This is the final installment of a two-part feature profile about Derek Armstead, the first African American Mayor of Linden.
NJ Urban News: Mayor, you stated that you are the first African American Mayor in what most people call a nontraditional African American city. You said when people think of African American mayors, they think about urban communities like Newark. Do you think being Mayor of a nontraditional Black City (Linden) is easier or more difficult than being Mayor of a traditional Black City (Newark, Trenton, Camden, Paterson)? Why or why not?
Mayor Armstead: I think it was more difficult in the beginning because, despite the fact that I had votes from all three major ethnic groups in town, there was significant pushback from those who just weren’t ready for an African American mayor in Linden. Unfortunately, people get set in their ways and, for some ungodly reason, feel that we shouldn’t lead or are incapable of leading. Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s difficult to be a mayor anywhere because you’re being pulled in every direction. Still, had I been in an all-African American town like Newark, I think the road would’ve been a little easier getting there. The other thing is that I ran against the party. I think that may have increased the anti-Armstead movement in town because I had known many people who worked against me for years. It was fine as long as I was a councilman voting for their children and themselves to give them promotions and raises – I was a good old guy. But the moment I decided to be something other than a council member, it became a problem because, again, in this business, political bosses like to pick and choose who runs the town and the candidates. The political bosses were not African American. The problem is that I lived half my life before realizing it’s a do-it-yourself job. I could’ve been a council member for the rest of my life, but I’m more capable and able to lead this city.
NJ Urban News: Do you think that if you were running for Mayor in a traditional African American city, like Newark or Trenton, you would’ve received more support?
Mayor Armstead: You have to look at the context of my run. I’ve run against the machine. Anytime you get into politics, you automatically accumulate enemies because you’re going against the other guy. I think it’s more difficult as an African American running in a town that wasn’t African American than [being African American campaigning in] a town that African Americans have typically run. That can be my personal opinion. It was an uphill battle. I’ll be the first to say that I had some damn good white friends who were working to help me get here. We don’t want to discount those who were not minorities who helped me get here. Many good white people in town knew my family and were with me 100 percent. The selfish ones, the ones who only cared about their jobs and their promotions and what the political apparatus could do for them, were my primary opposition. To a certain extent, that could happen in an all-Black town. The people who ran the political organization here were all Caucasian. [In] Linden, for the most part, we got along very well. It’s a blue-collar town, and whites and Blacks have worked together for years. Linden is a town that has plenty of industry. On the political side, it has always been dominated by one group, and again when you have an outsider coming in, nudging saying, “Listen, I’m at the table too or I want to be at the table,” there’s that resistance. My family carved a path for me to be accepted by more white people than what traditionally happens in politics.
NJ Urban News: What would you consider to be your shortfalls? What do you think you could’ve handled better?
Mayor Armstead: My biggest regret sometimes is that I don’t think I put enough time into trying to fix the city early on as a public servant. I regret that I didn’t take on this machine sooner. I wish I had made my break from this team in Linden, who unfortunately didn’t have the best interests of the people in the town at heart. They were more concerned with themselves and do for family members. I did well. I tried to help as many people as possible, but I think I should’ve done more. I could’ve done more. Too often, if we’re going to be in these positions of authority and power, there has to be a greater level of commitment. I turn the TV on, I see all the craziness in our community, and I feel like maybe I could’ve been that leader who did more for our people. The argument is that people can get away with anything they want to in the world, and they can run any town they want to in the ground, just not Linden, not as long as I’m here. I feel like I have done a good job.
NJ Urban News: Based on everything we’ve discussed, what are your plans for the future? What legislation, initiatives, or proposals do you hope to implement? What’s the agenda?
Mayor Armstead: We have several areas in government here that need to be addressed. The waste mismanagement has been off the chart. We are here with a determination to straighten that out. We have a company called RNG (Renewable Natural Gas) Energy, and they will be processing food waste to produce a natural gas byproduct. Then we’ll be producing a compost agricultural product as well. We will ensure that the workforce is representative of the community. We want people to know that when they come to Linden, they’re coming to a safe town where everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed. We have a number of housing projects with over another 1,000 units coming. We have tenants already waiting to get in. That would be [on] our old TAF and DuPont site, once contaminated land. We’re at the cutting edge of development, and I think we will be the largest warehousing town in the northeast. We will continue building the town and ensuring we maintain a stable tax base. We believe that when everybody shares the town’s prosperity, we all win, and that’s my goal.