Race to Replace Five-Term Freeholder Sets Up Convention Showdown

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—Two political candidates, one from New Brunswick and the other from Perth Amboy, are competing to secure the best possible path to joining the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders.

The Democratic Party's choices have won every countywide election since the 1990's, so the team that wins their coveted "party line" endorsement will be heavily favored to prevail in the subsequent June and November elections.

That endorsement vote will take place tonight inside West Hall on the campus of the county's community college in Edison, where hundreds of elected members of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization (MCDO) are expected to convene.

"All registered Democrats are welcome to attend," according to the MCDO's Facebook page, but members of the "County Committee" will be able to vote on the slate of candidates that will have the party's support in the primary election. 

The "County Committee" consists of a man and woman for every one of the more than 600 election districts in Middlesex County.  The members were elected by their neighbors in low-level elections during the June 2017 Democratic Party primary and they make up what one good government group calls the "secret power center" of local politics.

The district representatives, usually referred to as "Committeemen" and "Committeewomen," will select from four candidates for the three openings on the Freeholder Board, the county's seven-member elected governing body.

All seven members of the board are chosen in partisan, countywide races and represent all of the more than 840,000 total residents of Middlesex County's 25 municipalities.

It is anticipated that incumbent Freeholders Charles Kenny and Kenneth Armwood will easily secure the party's endorsement for their re-election, but the four-way contest also includes two Latinos competing to replace Blanquita Valenti in the third spot on the ticket.

Both Woodbridge resident Kenny and Armwood, who hails from Piscataway, told New Brunswick Today they were not going to publicly endorse either of the contenders for the third seat until after the MCDO's vote on March 11.

The two candidates vying to replace Valenti are Claribel Azcona-Barber, a Dominican immigrant who  works for the city's longtime Mayor and–like Valenti–lives in the Dewey Heights section of New Brunswick, and Perth Amboy's Joel Pabon, Sr., military veteran and post office employee who has served on the Board of Education and City Council and run for Mayor there.

While it's likely most of New Brunswick's 56 committee members will support Azcona-Barber, and most of Perth Amboy's 64 votes will go to Pabon.  But the outcome will depend on who shows up from the county's  23 other municipalities, and which candidate they think is a better choice. 

MCDO Chairman Kevin McCabe, who will lead the convention, explained the nominating process to this reporter, who had expressed an interest in the Freeholder position as well.

"The Middlesex County Democratic Organization's (MCDO) bylaws and constitution requires submission of two hundred valid signatures on official petitions on or before a publicized notice date. That notice date was February 26, 2019 by 3:00 PM," said McCabe.

"As required, notice of the requirements to participate in the screening and the attendant deadlines were published in both the Star Ledger and the Home News & Tribune on January 9, 2019, and January 10, 2019 respectively," McCabe continued.

Though he insisted that a notice of the convention was sent via email and the US Postal Service "to all Democratic County Committee Members," some of the Committee members we spoke to were unaware of the convention.

Valenti, who turned 85 in December, first ran for elected office in 1990 as a New Brunswick City Councilwoman.  She became a Freeholder in 2005, but kept City Council position for another five years.

She was one of several dual office-holders "grandfathered" into legislation preventing this practice in 2007.  Valenti opted not to run for re-election to the City Council in 2010, but ran for additional three-year terms as Freeholder in 2013 and 2016.

In 2016, party leaders tried to persuade Valenti not to run for another term, but according to an inside source, New Brunswick's eight-term Mayor Jim Cahill backed her decision to run again and the party's leadership deferred to Cahill, who won his first election along with Valenti in 1990.

Valenti's retirement was announced, oddly enough, in a press release from Cahill's office issued on February 1 and later posted to the city government's website.

The very next day, one of Cahill's closest allies, Claribel Azcona-Barber, wrote to MCDO Chairman Kevin McCabe declaring her intent to run.

Azcona-Barber, known by the nickname "Clary," was listed in a 2015 article focusing on "The 51 Most Influential Latinos in N.J. Politics," and describing her as "rumored to be the choice to replace Blanquita Valenti" when Valenti retires.

Valenti made her preference known in a February 26 letter mailed to the more than 1,000 committee members who will decide the party endorsement, saying that Azcona-Barber "shares my commitment to improving the quality of life for each and every Middlesex County resident."

"Clary's life is a story of perserverance and determination to make her community better and stronger," Valenti wrote.

Azcona-Barber, a 52-year-old mother of two, has worked for Cahill's office in New Brunswick City Hall since 2011, where she is paid a $66,270 annual salary.

She was born in the Dominican Republic, and immigrated to New Brunswick at the age of 19. Her family owns the Havana Grocery Store on George Street, and she started her career managing the business for her father.

She was hired as a clerk by the city government in 2000 before becoming a legislative aide for longtime New Brunswick Assemblyman Joseph Egan.

Her resume submitted to the MCDO also cites work as an executive assistant to the Deputy Secretary of State for New Jersey, and her time as an aide to NJ Attorney General Zulima Farber, and to Governors Jon Corzine and Jim McGreevey. 

