Candidate Imani Oakley

Self-described progressive Imani Oakley has announced that she will challenge incumbent Congressman Donald Payne, Jr. in the June 2022 primary for the Democratic nomination in New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District.

Payne was first elected in a 2012 special election following the death of his father, who had held the seat. The district covers parts of Hudson, Essex, and Union counties. Jersey City is split between the 8th and 10th congressional districts, with the 8th covering the north and east sections of the city and the 10th the west. Congressman Albio Sires represents the 8th Congressional District.

This will not be the first progressive to take on an establishment candidate in Hudson County. Last year Hector Oseguera unsuccessfully challenged Sires.

In announcing her campaign, Oakley said that she planned “to focus on fighting for economic justice, racial justice, a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, workers’ rights, innovative infrastructure, demilitarization both nationwide and abroad” and “a fair democracy for each and every one of us.”

We sat down with Oakley last week and had a wide ranging discussion covering everything from a formative experience with police brutality in Montclair to her desire to see ICE abolished.

JCT: If I’m not mistaken, this is your first campaign for public office. So, what made you want to start at the congressional level? It seems like a big jump.

IO: I started out my career on the federal level. Straight out of law school, I actually went to work for Senator Booker in the United States Senate. I was a constituent advocate there where my portfolio consisted of issues regarding foreclosure and mortgage issues as well as affordable housing with regard to rent and things of that nature as well as consumer protection, taxes, and student loans. So, I started my career out on that level. I’m very well versed and comfortable with this level. If we’re going to really bust the doors down with regards to getting progressives into office, I think it’s going to require us to win at a higher seat before we win some lower ones, which seems counterintuitive to other movements because it’s a hard jump. But I think the unique situation in Jersey requires that at this time.

JCT: Why is Donald Payne, Jr. wrong for the 10th Congressional District?

IO: So, the congressional district is the epicenter for so many ills that not only are affecting New Jersey but are actually affecting people nationwide. We, as of 2019, we’re number one in not only the state, but the nation for foreclosure issues. We also have a severe problem with air quality: We are in an industrialized area close to New York. A lot of people are driving, so we get a lot of emissions from cars. We have non-electrified fleets such as bus fleets and train fleets, and that really contributes to exhaust emissions being in the air. Moreover, we have a problem with lead not only in our water with lead piping but also in the paints of old homes and apartments as well as the soil because just like Jersey City, [in] Bayonne [and] Newark, we have these old factories who may have been using red for different stuff, and the soil just does not get replaced. And so we have an issue with lead in the soil as well.

We have a Congressman who has been in that seat nearly 10 years and has introduced absolutely no bills with regards to holding banks accountable for predatory lending. Absolutely no bills with regards to holding private lenders accountable for slapping hidden fees onto people’s monthly mortgage payments. That was actually the majority of the constituents I worked with when I was a constituent advocate. The bank would sell their mortgage to a private lender who would then slap on all these random fees, making it impossible for them to pay monthly. And to say that out loud, it sounds like it should be illegal, but it actually, it’s actually not.

Moreover with regards to the environment, except for two days ago, after Donald Payne found out he had a challenger, he not only did not sign on to a green new deal, but still has not submitted any bills on the environment at all. And somebody who is that grossly inactive does not deserve to be in that seat. We have just gone through some of the most devastating times in this country, we had four years of the devastation of Donald Trump. Before that we had the devastation of the economic and housing crisis. And throughout all of this time and even back further, we’ve had issues surrounding police violence and police brutality and over criminalization of drugs and drug use, the school-to-prison pipeline. We’ve had all these issues, and we have a Congressman who’s just keeping his seat warm. Now is not the time to have somebody who is just wants to keep their seat warm and just do nothing with that.

Right now we need real voices in Congress, people who are going to really get in there and legislate, people who are going to work for their districts because I’ll tell you, Republicans are scrappy. They are nothing if not scrappy. They will absolutely scrap to get any of their initiatives pushed through. They will get any of their people pushed through. We need fighters in there, and right now Donald Payne is not that.

The other thing is that we’ve had serious issues with ICE. Not only in the state but around the country. We’ve had detainees who were raped. We’ve had maggots found in food. And what I’m hearing from enviros as well as immigrants rights groups, is that when they go to talk to Donald Payne, he literally looks at them and says, ‘Well what do you want me to do about that?’ Well, I want you to legislate.

JCT: Can you give me perhaps three specific legislative proposals you would like to bring to Congress if you’re elected? You’ve articulated some broad progressive principles, but what three specific laws would you propose if elected?

IO: So, touching back on the subjects that we just covered, one, given my experience as a constituent advocate and knowing how the lenders are kind of playing these games on slapping fees on people’s mortgages. I want to outlaw that practice. I want to make it so that sure, if you’re a bank and you want to sell the mortgage to a lender, fine, you can do that, but it has to remain the same payment plan and you have to have ample notice to the mortgage holder. … Number two, with affordable housing, with regards to rent, I want to bring federal dollars to large municipalities and cities that will, one, place a cap on rent. Right now we’re seeing an increase in homelessness and … in gentrification. People are being not only pushed out of their neighborhoods but also pushed out onto the street, and it’s time for us to step in and place a cap on rent. The second thing I want to do with regards to … bringing federal dollars to those larger municipalities and cities is to … give dollars to those large municipalities … that pass 50% affordable housing in developments built after 2018. Right now 30% is considered a good amount to have, but that’s not enough. Our rate of homelessness, our rate of gentrification is outpacing our affordable housing, and we really need to catch up.

