Two and a half months after Trenton voters first went to the polls in November 2022, the city’s local elections may finally come to an end next Tuesday, when a runoff is scheduled for three at-large seats on the Trenton City Council.
There are six candidates who made it to the runoff, out of nine who appeared on the November ballot. While every candidate competed in that initial election separately, the six remaining candidates have since splintered out into two affiliated slates, though the ballot design doesn’t reflect their coalitions.
On one side are special education teacher Yazminelly Gonzalez, Trenton Democratic Party vice president Crystal Feliciano, and congressional staffer Jasi Edwards, who were the top three finishers in November; the other slate consists of former Councilman Alex Bethea, 2018 council candidate Taiwanda Terry-Wilson, and army veteran Kadja Manuel.
Since the Gonzalez-Feliciano-Edwards slate finished a fair bit ahead of their competitors in the first round, they’re probably the favorites in the runoff. But in an election likely to feature achingly low turnout, an upset is very possible.
Barring anything extraordinary, the runoff should finally bring the city council back up to its full seven-member complement after a monthslong limbo caused by a cascading series of issues.
First, the November election across all of Mercer County was beset by voting machine issues, causing huge delays in the counting of votes. That meant that while a couple of Trenton races had fairly clear outcomes on election night – in particular, Mayor Reed Gusciora’s landslide re-election victory – most other races remained up in the air for weeks.
Once all the votes were finally counted, Trenton Municipal Clerk Brandon Garcia determined that only two races would require runoffs: the council races in the North and South Wards, where no candidate had received 50% of the vote. Those runoffs were originally scheduled for December 6, but because of the delay in vote counting, they were pushed back to December 13.
But Garcia made an error in his calculations for the at-large race; because he didn’t account for the fact that many voters only voted for one candidate (instead of three), he mistakenly declared that Gonzalez had received votes a majority of ballots cast, which would have meant all three top at-large finishers would have avoided a runoff. The trailing candidates, noting Garcia’s error, successfully sued to force a runoff.
Yet by the time a Superior Court judge made that decision, it was already December 2 – far too late to hold a mid-December runoff. Instead, the at-large runoff was set for January 24, long after the scheduled reorganization of city government on January 1.
The government did indeed reorganize at the beginning of the year with a bare quorum of four members: East Ward Councilman Joe Harrison, West Ward Councilwoman Teska Frisby, South Ward Councilwoman Jenna Figueroa Kettenburg, and North Ward Councilwoman Jennifer Williams. Williams was recently confirmed as the victor of her runoff election by just one vote; her opponent, Algernon Ward, has signaled he intends to go forward with a legal challenge.
As the only member who has served on the council for more than a few weeks, Harrison (first elected in 2018) was chosen as temporary council president, but there will likely be a new vote once the at-large members are elected and sworn in.
Whichever candidates ultimately fill those three remaining seats, there can be some optimism that Trenton government will function better than it has for the last four years. Gusciora had a deeply fractious relationship with the city council in his first term, particularly with two councilwomen who made repeated offensive remarks; both of those councilwomen got crushed in last year’s mayoral race, and the new city council looks like it will be more tranquil.