Just when everything seems to be running smoothly, something happens, and we are jolted back to reality. The quiet of last Sunday was interrupted by a series of urgent texts messages and phone calls — Michael Carson, our warrior from Newark, was dead.
The man with the mightiest heart, strongest resolve and unbridled loyalty had died alone in his home on Summer Avenue in the only town he knew his entire life, Newark.
I was a young Mayor from Cedar Grove, looking to get involved in the party countywide, when I first met Michael in the early 1990’s through then Essex GOP Chairman John Renna.
Michael was Chairman of the mighty North Ward GOP. He was known for a few things, such as his perfect recall of election history and his wild ability to predict how future local elections would end. Michael liked to say: “As Newark goes, so goes the whole county.”
Michael was the most unique and unusual person I ever met in politics. He was forceful and smart, defiant and principled. Michael was not one to be trifled with. Many learned the hard way that threats only made him more resolute to win. He carried a large stick as his ward would deliver results and his county committee seats would always be filled.
Michael had this amazing and uncanny ability to talk to every level of politics, from both parties, literally every day. He talked on the phone for 14 hours a day with elected office holders and then would roam the streets looking for political intelligence and signs of shifting demographics. Most of us did not need to read the upcoming U.S. census to appreciate the ethnic, age and party affiliation shifts. Michael had more accurate information then so-called political teachers, social scientists, or party leaders, often knowing days in advance what was going to happen. Of course, at the time, I must confess, his daily
prolonged calls would sometimes get annoying. I will miss that “Yeah” greeting, instead of the traditional “hello.”
Based on past turnout and registration numbers, Michael could predict a Mayor/Council race down to a few hundred votes – by each ward. This knowledge, no matter how bluntly told, made Michael a highly sought-after ally in the City of Newark. The numbers he could deliver and the street operation he could put in place made him one of a kind. Quietly, or not so quietly – depending on his mood that day, Michael also expanded his reach to the East and Central Wards and that made him invaluable.
Michael served 16 years as a perfect Board of Elections commissioner. If you ask the board Chair, Bethany O’Toole, and her staff, they will tell you how diligent he was and just how seriously he took Election Day.
Just about all those came to work alongside Michael eventually came to appreciate his uncanniness of filling out the nitty gritty paper work with unchallengeable petitions. Michael taught many of us how to “survive” (his words) urban campaigns and taught us the mechanics of street political warfare.
Michael was the street general and he fought and worked it as if it was life or death, because it was life or death to the many caught up in the battle.
I was honored to be the Chair of the Essex County Republican Party for 12 years, largely by Michael’s support, presence, and loyalty. One of Michael’s closet friends and confidants, GOP Chairman Al Barlas, spoke to Michael every day for the last 10 years.
Orlando Mendez, Robert Ferraro, Sr. and Carmine were his constant companions as Michael oversaw his county committee operation on a daily basis.
The broken hearts in Essex this week aren’t those only belonging to Republicans. Major power brokers in the Democratic Party are feeling the sadness and loss as well. Talk to Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo Jr., Assemblyman Ralph Caputo, Sammie Gonzalez, Clerk Chris Durkin, Joe Parlavecchio, Mayor Baraka, Phil Alagia, Councilmen Louis Quintana and Anibal Ramos, Fran Adubato, Senator Ruiz and so many others throughout the county who have known Michael for decades. You ask any engaged state officer holder or former governor, and I promise they know Michael by sight and reputation.
Two quick stories that describe Michael briefly:
We won the county executive race in 1994 and Steve Adubato Sr. (who backed the other side) calls in Michael and said the following in reference to me as the incoming Chief of Staff and soon to be County Chair: “Don’t teach the Chinaman too much – one term and they are gone.” Those of us who knew Michael knew that he sometimes didn’t take direction very well. Chairman Carson taught me a lot about politics. “Am I teaching you?” he would always ask.
In 2000, I was having issues with the then County Executive and Michael was asked to join the coalition trying to strip me of the Chairmanship. Michael was made an offer – one a person from his humble beginnings would be hard press to refuse – sign a petition against me and his reward was a $77,000 low show (I’m being kind) job. Michael was handed a pencil and he promptly took the number 2 Ticonderoga and snapped it in half, had a few choice words for the County Executive, and walked out.
Loyalty did not have a price in his eyes. That was Michael’s greatest attribute and what will be remembered as his calling card – his unwavering loyalty.
Michael: You gave us an education on urban politics to last a lifetime, even though we didn’t always appreciate it in the moment. You defined loyalty and friendship, and those characteristics are rare in our crazy world.
Good night Michael, we will remember you for a lifetime.
Michael’s Funeral will be held on Tuesday, November 26, 2019 from 10 am to 12 pm at the Alvarez Funeral Home, 240 Mt. Prospect Avenue, Newark, New Jersey 07104. Internment to follow at the Brookdale Cemetery in Bloomfield, New Jersey.
This column originally appeared on InsiderNJ.