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News Update: Paterson Political Leaders Reflect on the Legacy of the Late Martin Barnes

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Barnes in 1997, when he became Paterson's first black mayor. Photo courtesy of The Star-Ledger
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PATERSON, NJ - Paterson's first black mayor, Martin Barnes, died on Friday. Barnes was 64. The cause of his death has not been made public.

Barnes, who previously has been a councilman, made history when he was appointed mayor in 1997 after Bill Pascrell left to take a seat in Congress. Never before had an African-American held the top job in Paterson. Barnes then won a special election in 1997 and a four-year term in 1998.

Barnes served as mayor for five years, but his political career was cut short when he was indicted on federal corruption charges in January 2002. While facing the charges, Barnes still ran for re-election in May 2002, but lost to Jose "Joey" Torres.

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In July 2002, Barnes pleaded guilty in federal court to taking between $200,000 and $350,000 in gifts – including free trips, home improvements, a swimming pool and female companionship - from a city contractor. He was sentenced to 37 months in prison and was released in 2006.

"People are only going to remember the bad, but he did a lot of good,''' said Torres. "He was a gentleman and a statesman. He was always fighting for what he believed in. He was a public servent who took the time to address the needs of the community.'' Torres mentioned Barnes' work in getting Paterson's rent-control ordinance adopted as well as his support for city youth recreation programs.

"His name meant community,'' said the city's current mayor, Jeffery Jones, adding that Barnes often fought on behalf of the city's poor. "That should be his epitaph - he championed the cause.''

Former councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes said Barnes' political career was all about public service. "He gave the community awareness of what it meant to be involved in the political process,'' she said. "He showed people to stop going along just to go along.''

"He was one of a kind,'' added Ames-Garnes. "He told you what he thought and how it was. He stood for what he believed in.''

“The passing of Marty Barnes is a loss to the Paterson community and I extend my heartfelt condolences to his wife Diane and the entire Barnes family during this difficult time," said Pascrell.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly said Barnes gave him his first job in the city's recreation department.  "He was a good friend and mentor,'' Wimberly said . "He had a touch in dealing with Paterson and Patersonians. Regardless of what happened with the conviction, he had the respect of the people of Paterson. That didn't diminish much.''

Councilman Andre Sayegh said his 6th Ward constituents still talk about Barnes' success in keeping city taxes down. "He made history,'' Sayegh said of Barnes' election. "And he could say he never raised taxes. "You gotta hand it to him, he knew city government well. He didn't raise taxes and he kept the streets clean.''

Funeral arrangements are being handled by Bragg Funeral Home on Rosa Parks Boulevard. Details of the viewing are not yet available.

In connection with his criminal case, Barnes also owed the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC) $181,756 in fines for fundraising violations during his 1998 and 2002 mayoral campaigns. That stands as the largest fine ever imposed by ELEC against a single candidate. None of that money has been repaid, accoridng to state officials.

Also, as a result of his conviction, state treasury officials significantly reduced Barnes' pension by taking away about 12 years of his service time. Last year, Barnes was unsuccessful in an attempt to have his full pension restored.

Jones said he found the pension board's decision on Barnes disturbing. "The system did not reciprocate him for his leadership,'' said Jones.
 
Jones said Barnes opened doors for all minorities in Paterson, not just African-Americans. Jones recalled running Barnes' Northside mayoral campaign. "There were people from all groups there,'' said Jones, who became the city's second African-American mayor when he was elected in 2010. "That was the first time I had ever seen it like that.''
 
Jones said he had been considering running for the mayor's job in 1997 after Pascrell left. "Vera stopped me and said, 'It's not your time.' That's when she told me Marty was going to do it.''
 
Ames-Garnes said Barnes had been dealing with some minor ailments lately, but nothing that seemed too serious. "I can't understand it,'' she said of his sudden death.
 
City political leaders were somber about the news of Barnes' passing.
 
"He was a good mayor,'' said City Council President Anthony Davis. "His positives outweighed the negatives.''
 
"It's a sad day for Paterson,'' said former councilman Aslon Goow. "I liked Marty a lot. Aside from his unfortunate situation, he was a great mayor. He kept taxes stable.''
 
"He was a very nice man,'' said Passaic County Democratic Party Chairman John Currie. "I think he did an excellent job as the mayor of Paterson.''
 

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