City Council President Joyce Watterman sat down with us for an interview touching on motherhood, affordable housing, crime, policing, faith, Team Fulop and the public schools.

Watterman was born and bred in Jersey City, having grown up the Marion Gardens housing project on the West Side where she met her husband to whom she’s been married for forty years. She had her first of three children as a teenager. “I tell young women, if you have a child out of wedlock your life still can be positive. I handled it with the help of my mother. You have to have a good support system.” 

Watterman went on to graduate from Somerset Christian College with a bachelor of arts in organizational leadership and an associate of arts in biblical studies. She then completed her master of  arts in organizational leadership from Pillar College. Watterman founded several programs in Jersey City for women and children and has been a volunteer prison chaplain for over 30 years. She and her husband are the founders and pastors of Continuous Flow Christian Center on Monticello Avenue.

Waterman was elected to the Jersey City Municipal Council in 2013 and in 2019 became city council president.

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JCT: Why did you decide to run for office?

JW: I used to run health fairs, different workshops in the church, GED and financial programs to help people to get ahead. I used to do an after-school program. The mayor spotted me doing those things in the community and he saw how it was helping people. And so he asked me if I would run on his ticket. The truth of the matter is that I didn’t aspire to be a politician, but I knew that there was only so much I could do from a pastoral perspective. I needed to understand the other side so I could help people even further. I got into office really to help people. Even when I was asked to run, I said you know I really don’t understand this, but I’m going to help people the best way I can.

JCT: How does being a pastor inform your work as city council president?

JW: I think I bring something to it based upon my personality. It’s how you are raised. If your mother teaches you to love and respect, you bring those qualities wherever you go. Church sometimes has a way of enhancing that. I believe everybody needs to be treated with respect. I believe everybody needs to be treated fairly. You bring that from your church and from your background. I really try to hear everybody’s side of the story. People who know me will tell you that. I’m pretty fair.

JCT: I watch many of the city council meetings, and I notice that you maintain a calm that sometimes others fail to. Has being a pastor helped you to be a listener and be humble?

JW: Before I came to politics, I always dealt with people. Pastors are in the people business. It helps develop you. I try to listen. That’s why sometimes I don’t say a lot. Because I’m really trying to listen. I think being a pastor helps develop that.

JCT: As a council person, what are you most proud of?

JW: I’m proud of the inclusionary zoning ordinance. Ever since I took office in 2013, I was trying to get affordable housing. It’s a challenge to do because you’re trying to get everyone at the table. And I found out that everyone wants what they want. One organization I spoke with said you should mandate them do more. I said one thing I hope we can all agree on is that the objective is to get affordable housing. I’ve got eight other council people who have their concerns, too. So, if I’m bull headed and say okay, this is what we’re going to do, and that’s it, I’ll end up getting nothing for the people who really need it. I said we can always go back and adjust it if it doesn’t work or it seems we need more. The only people who suffer until we say we’re going to do something are the people who really need the affordable housing.

People say a lot of things but they don’t see the other eight voices you have to deal with to get something passed. They don’t understand that. If we keep saying we want to help people, I need to put my ego aside and say, okay, Joyce, you ain’t gonna get all you want this time, but you got something. And that helps the people that really need it.

JCT: As you know, there was the criticism that five percent [affordable housing] wasn’t enough and that developers or the mayor were holding the number down.

JW: No. I talked to the people I knew in Newark where they already had it in existence, and I asked them how is it working for you? And they said, Joyce, we’re having a difficult job getting it done because they’re finding out with a lot of the developers…I said stop thinking about the big guys so much. Think about the little guy who’s just starting in development that may have one project. All of that affects him mostly, not the big guys. When it comes to these big developers, they’re building as of right. They don’t need the money. They don’t need the tax abatements. They don’t need anything. When you talk about developers, you’re putting the little guy in the box too who you’re not even conscious of. When we create a law, it hurts him more than it does the big guys.

So I had a conversation with just your average developer, not these big guys. Because I know that they’ve got the money, and they can build. I wanted to have conversations with the little guy who’s just starting in the business, who wants to build affordable housing. They told me that we can try to do the five percent if you put it in. We’re going to have trouble doing the 20 percent. And I called Newark, and they told me they’re having a hard time getting them to do the 20 percent. They have to give them assistance to help them do it. I don’t want to give you money to do it. I just want you to do it. So I had to weigh all of that out. And I said we can try it, and if we need, we can up it.

People said things about it. They don’t realize that I’m going to do my own research because I really care about people. I just believe that when it comes to affordable housing, the people who really need it will be able to get it. There’s more work to be done.

I need those landlords in the room. I need the employer in the room. I said this on a panel, you know why we’re at the point? It’s because years ago you used to get a cost-of-living raise every year. When you stop giving people a cost-of-living raise, realize that those people won’t be able to keep living where they live.

