By Ron Leir
After a brutal, mudslinging campaign, Belleville Mayor Raymond Kimble will remain in office after fighting off a challenge by Councilwoman Marie Strumolo-Burke in last Tuesday’s municipal election. But a member of the Strumolo- Burke ticket did claim a victory: Joseph Longo edged out Kimble running mate Charles Hood for one of two Township Council slots on the ballot. Kimble ally Councilman Kevin Kennedy retained his seat, outdistancing opponent William Freda.
A tally sheet released Wednesday night by the Township Clerk’s Office had the machine and absentee totals (provisionals hadn’t been counted yet) this way: Kimble the victor with 2,277 votes and Strumolo-Burke with 1,900.
In the council race, again, according to the Clerk’s Office, Kennedy led with 2,110 votes; next was Longo with 1,895; then Freda with 1,681; and Hood with 1,149 – all write-in votes. Hood was a last-minute replacement for Councilman Michael Nicosia, who withdrew his candidacy after the filing deadline, opting to devote more time to his business and family.
Despite her mayoral defeat, Strumolo-Burke is expected to continue to serve on the Township Council. She has two years remaining in her term of office.
At a post-election victory gathering at The Chandelier on Franklin Ave., Kimble, a retired township police chief and former township manager, relaxed at a buffet with his fellow candidates, family members, township employees and supporters.
“I’m really happy that the voters chose to return me to office, along with [Councilman] Kevin [Kennedy],” Kimble told The Observer. “It’s an honor to serve the people. I’m looking forward to a third term.”
Hood, a retired Belleville deputy police chief who has never previously sought public office, said he was coaxed into running as a write-in candidate by Kennedy. “Kevin’s been a friend for a long time and he came to ask a favor, which he never does. He asked me to help and I did.”
“I’m a retired police officer, I’m president of the travel soccer team, I’ve coached baseball and soccer for 18 years,” Hood said. “People know me so I brought that to the table. I didn’t think I had much of a chance to win but when you look at the [voting] numbers, it’s unbelievable. I think confusion in the whole [write-in] process cost me the election.”
Hood declined to say whether he’d consider running again at some point.
Over at Porto Restaurant & Bar on Washington Ave., where the Strumolo-Burke campaign adjourned for drinks and food, Longo told The Observer, “The team lost but I won and I’m looking forward to working with my other colleagues. I expect to work well with the mayor and the existing council members.”
During the campaign, the Kimble team accused Strumolo- Burke of making a racial slur in a voice mail message left on Councilman Kennedy’s phone a few years ago – an accusation the councilwoman vehemently denied. A member of the campaign team enlisted the aid of an out-of-state forensics lab to do an analysis of the tape message and compare it with a recording of a recent Township Council meeting to compare the voice on the tape with Strumolo-Burke’s voice on the council recording and the lab concluded there was an “85%” probability that the voice on the phone tape was that of Strumolo-Burke. That claim, in turn, led to the Kimble team to demand that Strumolo-Burke resign her council seat which she refused to do.
Whether the Kimble campaign intends to pursue the effort to force the councilwoman to step down is unclear at this point.
When asked how he could feel so confident about establishing a positive working relationship with the Kimble team such a bitterly-waged campaign, Longo said: “We’ll have to wipe the slate clean and work together for the good of the town.”
Peter Zangari Jr., who serves on the Belleville Board of Education with Longo and Longo running mate Freda, draped his arm around his colleague and declared: “Joe’s the most standup, hardworking man in politics and he’s certainly deserving of this victory.”
Also extending congratulations to Longo at the subdued Porto gathering was Belleville Schools Superintendent Helene Feldman.
Longo, whose term on the school board expires this year, will be shortly tendering his resignation from the board as he prepares to take a seat on the Township Council.
Barring any unforeseen developments, Kimble, Kennedy and Longo will be sworn into office on July 1.