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Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble, right, with Gov. Chris Christie

Belleville mayor faces 3-way race

By David Wildstein, April 27 2018 11:23 am

The consensus is that three-term Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble is in trouble.  There’s no polling data to back that up, just anecdotal information from a collection of Essex County sources who universally refuse to make a prediction in the May 8 race.  Belleville is one of those non-partisan towns with no runoff election, so he/she who gets the most votes win.

Kimble was re-elected to a third term in 2014 by 417 votes against Councilwoman Marie Strumolo Burke in a race marked by allegations that Burke used a racial slur in a voicemail message.   The mayor has raised $66,000 and has $43,408 cash-on-hand – a huge advantage over the pair of challengers.

The mayor now faces two opponents: former councilman Michael Melham and school board member Liza Lopez.  Melham served one term, from 2000 to 2004, when he was in his 20’s.  That was when Kimble was the town manager and the two never got along.  Now a successful businessman, he’s mounting a comeback bid as an agent of change.  Melham has hired political consultant Phil Swibinski, who knows how to win these kinds of races.  And he has attracted some outside support, like Assemblyman Jamal Holley (D-Roselle), engineering firm Remington & Vernick, and attorney Paul Weiner.

The conventional wisdom is that two white men will split the vote and allow Lopez, a former president of the state Hispanic Bar Association, to win.  Two generations ago, Belleville was an Italian American stronghold, but the Essex County town has seen a surge in their Hispanic population – from 24% in 2000 to 39% in 2010 to an estimated 45% in 2016.  Lopez has Pablo Fonseca, Cory Booker’s former campaign manager, running her race.

Lopez was the top vote-getter when she ran for school board in 2016, receiving 5,951 votes.  Kimble won with 2,345 votes in 2014 and 2,431 in 2010, but those are apples and oranges: Belleville Board of Education Elections are held in November and Lopez ran in a presidential year.

With apologies for this simplistic analysis: if Puerto Ricans come out to vote on May 8, then Lopez wins. The obstacle for Lopez is that Hispanic voters in Belleville traditionally have low turnout numbers in May elections.

In 2013, Kimble was part of a group of Essex Democratic mayors who endorsed Republican Gov. Chris Christie’s re-election campaign. A year later, Matt Friedman, then with Advance Media, reported that Kimble used his relationship with the governor to get $6 million in Hurricane Sandy recovery dollars to help fund a new senior citizen complex.  Christie advocated for helping Kimble, who got the grant two weeks before the endorsement despite Belleville receiving relatively little damage in the superstorm.   

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