Published in the Star-Ledger, Wednesday, April 13, 2005
'Machine' goes after mayor of Plainfield
The city of Plainfield has more than its share of gang murders and drug deals, and more than enough poverty.
But things are improving. Crime is down overall, and new buildings are finally sprouting up next to boarded-up storefronts in the downtown. Homes that have been vacant for years are being renovated as the city's population grows.
"People are working together like never before," says Donna Albanese, president of the local chamber of commerce. "The mayor deserves the credit for that."
The mayor is Al McWilliams, a soft-spoken attorney who has won two elections by landslides. People in Plainfield like him.
But the party bosses don't.
They have declared war on him by denying him their endorsement, and backing a rival for the June primary.
And that could spell trouble for McWilliams.
Because in New Jersey politics, it is not enough to be competent and popular. To be secure in your job, you also need the blessings of the county bosses.
They are the gatekeepers who can make or break your political career, no matter how many landslides you've won.
They decide who gets the money, who gets the best position on the ballot, and who gets help on Election Day turning out the vote. In a primary, when turnout is low, the bosses almost always get their way.
The bosses in Union County -- led by Sen. Ray Lesniak and county chairwoman Charlotte DeFilippo -- are moving against McWilliams because he's been fighting for years with Assemblyman Gerald Green.
And Green is one of the old boys.
"If you can't work with people on the line, then you can't stay on the line," says DeFilippo.
What exactly was McWilliams' offense? What did he do wrong?
"He's trying to destroy my career by blaming me for every problem in the city," says Green. "He has to take responsibility. He's the mayor."
McWilliams says the trouble began when he fired a political ally of Green's who was doing shoddy legal work for the city.
"He called Jerry, and Jerry went ballistic on me," says McWilliams. "Our fights are usually over who gets what contract, and who gets what legal business. I don't care as long as the price is right and the quality is good. But you can't give away the store to be cooperative."
The party leaders could have left this one alone by endorsing both of them, despite their rivalry, and letting them battle it out in Plainfield. It would be awkward to put two rivals on the same team, but it could be done.
Instead, they decided to go after McWilliams with a head shot.
And so a man who has been mayor for eight years will now have to fight for his political life against his own party establishment.
"It boggles the mind," says McWilliams.
He drove through the city this week, pointing to improvements. A small park with benches and a fountain where weeds once grew. New sidewalks and street lamps near a train station. An office building in the downtown on what was a vacant lot.
Williams is promising to deal the machine a well-deserved blow.
He started out as a volunteer trying to revive the city's downtown, and ran for office only after he couldn't get the city council interested. Since then he's beaten the machine twice by supporting challengers for the city council and for the local Democratic committee.
And some people in Plainfield don't like the idea of bosses from the suburbs telling them whom they should support.
"I think this is dirty pool," says Valerie Cummings, eating a sandwich at the Plainfield Donut Shop and Luncheonette. "The mayor is trying. And he's a good man."
Tom Moran's column appears Wednesdays and Fridays. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (973) 392-1823.
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- 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.