She currently occupies seats on the New Brunswick Planning Board and the New Brunswick Ethics Board, and has previously been appointed to the city's Human Relations Commission and its Rent Control Board.

Azcona-Barber has worked with several non-profit organizations including the influential one that Valenti helped start decades earlier: the Puerto Rican Action Board (PRAB).  PRAB also produced Valenti's replacement on the New Brunswick City Council, Rebecca Escobar.

The documents made available on the MCDO website also cite Azcona-Barbers's service on "community empowering boards" such as the Middlesex County College Hispanic Advisory Committee, the Middlesex County Hispanic Task Force, Latinas United for Political Empowerment (LUPE), Latino Action Network (LAN), and the United Way of Central Jersey.

Azcona-Barber has also served on some interesting state government boards, including about a year on the New Jersey Cemetery Board from 2005 to 2006, and about twenty months on the NJ Board of Optometrists.

In December 2015, he MCDO extended her a congratulatory Facebook post on her appointment to the NJ Redevelopment Authority, presumably by Republican Governor Chris Christie.  The position is listed as one of three "Governor nominated and Senate confirmed boards" where she served.

Her husband, a former Trenton Police Officer and New Brunswick Parking Authority board member, Anthony "Tony" Barber, joined the city payroll in a civilian position with the New Brunswick Police Department, allowing him to join the exclusive club of "double-dippers," officials collecting a public salary and a public pension at the same time.

Tony Barber's father was a New Brunswick cop who was apparently close to ex-Mayor John Lynch, Jr., as evidenced by the fact he submitted a letter seeking leniency for Lynch after the power broker admitted to committing the federal felonies of mail fraud and tax evasion.

Ex-Mayor Lynch, who pleaded guilty in 2006 and was released from federal custody in 2009, was seen meeting with Mayor Cahill, who is actually his cousin, at the Panera in North Brunswick on the morning of March 6, just five days before the convention.

While Azcona-Barber appears to have the backing of the sizable political machinery that has kept Lynch and Cahill in power since 1979, she has historically been more of a "behind the scenes" operative.

By contrast, Councilman Pabon has far more experience as a political candidate, having served three terms on his city's Board of Education from 2000 to 2009, before being elected to the City Council in 2011.

Pabon, a 59-year-old father of two, graduated from Perth Amboy High School and served in the US Army, achieving the rank of a First Sergeant before retiring in 2000, according to his resume posted on the MCDO website.

In 1985, he also started working for the US Postal Service, where he is currently a customer service manager.

His resume also references his time as a Program Coordinator for the "Safe Haven After School Program," where he worked from 2005-2009.

In 2016, Pabon earned the support of three of his four colleagues on the City Council as he challenged Mayor Wilda Diaz in the non-partisan election.  He came in second place in the four-way race with about 38% of the vote.

Last year, he handily won a third term on the City Council, coming in first place in a field of six candidates. 

Pabon's interest in the Freeholder position was first reported by Perth Amboy Now.

Neither candidate included in their documents submitted to the MCDO any statements about specific policies or programs they would support if elected.

Pabon wrote a two-page letter to Chairman Kevin McCabe and included a traditional two-page resume.  Azcona-Barber submitted a three-paragraph letter to McCabe and a five-paragraph statement that was written in the third person, formatted in the exact same layout and style as that of the incumbents.

There's only one other contested race on the convention ballot.  Most of the races have only incumbents running, like County Sheriff Millie Scott, who is expected to secure the party's endorsement without opposition.

The MCDO will also give its blessing to state legislative candidates in each of the seven districts that are located—either partially or entirely—in Middlesex County.

In the state's 12th Legislative District (LD-12), the only Republican-controlled portion of the Democrat-dominated county, three candidates are vying for the Democratic endorsement for the district's two Assembly seats.  Though most of it is located in Monmouth, Ocean, and Burlington Counties, Old Bridge is also included on the north end of the district.

Unlike every other candidate to prevail at the MCDO's convention, the eventual LD-12 endorsement winners will be underdogs if they make it onto in the November general election.

David Lande, a lawyer from Monmouth County who ran for State Senate two years ago in the same district, is this time seeking the endorsement for Assembly, as well as one of the party's 2017 Assembly candidates: Gene Davis, a former Linden politician who has since relocated to Jackson.

The third candidate is Malini Guha, a journalist from Matawan.  The two top vote-getters will secure the party line, but like every race this year, other party members can still run "off the line" in the primary election simply by filing a candidacy petition on or before April 1.

The party line candidates will be grouped together on the June 4 primary election ballot, and face off with anyone in else in their party who files a petition to run with the required amount of signatures.

The winners of the Democratic and Republican primaries will face off in the general election, along with anyone who files independent candidate petitions with the required amount of signatures by the date of the primary election.

The resumes for all candidates are available on the MCDO website.  Registration for the convention opens at 6pm in West Hall on the Middlesex County College campus at 2600 Woodbridge Avenue in Edison.

 

Charlie is a community organizer, a Rutgers journalism graduate, and a 2018 independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick.

He can be reached at (732) 993-9697 or [email protected]