Finding Jersey City’s Female Mayor

By Ricardo Kaulessar

Writer’s Note: The article was updated to mention additional biographical information about Akisia Grigsby and a correction about the organization co-founded by Grigsby, which is called Open JC not Code JC.

The year 2016 will most likely see the first woman elected as President of the United States if Hillary Clinton announced that she is running and avoids any political pitfalls on her path to the White House.

The year 2017 will see another mayoral election in JerseyCity. But will it be a woman who will hold the city’s highest office is uncertain.

Candidates for the mayoral seat usually don’t make their intentions known about running until at least six months before the election scheduled for May 2017, although the City Council in January approved a referendum to be placed on the ballot for later this fall that would move the mayoral election to November 2017.

But based on past elections, there stands a good chance that male candidates will be in the race just as they have in the 2009 and 2013 elections when they were all-male affairs.

And the current mayor, Steven Fulop, could possibly run again if he decides not to continue exploring a run for the New Jersey Governor’s office.

However, it would not be beyond the pale to see a woman as Jersey City’s next top chief executive since there had already been one who served in that position.

Some may not realize that the New Jersey’s second largest city was guided from February to June 1992 by Marilyn Roman, then the City Council President, after Mayor Gerald McCann was removed from office following his conviction on fraud charges.

Other women have run for mayor since then including the late Willie Flood, who ran in 1992 and in 2004 and the late Melissa Holloway, who ran in 2005. Both did not prevail.

And for the past 10 years, there has been speculation that state Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-31) would run for the office, following in the footsteps of her late husband, Glenn Cunningham, the city’s first African-American mayor who passed away in May 2004.

Jersey City residents weigh in on finding the city’s next female mayor.

Looking at 2017 Possibility

Roman, a former teacher in the Jersey City public school system, has continued serving in an educational vein as a member of the Jersey City Board of Education. But there’s was a time when Roman was also immersed in the city’s politics, first serving on the Hudson County Board of Freeholders in the mid-1980’s and then on the City Council of Jersey City from 1989 to 1992. It was during her time on the council that she was named as the city’s acting mayor.

Roman said in a recent interview that she does not see a female mayoral candidate in the 2017 municipal election or any election after for some time.

“When I went into that [mayor’s] office a number of years ago, it was for an interim period. And when it was all finished, I was talking to a woman, of course, and she said, ‘I don’t think there will another female mayor for 50 years’,” Roman said. “And you know, it has been almost 30 years now, and I’m thinking to myself she might have been right.”

Roman then explained there are few women in local politics - even though three women currently serve on the City Council and one on the Freeholders Board - because of those who hold much of the political power.

“If you look at everything, they have a token woman here and there but they really don’t have a lot of women because men run the county,” Roman said. “And because they do, they feel more comfortable electing men rather than women.”

The current Hudson County executive is Tom DeGise and 11 of the county’s 12 municipalities are run by men with the exception of Hoboken.

However, others take the opposite view of Roman and can see the mayor’s office being within a woman’s reach.

Akisia Grigsby is the business founder and owner of Akzas Agency, a Jersey City-based design company. A veteran brand and marketing strategist, veteran designer, parent advocate and community organizer, who also co-founded the non-profit organization Open JC, said she sees it as a possibility.

“Jersey City is ripe for a Latina or African American female mayor. Unfortunately, I don’t see any female leaders strategizing for that position though,” Grigsby said.

Esther Wintner thinks a female mayor can be elected in 2017.

Wintner, who works for UBS Financial Services, is also a community activist who serves as president of the good government group Civic JC. She ran for the Ward B City Council seat in 2013 

“The trajectory of the political landscape seems to be moving in the direction for a good woman candidate to rise up as an acceptable mayoral candidate,” Wintner said. “I think the public is ready for a woman mayor and may even be looking for one.”

Esmeralda Trinidad, a realtor and vice-chair of the Jersey City Democratic Organization, “thinks it is time” for a woman to become mayor.

What It Takes

It is one thing to wish and hope for the Jersey City mayor’s office to have a female face but it is another thing for it to be a reality.

Esmeralda Trinidad believes several factors have to come into play.

“If you can get the support of the people and of the city’s politicos, but it is difficult,” Trinidad said. “You also need a lot of fundraising and bankrolling.”

Wintner said a “paradigm shift” in the city’s political leadership will be necessary to bring about the recruiting of more women into politics. She also cited another thing that must happen for a female mayor to be present in the city’s future.

“Most importantly, it would take a woman that believes strongly in her vision and herself to work toward achieving that goal,” Wintner said.

Grigsby thinks any woman thinking of running needs to be attuned to the community.

“A mayoral candidate needs to be approachable, accessible and likeable among citizens. Community outreach requires many years of work and relationship building,” Grigsby said.

Roman said bluntly that it takes money for anyone to become Jersey City mayor as she pointed out that in any of the last few elections in town such as the 2013 mayoral election, whoever raised the most money was the victor.

Women vs. Men

Is a woman’s touch something that plays a role in stellar governance? Wintner sees that as the case for the lady who ends up running the city.

“Women tend to work with less ego, are more likely to build bridges between communities, and would look to tackle issues holistically with the end goal of having solved problems,” Wintner said.

Grigsby concurs with Wintner as she said that “women overall are more nurturing which cultivates growth.”

Trinidad said how women are raised serves them well when they get elected to public office, and helps give them an edge over their male counterparts.

“Things that will impact this city the most like healthcare, jobs, the problems we are having with the youth. That takes a lot of planning and thinking,” Trinidad said. “All these issues can be tackled by a woman because we have been bred to handle so many things.”

Roman looked back on when she was serving as the city’s first female mayor in the early 1990’s.

“In my own experience, I came with a different perspective. People were very important to me, not the people in government but the people of the city,” Roman said. “I think women look at the whole political situation a little differently.”

The Best Candidates

Roman could not name any woman in Jersey City on a political, civic or activist level who she would consider a potential candidate for the mayor’s seat.

“I don’t see any women who are particularly prominent that I would vote for,” Roman said, “Because they have not had enough exposure to government.”

Grigsby had several women in mind who could fill the mayor’s post including Sandra Cunningham and Esther Wintner as well as Tara Dowdell, founder of the Jersey City-based PR firm, Tara Dowdell Group, Stacey Flanagan, director of the city’s Department of Health & Human Services, Sakeema James, who serves as chief of staff for Cunningham, and Noemi Velazquez, president of the political organization LUPEPAC.

Trinidad said it is difficult for her to pinpoint who would be a candidate for female mayor but she did note that “there are a number of women that can do this job.”

Wintner did not give any names but said there are women “that embody all the qualities of an elected official but are not elected to office.”

A Running Idea

If one is given enough support, financing and advice, it is possible to achieve any goal.

It would be no different if that objective was becoming the mayor of Jersey City. Or would it?

When asked if she would run if given the opportunity, Roman scoffed at the question.

“I am a little old for that now, don’t you think?” Roman said with a laugh, as she mentioned that she is 79 years old.

She went on to say that there are younger women who are more qualified to take on what she called a “work-intensive” position but they have to deal with a male-dominated political establishment to get elected in the first place.

Wintner said she would run for mayor as she echoed some of the same sentiments as Roman about overcoming a certain obstacle for that to happen.

“If the male dominated landscape legitimately and honestly made room for a female candidate, I can see that as a possibility,” Wintner said.

Grigsby said she would run if given the chance but not in 2017.

Trinidad also said she would run in a future mayoral election if there was an opportunity.

“It is time for a female mayor, darn it, it is time for us to show face.”

Ricardo Kaulessar can be reached at hacksmith1872@gmail.com