaware that NJ Transit reported a 25 percent reduction in train riders boarding at Perth Amboy station or that fewer trains stop there, compared with four years ago.
The other candidates agreed that Delgado’s aggressive approach could prove effective but each seemed convinced that he or she could do it better than the man with the plan. McCoy agreed with Delgado’s plan to replace the redevelopment agency, stating he would do the same.
Morales said, “If we had clean streets the business will come.”
Mayoral math problem
Delgado broke down the math, arguing that financial reports filed with the state show the city’s debt increased from $181 million to $220 million and Hubberman agreed with his assessment that Diaz was not telling the truth, but she stated the debt was actually $160 million when the incumbent started.
The incumbent continued to assert that she reduced a $250 million city debt by $54 or $55 million but she had no explanation for official reports filed with the state that show gross debt rising from $181 million to $220 million during his first three and a half years in office.
“That does not show everything,” said Diaz. “A city’s financial condition is too complicated to understand, that’s why we pay so much for administrators, accountants and lawyers.”
Morales scored his best zinger of the night when he called the 92 police chaplains recruited by Diaz as “ambassadors in bullet-proof vests.” McCoy said those chaplains are a ploy to encourage religious support for Diaz’s re-election as mayor, and also claimed they do not know how to give directions around town.
Audience members jeered and booed when Diaz sought to defend her record on public safety, denying that violent drug gangs have invaded the city despite recent shootings and the fatal stabbing of 20-year-old Deny Santana-Delora. Diaz claims she hired new officers although police manpower is down 20 percent.
Diaz claims that citizens are better off today than they were four years ago and got booed again.
The candidate who initially revealed certified debt statements that are filed annually, Delgado said, “They show a growing mountain of debt deeper than your friend Janine Caffrey who buried Dr. Vivian Rodriguez when Gov. Christie robbed our elected school board of its authority and local control.”
Caffrey was recently reinstated by Christie administration officials as school superintendent for the third time since a majority of the city’s elected Board of Education decided to fire her.
Her first act on returning this time was to purge teachers who support Delgado and relegate the highly respected Assistant Superintendent to a basement office in a scarcely used former school building.
Diaz is closely associated with the Republican Governor, she has publicly supported Caffrey and her position on educational issues mirrors those of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney with respect to tuition vouchers, privatization, and ending outside support for poor school districts.
Candidates address weaknesses
Although he owns a house in Carteret and admitted he cannot win the election, Salado tried to convince voters his heart belongs to Perth Amboy.
Morales said people should not underestimate his ability just because he works for the city public works department and McCoy promised that he had a slew of unfinished projects from his years working as UEZ director under former Mayor Joe Vas.
Morales stated he was a strong union shop steward during his opening statement, but when asked about collective bargaining he was opposed it.
Diaz although she stated she was for collective bargaining could not explain why the public workers were without a contract when asked by Delgado, an assertion confirmed by Morales.
Chevron’s Sweetheart Deal
Delgado and the Mayor also sparred over the 250-acre oil refinery owned until recently by Chevron, which got an $8 million tax refund when Diaz lowered the corporation’s $218 million property assessment by more than 40 percent.
“The new owner paid $260 million for property you valued at $120 million,” said Delgado, who said the oil giant’s savings is an added toll on homeowners that his plan would address: “I will work closely with Buckeye Partners to prevent pollution, ensure jobs go to local residents and to make certain that new tax revenue benefits our homeowners.”
Consistent with his ‘positive campaign’ approach, Delgado also introduced a number of other ideas and innovations, as well as a process for making the city’s budgetary process a chance to set community priorities.
His last words were clearly aimed at the consequences of confusion created by those who have little or no chance of defeating Diaz.
“I have two city council and school board running mates and I am prepared to begin moving Perth Amboy forward for everyone the same day I am sworn in as mayor,” said Delgado. “The Mayor’s polls shows two-thirds of Perth Amboy voters want change and my team can bring that change for all of us.”
“Nobody besides the incumbent has a council ticket and none of the others is supported by current or former council representatives or school board members,” Delgado said. “I welcome everyone to my team, because the incumbent is waging a fight to keep the status quo at a time Perth Amboy needs to move forward.”
Diaz concluded her remarks by jabbing Delgado for being a lawyer with three college degrees, associating with the campaign consultant who engineered her 2008 victory, and attacking choices he and his wife — who works for the airlines — made about educating their three children.
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