When we talk about affordable housing, we need to connect the dots. It’s bigger than affordable housing. It’s bigger than me trying to get an apartment built. They need to get a cost-of-living raise every year so they can live.

JCT: Are you referring to city workers?

JW: No, everybody. That’s why you need everybody at the table. If we as a country—and I think this is one of the greatest countries—start looking at those who are really in need and what caused it, then we as a global people can see this is something we can’t afford not to do. Everybody needs a cost-of-living raise.

JCT: What do you think Jersey City’s top problems are?  If you are reelected for another four years, what are the top problems you want to go after?

JW: In this business, I don’t like to tell people I’m going to go after five and then not do it. I would really like to tackle crime. All these shootings out here. I’ve been out on the street talking to the guys on the street because I’m concerned. Not just as an elected official but as a Black woman and a mother. I see that they’re just babies out here that didn’t have a fair chance in life. I would like to see if we can create something for them that can give them hope. Maybe we have to create different institutions…housing for them to stay where they can have someone who can help them. I could put the next four years of my time into that.

JCT: What do you think the police need to be doing to deal with this issue?

JW: The police need to sit down and listen. I’ve got to stress that. You have to see what the community perspective is when you say protect and serve…how they perceive protect and serve. They need to hear that. Because then they’ll understand the culture that’s out there. They might be trained on how to protect and serve but that might be the wrong way of going about it. So you have to listen to the community. We’re tying to police everyone the same, and that’s just wrong. We’re all different people. You can’t police downtown like the south side of the city.

JCT: That’s a great segue to my next question, which is that a lot of people think that the downtown is favored and that this administration in particular has not done enough for the south side of the city where there is a lot of poverty and crime. What is your view about how much the city has done and what it should be doing?

JW: When people say the city hasn’t done enough, I disagree with them. Because when I came into office in 2013, one of our priorities was to finish Berry Lane Park. As you know, Berry Lane Park was under way for about 13 years and wasn’t completed. So, we made sure that we had the money to finish it. That meant that other parks had to wait. We did that because it was on the south side of the city, and we felt like people on the south side needed to have a decent park to go to.

When we first took office, we did a bus tour of the south side of the city, and we asked different realtors to come with us to see if we could get people interested in investing. But not many people were investing. So, what we did is we said let’s put our money where our mouth is, and that’s when we built the annex [the city hall annex on MLK Blvd. in Greenville]. Because when we built the annex, and we put city employees up there, that would encourage someone to open up a doughnut or sandwich shop because they’d see more foot traffic. But we didn’t stop there. We’re building a second portion. We’re going to put the rest of the employees down there.

So when people say we haven’t done enough, I really disagree. I can’t make you do something with your property. That’s the beauty of the Constitution of the United States. People think that, but I tell people no.

Right now, we’re redoing the park across from the Bethune Center. It’s going to be a beautiful park. There’s going to be an amphitheater, meaning that they can have different activities, different plays. That’s the city pouring money back into it in that way.

We can’t do it by ourselves, we need people to invest.

JCT: There’s been a lot of rancor about the school budget deficit and how much the city is responsible for it. Is the criticism of the city fair, and what is the city prepared to do about funding the schools in the future?

JW: The council and the board of ed are meeting. We’re meeting to see how we can work together to help the schools. We have a legislative committee, an operational committee, and a finance committee. As we continue to meet, we can see how we can work together, how we can share service and that kind of thing. As an elected official, I’m willing to do what I can to help the schools. We’re going to have to understand the process of the schools. Just like if they came in on our side, they would have to understand our process. Whatever the city can do, we will do.

I don’t like playing the blame game. I just want to get the job done. I don’t want to hear, oh, the city should have done this. After a certain point, I’m saying can we just get past that? Because the only ones who suffer are the kids and the teachers.

The way I operate is let’s get it done, let’s work together, let’s come up with ideas, let’s be creative. It’s going to take sacrifice on both sides. Let’s do it. I’m saying to myself, can we just sit down and have a conversation?

JCT: Does being part of “Team Fulop” hamstring you in any way? Do you feel that sometimes you’re not able to push through the things that you need to push through or, on the other hand, that you’re forced to go along with things that you don’t want to go along with?

JW: People who know me know that I don’t feel like I’m hamstrung. I told people that when I leave this office, I want to leave with integrity. So, if I agree with something, I let him know. If I don’t agree, I don’t agree, and I just don’t get involved.

I’m too old to play those games. I’m not letting anyone put handcuffs on me. Life isn’t bad, and I can always walk away.

JCT: Is there anything you want to add to this conversation?

JW: What people don’t know about me is that I really, really care about women who have struggled in life. I put a lot of time into them personally. I want people to know that my door is always open. Don’t allow what they hear out there that she’s on one side or the other. Come talk to me and judge me based on that.

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Aaron Morrill

Aaron is a writer, musician and lawyer. Aaron attended Berklee College of Music and the State University of New York at Purchase. Aaron served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador. He received a J.D....