Monday, April 09, 2007

McWilliams - News Obituary - Ledger

Published in the Star-Ledger, Saturday, April 7. 2007

Albert McWilliams, ex-Plainfield mayor
Lawyer led a downtown renaissance in city

Star-Ledger Staff

Albert T. McWilliams, a soft- spoken corporate attorney who rapidly ascended through the bare- knuckled ranks of Plainfield politics and served eight years as the city's mayor before losing a bitter election in 2005, died yesterday at St. Peter's University Hospital in New Brunswick.

He was 53.

The cause was cancer of the kidneys, which had been diagnosed several months ago, said his wife, Darlene McWilliams, 52.

A native of Georgia and father of five, McWilliams moved in 1987 to Plainfield, a once-prosperous city left scarred by the riots and urban flight of the 1960s. He fell in love with the town's elegant Victorian homes and majestic trees, and in 1996 friends encouraged him to run for city council.

"He really cared deeply for Plainfield, and he wanted to rescue the city from its downward spiral and decay," said Adrian Mapp, a Union County freeholder and friend of McWilliams.

With strong backing from Plainfield's Democratic Committee, the articulate and debonair McWil liams won an at-large seat. The next year, he ran successfully for mayor.

Over the next eight years, McWilliams oversaw a small renaissance in downtown Plainfield, where new offices, stores and apartments rose for the first time in decades. But crime, especially murders, remained a vexing problem.

By his second term, McWilliams had fallen from favor with the city's most powerful Democrat, Assemblyman Jerry Green. When McWil liams tried for a third term, Green backed his own candidate, a school board member named Sharon Robinson-Briggs.

Robinson-Briggs coasted to vic tory, and McWilliams stepped away from politics.

Yesterday, Green saluted his former rival.

"There were times we didn't see eye-to-eye, but he did move Plainfield in a positive direction. I think the city is a better place became of Al McWilliams," Green said.

Born in Atlanta, McWilliams was the youngest of three children. His father, Albert T. McWilliams Sr., was among the first black bus drivers hired after the city's historic bus boycott. His mother was a den tal assistant.

After studying public administration and political science at Georgia State University, McWil liams earned a law degree from the University of Michigan.

He moved to Dallas and be came a lawyer for Diamond Sham rock, an oil company.

It was at a Super Bowl party in 1979 or 1980 that McWilliams caught the eye of Darlene Crow, a 26-year-old runway model.

She liked his Calvin Klein jeans and well-trimmed afro. He called her a few days later. And for the next 45 consecutive days, they met for picnics, walks and horseback rides.

They married in 1982 in the backyard of the bride's parents' home in Gurdon, Ark.

McWilliams took a job with Engelhard in 1987, and the family moved to New Jersey.

Once he became mayor of Plainfield, McWilliams set out to redevelop long-vacant properties in the city's downtown and recruited some 500 residents to help draft a long-term plan to cut crime, bolster economic development and spruce up flagging streets.

With Green's support, he won re-election in 2001. Then the alliance crumbled.

McWilliams dismissed a political ally of Green's from city hall. The assemblyman accused the mayor of blaming him for the city's woes. And a political war erupted.

Despite his measured and courteous demeanor, McWilliams was no pushover. Between 2002 and 2004, he backed five victorious council candidates against Green's hopefuls. In 2003, the mayor won control of the city's Democratic committee.

Then came the election of 2005.

In an effort to preserve Green's authority in Plainfield, the powerful Union County Democratic Committee donated $65,000 to Robinson-Briggs' campaign. She sailed to victory.

At the urging of supporters, McWilliams registered as a Republican and challenged Robinson- Briggs in the general election.

It proved a luckless gamble in a town as Democratic as Plainfield.

McWilliams took the loss hard.

"Politics in New Jersey is a blood sport. This is not a gentleman's game, and he was a gentleman," said Dan Damon, McWil liams' former spokesman and longtime friend.

The loss, however, gave McWil liams more time for his passions: fishing with his children, riding his bicycle, reading his four daily newspapers and tending racks of mes quite-smoked ribs on his barbecue, wearing his beloved royal-blue Williams-Sonoma apron.

McWilliams is survived by his wife; mother Annie Ruth McWil liams, of Atlanta; and children Annie, 22; Allison, 18, Albert T. III, 16; Adam, 14; Avery, 12; and two sisters.

The family was still planning fu neral arrangements last night.

Link to online story.

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About Me

Plainfield resident since 1983. Retired as the city's Public Information Officer in 2006; prior to that Community Programs Coordinator for the Plainfield Public Library. Founding member and past president of: Faith, Bricks & Mortar; Residents Supporting Victorian Plainfield; and PCO (the outreach nonprofit of Grace Episcopal Church). Supporter of the Library, Symphony and Historic Society as well as other community groups, and active in Democratic politics.