By Max Pizarro
TRENTON – In a hard-edged attack, Council President Paul Pintella goes after buisnessman John Harmon at the Mill Hill Playhouse mayor’s forum and Harmon, grinning, raises his arms defensively and then lets his fists go in a speed bag motion.
“That was part of your job, to prepare people and be a part of the public process, when you ran MTAACC (the Metropolitan Trenton African American Chamber of Commerce),” Pintella tells Harmon, a response to Harmon’s sales pitch to the crowd here that as mayor he will do a batter job to forge public-private partnerships.
Pintella drops into a stance as he continues the tongue lashing.
“As CEO of MTAACC, Mr. Harmon’s responsibility was to advocate for minority-owned businesses, specifically for small buisness, he had always made this a cornerstone of MTAACC, and he never brought anything to the table outside of coming to a couple of luncheons,” Pintella later explains.
A lot of people sit onstage in the mayoral forum, and when Harmon again holds the floor, Pintella is heading for the exit.
“You’d better leave,” Harmon calls after him with a grin. “He doesn’t want this right hand.”
“Nature has a place in this thing,” Pintella says later.
But for Harmon, the council president cleared out in the face of his counter attack.
“That was the first time in my life that I’ve been part of a debate that someone takes a bathroom break,” he says afterwards. “I thought that was something that was not appropriate.”
“I have no problem debating John Harmon, believe me,” says Pintella.
The flash jousting match between him and Harmon goes to a deeper point of conflict.
Pintella says Harmon fronts himself as a business guy, but doesn’t understand government. Harmon sees Pintella as an unmitigated creature of the public sector.
“John Harmon needs to learn how government works in terms of getting nitty and gritty,” says Pintella. “He doesn’t know.”
“Many of my opponents tell you what they want to do,” Harmon declares with a broad sweep of the arm across the packed stage. “I’ve done it!”
Post debate, the candidate breaks it down.
“I think the defining factor is if you put me up against the other folks in the race and there’s no contest in terms of depth of my background,” he says. “With the exception of Frank Weeden, these are either all former elected officials or city council members and government employees. They’ve never met payroll on their own looking. Looking at their backgrounds, there are no accomplishments.”
He forgets to mention Mercer County Freeholder Keith Hamilton. An elected official, Hamilton also serves as vice president of Community Relations at SERV Behavioral Health System, Inc., and presents a resume firmed up with business creds. In a big jumble of candidates right now, including two men with similar names and profiles – Harmon and Hamilton – Harmon’s forgetfulness is perhaps convenient to his goal of getting around the rest of the pack.
“I can write a buisness plan,” says Harmon, who ran in the 2006 mayor’s election and place third behind winner Mayor Doug Palmer and second place finished and former Freeholder Tony Mack.
“I understand a budget. And I understand that being mayor is not sitting in hide back leather chairs and voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’. That’s not it.”
Harmon’s father owned a trucking company, which the son later inherited and ran. He ran MTAACC – which Pintella says he din’t run well, at least from the standpoint of forging lasting public-private partnerships.
Now he operates the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey.
If elected to succeed Palmer, he wants the superintendent of schools to be directly accountable to the mayor, and he wants to shake up the school board so that the people elect three of its members.
Hammering the public-private partnership model, Harmon says he and Weeden, who runs a candle factory, are the only candiates who haven’t either snuggled up to government for a living or thrived for the most part under the 20-year Palmer umbrella. Mack tries to make the case that he broke from the mayor eight years ago, but Harmon, like Weeden and Hamilton, feels he can convincingly make the case that he would bring business acumen to the city.
“Frank Weeden and I are the true outsiders in this race,” he says. “The others are still connected politically. These guys are long-time politicians can’t disassociate themselves.
“I have a lot of respect for Frank’s business mind,” adds Harmon, who nods during the debate when Weeden drills the mayor administration for signing off on raises for cabinet members – such as mayoral candidate and Department of Public Works Director Eric Jackson – while laying off rank and file workers.
“I would haver to agree with Frank,” he says. “The fact of the matter is that each cabinet member represents two or three employees. How can you give yourself a raise in tough economic times?”
“The administration laid those people off,” says Pintella. “The mayor submitted a work force reduction program. The next year, they negotiated salaries with the public employees unions. They did that first. Then they considered a set of specific employees not covered by the unions.”
Those were the cabinet members.
Launching his campaign at the beginning of the year – a late entry in this crowded field of at least ten candidates – Harmon insists he’s smarter than four years ago, when Mack outflanked him and Palmer won.
“I think people coalesced around Tony Mack because of sports and glad-handing, but it’s not about that – it’s about who has the wherewithal to take our city to the next level,” Harmon says. “If I was in a plane and my buddy was in the seat next to me telling me he could fly, I wouldn’t allow him to take me up in the plane just because he’s my buddy. I’d get out of the plane. Fast. Now, the city’s at stake here, therefore we cannot trust these entrenched politicans.”
Mack’s one of them.
But Pintella as the diehard council president and city council member for the past 16 years perhaps best embodies all of them to Harmon, hence the prickly moments onstage.
“I am one of the leading candidates in this race right now – I say that humbly,” says Harmon. “I’m committed to earning the votes of everyone in this city. I am running with term limits. I believe this is about service to the community. Eight years is enough.”
Pintella shakes his head.
“He’s not my candidate,” says the council president.