Herself perpetually in the bright headlights of Essex politics, Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, a Democrat representing the 34th legislative district, held a press conference Thursday afternoon to urge Trenton to “cut the red tape” and bring about a speedy change for the intensely dangerous traffic conditions on Freeway Drive in Orange and East Orange. The stretch of road has been the scene of scores of accidents and, most recently, resulted in the death of a pedestrian, Karl Smith, while crossing the street.
“Unfortunately, Karl’s death on Freeway Drive is not the first,” the assemblywoman said, flanked by Essex County officials as well as representatives of both Orange and East Orange. “Unless proper measures are taken, injuries and fatalities will still likely occur. In collaboration with the municipalities of Orange and East Orange, county, and state, we must do everything we can from a public safety perspective to ensure that we protect our residents to the best of our ability.”
Timberlake said that the Department of Transportation had to fix the conditions of the freeway, one which went “through the heart” of the city but had also tragically stopped some hearts as well. Citing statistics that established Freeway Drive as one of the most dangerous roads in the Garden State, she said that while bureaucracy had its place in government, she would fight to bust through the red tape so that the state would take swift action.
The appearance was one of a number undertaken by the assemblywoman recently, including meeting with clergy and mayors at an AME Church to pressure Governor Murphy to sign the Community Wealth Preservation Program bill and sending a bill to Governor Murphy to set performance standards for higher education and job-training courses.
Timberlake’s presence in the district is felt through a number of varied events, including more outside-the-box venues such as her annual “Covered with Compassion” event. This provides free wigs through business partnerships as well as guidance for support services for women who suffered hair loss from health conditions like alopecia and cancer.
Timberlake’s energetic presence in the district, as well as taking on matters relating to income inequality, health, and safety, have solidified her status as a competitive and rising star in the Essex County establishment. She is not a junior legislator anymore, having taken office in the State Assembly in 2018 after serving four years as Essex County Freeholder Board president. Closely tied with LeRoy Jones—a man who is established in partisan power from top to bottom as State Democratic Chairman, Essex County Democratic Chairman, and East Orange Democratic Chairman—Timberlake has been carefully molded into a potentially ideal candidate for Jones to defend and cement his grip on Essex County’s powerbase statewide. Already, her political ascent has been rocket-like, fueled through a combination of her own competency, spirit, as well as machine favor. This is demonstrated where, in less than a decade of entering elected public service, she could be positioned to climb further.
District 34 State Senator Nia Gill and Chairman Jones are not necessarily on the warmest of terms, representing a concerning fracture in the Essex County Democratic power structure. Nineteen years ago, as Gill sought to solidify her first state senate term after displacing Senator Norman Robertson (R), then-Assemblyman LeRoy Jones ran a bruising primary against her with then-Essex County Freeholder Sheila Oliver on his ticket. With the party line behind him, Jones nevertheless failed to come up tops and lost to Gill who ran an off-the-line campaign. Oliver and Eagler secured their assembly seats, but Jones was out. Gill has been a powerful fixture in the State Senate ever since, going to serve as Senate President Pro Tempore from 2010 to 2017.
For Jones, the Democratic Party is an inseparable part of his being. Unlike the Frelinghuysen and Keans of the Garden State, if Jones suffered a papercut one might actually expect blue to drip out. But while a return to public office for Jones seems unlikely, at least for the time being as his hands move the levers of Democratic power in his current capacity as state chairman (and county chairman, and municipal chairman), Timberlake could prove to be Jones’ avatar in the literal halls of power. Much like a squire trained to be a knight, Timberlake taking up the Essex County House of Jones banner on her jousting lance might prove a capable opponent for the long-time veteran of the state legislature. It could also soothe any lingering sting Jones feels, having made all the right moves two decades ago but still falling to an off-the-line competitor.
In the face of Essex County disunity, Timberlake may also be the vehicle by which Jones secures a fractious county as he seeks to position political permanence in state power. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka has demonstrated that he is beholden to no one, and as an Essex County kingpin in his own right, a run for governor represents a potential threat to Jones’ grip on the party. Too autonomous, perhaps, for the comfort of the greater party machine, Jones and other bosses might prefer more conventional, party-nurtured candidates in general. Candidates who have demonstrated his or her own chops outright, delivered for the constituents, and is both younger as well as more representative of the Democratic Party of today are crucial for maintaining the current order, one where northern and (one) southern political powerbrokers are so often beset with rivalries to the detriment of the party as a whole. While it might be a few years yet in the making, much like the perilous freeway that surges through the Oranges, for the Jones-wing of the Essex County future, all roads lead to Timberlake.
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