Home>Feature>In East Newark, eight-term mayor faces first opponent in 16 years

East Newark mayor Joseph R. Smith, right, and his Democratic primary opponent, Dina Grilo.

In East Newark, eight-term mayor faces first opponent in 16 years

Joseph R. Smith, 78, is the longest-serving mayor in Hudson County

By David Wildstein, May 07 2019 4:41 pm

Hudson County’s longest-serving mayor is facing his first challenger in sixteen years.

Joseph R. Smith, 78, the mayor of East Newark (pop. 2,406) since 1987, is defending his seat in the June Democratic primary against Dina Grilo, a 47-year-old executive at J.P. Morgan Chase who grew up in East Newark and is self-funding her campaign.

“I don’t take nothing for granted,” Smith told the New Jersey Globe.  “I’m just out there campaigning.  I’m going door-to-door.  I’m getting a great reception.”

East Newark has about 975 registered voters.  About 650 of them are Democrats and another 275 are unaffiliated.  Turnout in mayoral primaries is typically low: Smith received 74 votes in 2015 and 72 votes in 2011, when turnout hovered around the 15% mark.

Grilo is a first generation American born to Portuguese parents.  She is running in a town that is 61% Hispanic and includes a significant Portuguese population and thinks the changes in East Newark’s demographics could make the eight-term mayor vulnerable.

“We’ve all been complacent as residents,” said Grilo, a volunteer firefighter.  “We want change.  A good leader knows when it’s time to pass the baton.”

She complains that East Newark– adjacent to Newark on the Passaic River and bordering Harrison and Kearny —  is not progressing like other Hudson County towns that have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years.

“Over the last ten years, when we lost our factory business, we began to go downhill,” Grilo said.  “Why are we not being pro-active? Why is the administration being reactive?”

The mayor says that redevelopment in the tiny, one-tenth of a square mile community is not easy.

“Half the riverfront on controlled by a cement company, and BASF owns land that is contaminated, so we can’t build on it,” Smith explained.  “We’ve tried to build a hotel, but we can’t seem to get any takers.”

Smith comes from an old East Newark political family: a relative helped found the borough when it split away from Kearny in 1895.

He said he’s happy to run on his record.

“East Newark has the 2nd lowest crime rate in Hudson County and the 3rd lowest tax rate,” said Smith.  “I know from being in office all these years that people won’t vote to raise taxes.”

The old Clark Thread Company, which Smith says occupies about 25% of the total land in the borough, is being redeveloped into 618 new apartments.

“We’ve been working on that one for years,” the mayor said.  “They’re paying regular taxes.  We’ve done it with no PILOT program.  We can’t afford that.”

Grilo says that the town in not fully staffed, that recreation programs are lacking, and that there are not enough police on the streets.

She says the council holds 5:30 PM meetings – an inconvenient time for working residents to attend.

“I’m ready to roll up my sleeves,” Grilo said.

Smith spent eight years on the borough council and lost a 1983 Democratic mayoral primary to incumbent Raymond Graham, Sr. by fifteen votes.  He switched parties four years later, beat Graham in the general election by 61 votes, and then quickly switched back to the Democrats.

In 2003, Smith faced a primary challenge from William Lupkovich and beat him 239 to 119 – a 2-1 margin.  That was his last contested race.

Five years ago, two incumbent councilmembers backed by Smith were challenged in the Democratic primary.  They won by about 150 votes each – a margin that is almost 2-1.

Smith has had relatively few controversies as a small town, urban Hudson County mayor.

A battle with local police in 1991 resulted in his being arrested for unpaid parking tickets on a warrant issued by Secaucus, but that’s about as nasty as things get.

The mayor spent years working for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission.  Now retired, he’s mostly a full-time mayor.

Smith is running with the backing of the Hudson County Democratic Organization – an endorsement that follows his support of Amy DeGise for county chair last year.

“Mayor Smith’s office door is always open and I know he is always ready to personally address any concerns or issues raised by his constituents.,” DeGise said. “There is no person more compassionate or committed to moving East Newark forward than Mayor Smith, which is why I am wholeheartedly supporting him and his entire team this June. Their strong leadership and commitment to Democratic principles will allow the Borough to continue thriving.”

If Grilo wins, she would be the only woman mayor in Hudson County – and just the second woman to ever win a mayoral election in the county.

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