Monday, April 14, 2008

2008 Dem Primary - Ledger - McWilliams v. Gibson

Published in the Star-Ledger, Sunday, April 13, 2008

Plainfield Democratic race pits new, old

McWilliams didn't run because of a snub

Star-Ledger Staff

Annie McWilliams' decision to oppose Plainfield's at-large Councilman Harold Gibson in the June Democratic primary wasn't retribution for a perceived snub, she insists.

She said it has nothing to do with Council President Gibson removing from discussion a proposal at last month's meeting for a memorial to her father, former Plainfield Mayor Albert McWilliams, who died last April.

While Annie McWilliams acknowledged that Gibson's action was a surprise -- a memorial committee had worked on the plan for a year -- she has faith the proposal will eventually pass. She requested the council approve the measure before her father's memorial service, which took place last week.

"That's not why I ran. It's much deeper than that," said the 23-year-old McWilliams. "I hear horror stories coming out of the public schools, the budget cuts, there's got to be something that can be done." McWilliams, a longtime Plainfield resident who works in New York City as a financial analyst for Citigroup, has taken her cue from another young candidate, this one running for president.

"I was inspired by Obama -- 'Yes we can,' -- I feel I can do this," she said, referring to the enthusiasm engendered in Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's campaign for the Democratic nomination.

While McWilliams and Gibson hail from political families -- Harold's brother, Kenneth Gibson, was mayor of Newark from 1970 to '86 -- their differences are stark.

Gibson is 73 and has a long résumé of public service, including 25 years as a Newark police officer. He is a former Plainfield city administrator who was chosen in August 2006 as councilman after Ray Blanco died. Gibson was elected that November to serve out the remainder of the term, which ends this year. In January, his colleagues voted him council president.

He was also recently named head of the Union County Sheriff's Office new Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Gang Reduction unit; prior to that, he was the county public safety director.

McWilliams, on the other hand, is a political novice with a comparatively thin résumé. She graduated from the Wharton School of Business of the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, and is in her second year at Citigroup.

She turns 24 in June, and if elected, would become the youngest council member in Plainfield in 20 years, and one of the youngest ever, said City Clerk Laddie Wyatt. Rayland Van Blake, now a Union County Freeholder, was 26 when he was first elected to the Plainfield City Council in 2002.

The winner of the June 3 Democratic primary will face off against Republican Deborah Dowe, who is running unopposed. But because Plainfield's registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1, the primary, not the general election, is considered the real race.

For his part, Gibson has the backing of the City Democratic Committee, and believes Plainfield is "headed in the right direction." His efforts in the last two years on behalf of all constituents -- the at-large council member is elected by voters in all four wards -- have warranted another term, Gibson said.

In addition, the councilman mentioned his recent decision to make the opening prayer at council meetings less specific to Christianity as a measure that shows "respect to all citizens." Gibson, himself a Christian, added that those who aren't "can still be part of the prayer system without being shut off from it."

Though he doesn't begrudge Annie McWilliams for running against him, Gibson believes she is doing so because of his March 19 decision at a council meeting to pull the proposal for her father's memorial.

"I've taken a beating lately because of a close, personal issue. It's a mistaken position that Harold Gibson prevented an Al McWilliams memorial," he said.

Gibson yanked the item because the clerk's office had improperly included it in the agenda that night, he said. Laddie Wyatt, the clerk, confirmed that her office staff should not have attached it as a possible resolution.

"This wasn't a personal thing," Gibson said, who dispelled whispers that the mayor's office had twisted his arm to make the decision. "We as a council have to be careful what we allow to be done with any individual, regardless if it's a former mayor or not." A McWilliams memorial, he said, is not off the table.

Annie McWilliams said that single issue shouldn't distract voters from the reason she is running for council, which is to help lift Plainfield. Her commitment to the city is strong, McWilliams said, noting the local organization she co-founded, Youth Exposure, which mentors local middle school students.

Gibson's experience in government is stronger, she acknowledged, but that shouldn't be the only qualification. Returning to the Obama theme, McWilliams added, "people say he doesn't have experience. The problem is, we limit what experience is. It may not be directly related to politics, but it doesn't mean it's not valuable."

Alexi Friedman may be reached at (908) 302-1505 or

Online story here. Archived here.

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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.