An empty seat was saved for Mayor Jerramiah Healy during the Jersey City mayoral candidates’ debate on Wednesday at the Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Journal Square. But Healy wasn’t expected to attend, as he had already made it clear the week before in a letter from his campaign that he wanted to give “first priority to attending debates that are sponsored by respected, fair, and unbiased organizations and that reach a broad audience.”
Instead, the debate featured the other four mayoral contenders: Louis Manzo, L. Harvey Smith, Dan Levin, and Phillip Webb.
It was moderated by radio host Pat O’Melia, Ricardo Kaulessar from the Hudson Reporter, and Agustin Torres and Earl Morgan from the Jersey Journal.
About 50 people were in the audience to see the debate, which was taped in two parts and will be broadcast on Comcast Channel 190 in Jersey City from mid-April to Election Day on May 12.
Among the audience members was lifelong resident Jayson Burg, who said Healy’s no-show was a “slap in the face” to the voters in the city. Otherwise, Burg, a professional handyman, was impressed by the performances of the four who decided to show up.
“Whatever the outcome on Election Day, these four candidates collaborating can be a base in future for making Jersey City a very good city on the East Coast,” Burg said.
Four candidates in search of an office
The contenders included Levin, a longtime community activist who owns a Hoboken frame shop; Manzo, former state Assemblyman and perennial mayoral candidate; Smith, a one-time City Councilman and acting mayor, and Webb, a 28-year police detective and current seminary student.
On the question of how they would run the city differently from the current Healy administration and previous administrations, Webb said he would give promotions based on merit and not “political or because they are family members.” Smith said he would meet with constituents on a specific day during the week. Regarding city jobs, he said he’d promote from within.
Manzo would change the rules so that city employees would not serve on the boards of various agencies, in order to prevent a “conflict of interest” of those persons voting on policy affecting city government. Levin read from a list of policy wishes, such as implementing strict ethics regulations and preserving open space.
None of the candidates made any mention of crime in the city.
O’Melia asked the candidates if, as mayor, they would support signing a lease to help continue the complete renovation of the Loew’s Theatre. This would require using city funds and grant money from other sources, and keeping in place the Friends of the Loew’s volunteer group, who have been responsible for the 20-plus years maintenance of the theater.
Mayor Healy has not signed a lease, citing his preference for a private company to renovate and manage the theater while the Friends of the Loew’s would continue to work as staff during events.
Levin said “absolutely yes” that he would sign a lease and keep on the Loews group.
Manzo said he will push for a complete renovation as part of a long-term plan to turn Journal Square into the city’s entertainment capital to bring performers and productions into the city, and would sign a lease to keep the Friends of the Loew’s to continue the work of restoring and managing the theater.
Later in the debate, talk turned to the city’s currently proposed redevelopment plan for Journal Square, which has been touted by Healy. Healy’s plan would include a private developer building two towers, which will see a groundbreaking this coming Tuesday at 10 a.m. The plan will also include adding 10,000 to 15,000 new residential units within a 244-acre area, development of thousands of square feet of commercial and retail space, and 9 acres of park space.
The City Council has postponed a vote on the matter due to residents’ concerns over the finances needed for the plan, which could take 50 years to build out.
The candidates did not mention any specific changes they’d make to any part the existing plan.
Webb said he supports development in Journal Square, but prefers a plan that takes into consideration all “components of the community.” Smith said if he is mayor, he will seek a comprehensive plan that deals with traffic and parking and will return Journal Square to being the premier business hub that it was until the 1980s.
Other subjects brought up during the debate included helping small businesses to survive, the selection of a police chief, and the candidates’ stance on same-sex marriage.
Levin said he personally supports same-sex marriage if it becomes legal in New Jersey and would “race” to become the first mayor in the state to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony. Manzo and Smith both said they would support same-sex marriage if it became law but did not say if they would support it personally. Webb said he personally does not support same-sex marriage for religious reasons, yet “would not stand in opposition” if it became law.
On a final note
The candidates summed up at the debate their thoughts on leading New Jersey’s second largest-populated city.
Levin said he would commit to represent the people’s interests,“not special interests.” Manzo said he “would not embarrass you [the public]” when he is in City Hall, a shot at Mayor Healy for various controversies while in office since November 2004.
Smith said he would “move the city forward.” Webb, win or lose, offered to meet with the other candidates after the election to work together on issues.
O’Melia mischievously gave the last word to Healy, which elicited laughter from the audience. Then, O’Melia commented that the mayor “added a lot to the debate, whether he was here or not.”
Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.