Lewis Spears for Mayor

It’s time for something new.

A few days ago, the Jersey City Times published an editorial that declined to endorse either of the two candidates for mayor of Jersey City. The piece argued that neither the incumbent nor his young challenger is worthy of support. I’ve written many pieces for the Jersey City Times over the past two years. While I respect the Times’s reasoned position on the election — check out their lengthy, excellent interviews with City Council candidates if you haven’t yet — I can’t concur. Tomorrow, without reservations, I’m going to vote for Lewis Spears, and I suggest that you do the same.

When I vote for Spears tomorrow, I won’t just be doing it to register my disapproval of the incumbent. I’ll be voting for something, and somebody — a candidate whose agenda, interests, connections, and demeanor represent a clean and definitive break from the priorities and direction of the current administration. For the past eight years, public life in Jersey City has been dominated by rich people from the gentrified Downtown. As the Jersey City Times recently reported, policies pursued by the administration have empowered the Downtown at the expense of poorer parts of the city. Even if you don’t find this unfair, or downright immoral, I hope you’ll agree that a swing of the spotlight to neglected parts of Jersey City is long overdue.

Lewis Spears grew up in the Booker T. Washington housing projects. Those are just a ten-minute bicycle ride from the towers on the Waterfront, but to many wealthy Downtowners, they may as well be on the moon. Spears talks about losing a cousin to gun violence, right before his eyes, right in the middle of the projects where he was raised. He’s got a degree from NJCU, and he’s taught at Dickinson High School, and Kismet of Kings, the nonprofit he founded and runs, holds events at Mary McLeod Bethune Life Center on MLK Drive. His perspective is not that of a condominium owner in Paulus Hook. He’s not thinking about how to create value for real estate developers. He’s got other things on his mind. After the last eight years, that alone ought to feel like a shot of oxygen.

I am a Downtowner; I’ve eaten the tomato sandwich at the Downtowner. I speak from personal experience when I say that the policies of the last eight years haven’t been particularly good for us, either. They might have lined our pockets (well, some of us), but they’ve impoverished our souls. There’s a heavy psychological cost to living on a casino floor. We’ve coped as best as we can with constant renovation, building on every available lot, street closures to prioritize the building needs of developers, day-ruining power line and water main accidents, storm runoff from paved lots, big, impersonal towers rising over previously human-scale neighborhoods, everything calibrated to feed the hunger for elevated property values, and the mayor’s desire to stuff as many people into Jersey City as possible. The Newark Avenue pedestrian plaza has been a messy construction zone for a year. In our quest for higher prices per square inch for property owners and profits for developers, we’ve made the Downtown a hard place to live. If you’re a Downtowner yourself, you’re probably exhausted. You might prefer a mayor who’ll direct the redevelopment emphasis elsewhere — or, perhaps, one who thinks about redevelopment differently.

If you aren’t from the Downtown, I cannot begin to understand the rationale for a vote to return the current administration for a third term. Inertia is powerful, and the lure of the devil you know is seductive, but things have been so sharply slanted against you and your neighborhoods that self-respect ought to guide your hand to the Spears column. Supporters of the status quo have made much of the challenger’s inexperience, and the incumbent’s grasp of policy detail. But it’s not at all clear that the mayor has been able to translate that expertise into anything tangible. His record on public safety has been spotty. His crisis management has often been nothing but spin. The inclusionary zoning ordinance he pushed was a developer-friendly disaster. Most problematically, the mayor’s mind — and, perhaps, his body too — is not always fully present to the city he’s supposed to be leading. When Hurricane Ida swamped many of the town’s poorer neighborhoods, the chief was radio silent for days. I do not believe anything like that would ever happen in a Lewis Spears administration.

Political experience isn’t meaningless, and education and training are important qualifications for office. But there is no degree or course of study that can adequately prepare a person for the unique job of running a complex city. When we rule out voting for people with unusual or unorthodox backgrounds, we don’t merely lock ourselves in to the status quo. We also shut out arguments that deserve to be heard, and perspectives that ought to be respected.

When I vote for a chief executive, I’m asking myself the following three questions:

  1. Is the candidate reflexively compassionate?  In a dispute between the powerful and the disadvantaged, is he instinctively on the side of the powerful, or instinctively on the side of the overlooked?
  2. Can the candidate keep his in head in a crisis?  Does he have an even temperament; does he refrain from blowing up at subordinates and wasting energy on petty feuds? When bad times come — and they always do — will he be on the scene, helping out, or will he try to govern from a distance?
  3. Does the candidate have the humility necessary to hire good people and take their advice?  Or is he going to ram his agenda through, regardless of the consequences?  Will he listen and keep the door open, or will his administration become an exclusive province of the well-connected, and inaccessible to everybody else?

Lewis Spears passes my test. The focus of his campaign hasn’t been on wealth generation; it’s been on opportunity and fairness. This has confounded those who believe the role of the mayor is to increase the resale value of their condominium units, but I hope you’ll agree that those people have dominated local political discourse long enough. Spears’s personal story testifies to his level-headedness in the face of challenges, and everybody who has met him describes him as a genuinely kind, open, and enthusiastic person. He strikes me as the first guy to grab a bucket when the street floods.

Most of all, he’s surrounded himself with grassroots activists, good-government groups, affordable housing advocates, religious leaders, teachers, business owners in some of the remote corners of the city, and ordinary people interested in a new direction for a town that desperately needs one. He is not a creation of real estate developers.  Their role in his administration will be minimal.  If you’re looking for a mayor who you can actually access — one for whom claims of transparency are more than just a bait and switch — Spears is your man.

Neither I, nor you, nor the Jersey City Times, expects Lewis Spears to win. The Times’s tacit approach to the election — abstain from a mayoral endorsement and work instead to change the City Council to something that might be productively oppositional — isn’t illogical. I’ll be voting for James Solomon tomorrow; he’s one of the few politicians in town who has had the guts to stand up to City Hall, and he merits re-election. Frank “Educational” Gilmore is the most interesting politician to emerge in Jersey City in many years, and I’d like to see him victorious in Ward F.  Kevin Bing in Journal Square, Josh Brooks in Ward B, the Gadsden-Jones-Dominici ticket for the At-Large seats: I am rooting for all of these people.

But that doesn’t mean the top of the ballot ought to be ignored.  A strong showing for Lewis Spears tomorrow would send a message to everybody in town who believes we can do much better than we’re doing. That message would say: you are not alone. Those who see that complicity with City Hall as the only way to get anywhere in Jersey City public life may recognize that there are other routes to unity and progress. A Spears boomlet would embolden officials who are too worried about the wrath of the mayor to speak out about the direction the government has chosen, journalists who couch their words of criticism in exchange for limited access, artists who believe they’ve got no choice but to play ball with the powerful in order to win favor, and independent businesspeople who feel pushed around, but who’ve decided that popular consensus is too thick and too general to inveigh against. It would also remind everybody in Jersey City, and in Hudson County, that Downtown priorities aren’t the only priorities, and the Downtown outlook isn’t the only outlook.

For eight years, real estate developers have called the tune in Jersey City. That’s the song we’ve all had to dance to. It’s been fun (at times), it’s been lucrative (for a select few), and it’s been genuinely transformative, but that transformation has been neither an aesthetic nor a political success. It’s also been loud, brash, and extraordinarily divisive.

Friends, it is time for a new song. It’s time for Lewis Spears.