Jonathan Maciel Penney speaking at last week’s West Side Community Group forum. (Photo by Ben Forest. Click to enlarge.)
By JOHN T. WARD
In an effort to break the Democratic lock on the Red Bank council, this year’s Republican candidates have set their sights squarely on a Democratic stronghold: the West Side.
At events and in campaign literature, Allison Gregory and Jonathan Maciel Penney have sought to align themselves with minority groups and residents threatened with displacement from the West Side as a result of gentrification.
Councilman Erik Yngstrom, left, speaking at last week’s forum, joined at the table by Councilwoman Kathy Horgan, Allison Gregory and Jonathan Maciel Penney. Below, the borough’s voting districts; note change below. (Photo by Ben Forest. Click to enlarge.)
On the Republican ticket in the November 5 election are Gregory, a Bank Street homeowner who is the only candidate who resides west of Maple Avenue, and political newcomer Penney, who rents a condo on Prospect Avenue.
They’re hoping to displace incumbents Kathy Horgan, seeking her fifth three-year council term, and Erik Yngstrom, seeking his second. Horgan owns a home on Branch Avenue, and Yngstrom last week bought a unit on Manor Drive as his home after renting on the West Side.
For the past year, all six council seats and the mayor’s chair have been filled by Democrats, who have dominated borough government for most of the past generation.
The West Side, home to large shares of the town’s African-American and Hispanic populations, has historically been a reliable source support for Democrats. Four voting districts – numbers 5, 6, 8 and 9 – lie entirely or partially west of Maple Avenue, and historically, they have been all but owned by Democrats. In three of them, Democrats trounced Republicans in the 2018 election.
But in a recent mailing to prospective voters, Gregory and Penney claim Horgan and Yngstrom “have ignored the needs of Red Bank’s West Side, treating them [sic] as second-class citizens.”
The flyer also says the Democrats “have ignored our diversity by failing to celebrate Red Bank’s Hispanic heritage,” and “are ill-prepared to handle the complex issues facing Red Bank’s West Side.”
Penney, who grew up in Lincroft and bills himself as the borough’s first-ever Mexican-American council candidate, angrily bashed the council at its regular semimonthly meeting last Wednesday for tardily passing a proclamation honoring Hispanic Heritage Month.
“I lost my temper a little bit,” he said the following night, at the West Side Community Group’s candidate’s forum, held at the River Street Commons. But he added that he wasn’t sorry, because the council’s gesture had come after the month, which runs from September 15 to October 15 under federal law, had ended.
“It’s one thing to make token gestures, but it’s another thing to want to actually want to integrate Red Bank and communities together,” he said.
In a Q&A published by redbankgreen last week, Penney said it’s “a disgrace that there aren’t interpreters available at council meetings so our Spanish-speaking residents can feel welcome and voice their concerns.”
But Horgan said Penney’s claims that Democrats had ignored the Hispanic community except at election time were “really outrageous.”
“I’d like to know where you were… when we had rallies to support immigration,” she said, continuing after being drowned out by applause.
Penney also appeared to lay blame on Democrats for a drop in the borough’s African-American population, from 26 percent of the total in 1990 to 12 percent in 2010. As a result, he said, the West Side was being “gentrified.”
“I think what the Council has done to chase our once proud African-American community out of town over the last 30 years is disgraceful,” he wrote in the Q&A.
“You have a council that has mismanaged this town so drastically that it has chased the African-American population out of town” with tax increases, Penney said at the candidate’s forum. “I think it’s a tragedy.”
Horgan, in an apparent dig at Gregory, who’s a real estate agent, responded, “perhaps we should keep Realtors from coming in and gentrifying the West Side.”
Penney responded that the remark was “inappropriate,” saying his running mate had invested in that side of town and was “engaged” with the community.
“You two, not so much” he said to the Democrats, “except when it comes to election time.”
Gregory, who ran unsuccessfully last year, said that she hadn’t “approved” any new construction on the West Side, calling out Roger Mumford’s Brownstones townhouse project now being built between Catherine and River streets east of Bridge Avenue, as an example of gentrification.
“I’m simply making a living,” she said. “If I don’t sell a house, I can’t feed my family.”
Gregory, who frequently presses the council to make Shrewsbury Avenue safer for pedestrians, also noted that she and her husband bought a bank-owned property as their home, where they built a curbside little library and community garden.
“I am happy to live on the West Side with a very diverse community,” she said.
But gentrification is “very tough to control,” Yngstrom said, because local officials don’t decide who can buy when a property owner sells. The way to combat it, he said, “is by increasing our affordable housing, which we do.”
Yngstrom defended the council’s redevelopment plan for the former VNA headquarters building on Riverside Avenue because it would boost the number of affordable apartments the borough is required to provide for, he said.
A 210-unit project proposed for the site by Saxum Real Estate is currently making its way through planning board hearings, with a possible up-or-down vote expected Monday night. If passed, it would include 32 units deemed “affordable” under state guidelines.
Find the ballot here. Note that the 8th district will vote at borough hall this year due to construction at the senior citizens’ center.