We took time to chat with Derek Armstead, the first African American Mayor of Linden. In an exclusive and frank discussion with NJ Urban news writer Alexis Collins, Armstead shares a lot–including his highs and lows as head of the city.
NJ Urban News: What are some of your accomplishments as Mayor (legislative bills passed, improvements made throughout the city and community, etc.)?
Mayor Derek Armstead: The biggest one is we’ve managed not to raise property taxes in six years. We’ve managed to do so without reducing services. We have a large police department, a large fire department, [and] a large city employee workforce of over 600 employees. We haven’t had any layoffs. When Covid-19 hit, we didn’t wait for anybody to give us any money; we established our own food bank through donations and money we raised. I got involved in our Board of Education elections and started running candidates. We gave out fifteen $500 scholarships this year. We’ve established a Linden First Program, where we bring people in and train them on how to apply for jobs, prepare a resume, [and] how to conduct themselves in an interview. And we did it at no cost to taxpayers; instead, we got volunteers…Every Monday morning, we’d open a spot in City Hall and let people come in who are interested in work. They would sign up for training, and they did very well. We didn’t limit it to just Linden residents; we knew full well that some employers in other towns had difficulty filling positions…I tend to think of myself as a fiscally conservative person. I understand government, and I’m going to guarantee that as long as I’m in charge, we’re not going to have tax hikes in my town. [Linden is a] beautiful town. I’ve seen what happens to towns that raise taxes and do things the old way; they wind up in a not-so-good state. We’ve made sure that the people in this community are employed, and we don’t fall under that threshold to where we’re being called an urban city. We’re committed not to tax people out of their homes and making sure that Linden continues to be a nice place to live. You could raise your children here. It’s a diverse city. I’m the first African American Mayor in what we refer to as the nontraditional African American city. When you start thinking of African American mayors, you think urban – you think about Newark – you think about all these different cities where we’re housed in large numbers, but in Linden, when I won my first primary in 2010, Blacks were only 23 percent of the population, we’ve since grown to about 30 percent of the population.
NJ Urban News: What made you want to run for office? Did you always know you wanted to be in politics? Did you always want to serve in this capacity as Mayor or as a publicly elected official?
Mayor Armstead: In 2009, probably one of the most interesting political stories in Union County was unfolding. I was pretty much fed up with politics because you somehow don’t seem to be able to accomplish all the things you try to accomplish. You try to forward an agenda that’s beneficial to everybody. Then everybody’s playing politics trying to take care of their friends and family, nothing’s really getting done. Taxes were going up, and I felt like I spent so much time trying to get elected and trying to make changes in my community. I was denying my family an opportunity for success as well as myself. I was going to throw in the towel. At the time, an independent had defeated iconic figure, Mayor John Gregorio. Everybody felt like the next democrat who ran against the independent was going to win, so I was approached by the top democrat in town, his name was [Councilman] Robert Bunk, and he asked me if I was going to support him for Mayor in 2010. My response to him was, “I really don’t even know who’s running.” I was noncommittal, so he took it upon himself at the next council meeting, which was a reorganization meeting in 2010, to punish me and not give me a position as Council President Pro Temp…I guess he was going to show me that he wouldn’t give it to me because I wouldn’t commit to saying I would support him in the run for Mayor.
NJ Urban News: There have been cases of aggressive behavior between the City Council and the Mayor’s Office in various cities in NJ —especially in Trenton. In some instances, city council members, the public, and the Mayor’s staff have had physical and verbal confrontations that have been negative, bitter, and outright hostile. You have also experienced physical assault allegations firsthand. Can you please explain why the relationship between the parties is often contentious and acrimonious?
Mayor Armstead: They didn’t want me here. They condescendingly told me I should wait my turn. They might as well have just called me out of my name. And the sad reality is that some African Americans who are in power in other cities by the democratic organizations of Union County had the nerve to be the ones who are spewing that. I said wait a minute, they made you a mayor when you were 20 and gave you a state assembly seat when you were 23, and I got to wait for my entire turn, and at the time, I was in my 50s? It was terrible. I tell everybody I made history two times. I’m the first African American Mayor [and] the first-ever elected official to be suspended from a county job. They were sending me a message.
In part 2, the mayor will discuss the strained relationship between the City Council and his office and his plans for the future.