JCT: When you say 30%, you’re referring to the amount of affordable housing a developer would be required to include in the in the development? Is that what you mean?

IO: The amount of units inside the development.

JCT: So, it would be an inclusionary zoning ordinance at the federal level?

IO: Well, no. I would be giving dollars because as a congresswoman, I can’t pass those legislations for different cities and municipalities. They have to do it themselves. But what I want to do is offset the cost of that. So, a lot of the times the complaints that folks get are from landlords who say, Well, I’m not going to be making money on this. If you give a 50%.’

JCT: So this would be a subsidy?

IO: Exactly.

JCT: Now, you positioned yourself as a progressive alternative to Payne. Given the success of more centrist candidates recently, specifically Eric Adams, and particularly their success among Black voters, are you concerned that perhaps you’re out of step with where most Black voters are? The 10th congressional district has one of the highest percentages of black voters in New Jersey, if I’m not mistaken. They seem to be trending more moderate recently.

IO: Not at all. I think one thing that is really grossly misunderstood in the electoral arena is the Black vote. Because, for example, in New York you had a lot of people who were Eric Adams voters but also Tiffany Caban voters.  Very different on the spectrum. And I actually aligned more with Tiffany Caban’s views. And here’s what tends to happen with Black voters: We are constantly seen as a monolith, and that’s incorrect. If you’re looking at … black voters under 35, they actually align more with the Jamaal Bowmans, the Cori Bushes, the AOCs, the Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warrens of the world. And, if you’re looking at older voters, they actually tend to like their policies, but they are very much voters for survival, which makes sense, right? Because they experienced things like Jim Crow, they’ve experienced things like redlining, the war on drugs in the eighties.

And so they’re a little bit more cautious. I think the trick there is to let them know and make them feel comfortable with the idea that you are a viable candidate. And my campaign is nothing but professional. I actually have a policy on my campaign that we are going to maintain the utmost professionalism at all times, not only myself, but my staff as well. And I think doing that will help to kind of put to rest the fear that older Black voters tend to have about taking a chance on insurgent campaigns. And I’m confident that when we go out to talk to them, actually I have been having some conversations currently, and people are more fed up with the fact that Donald Payne has done nothing about them losing their homes. They are fed up that they look around their neighborhood and nothing has changed. They are fed up with the gentrification that is running rampant. And they simply do not feel that he has been representing them well. So, I really am not worried about that at all.

JCT: On one issue it seems there is a lot of concern, and that’s public safety. So, where do you put yourself on that? Are you a defund-the-police candidate, or are you a more nuanced candidate? Are you a build-up-the police candidate?  Where are you on that spectrum?

IO: One of my earliest memories, I think probably my first protest if I could say, I was six years old, and there was a group of teenagers who threw a party behind my house … my neighborhood is … changing a little bit now, but back in the nineties, it was like every single house was a Black family, except for, we had, like, one Latino family on the block.

JCT: Is this Newark or Montclair. You have roots in both?

IO: Montclair. So, I’ll go back to the story in a second, but just to clarify on the Newark thing, I lived in Newark for four years because I actually almost lost this house that I’m sitting in talking to you right now. I actually almost lost it to foreclosure. And in order to save the house, my brother had to move from Brooklyn with his partner, live in the house, pay on it. Me and my mom moved out to an apartment because at the time I was still in law school. I didn’t have a job, and I couldn’t help pay on the house. And my mom paid the taxes on the house while my brother paid the mortgage. And we were able to stay at the house, or at least maintain it, because we’re still paying on it right now until I got a job. And so now I have a job, and so we’re back in the house.

JCT: That’s a happy ending. Okay, now back to the back to the public safety issue.

10th Congressional District New Jersey
New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District
New Jersey’s 10th Congressional District

IO: So, growing up there was an incident where some Black teenagers threw a house party in the house behind mine. And police showed up, and it turned into a police brutality incident where a lot of kids were beat and arrested, and it was just unnecessarily over-the-top violent. And the town came out, and they protested about it. And that was my earliest memory of police brutality. I’m six years old.

Fast forward, some years later I am in law school, and the Baltimore uprisings occur. I served as a legal observer during the Baltimore uprisings. And the things that I saw was something that like, you pretty much only see, like on TV. There were literal tanks driving down the street in a row. I was walking down the street, taking notes on everything that was happening and the tank pulls up right in front of me, and a guy pops out, and he’s literally holding one of those guns. This is an American city. Why are we having tanks of people pulling out with with machine guns out of a tank?  That makes absolutely no sense. The Baltimore uprising was something that happened because of the murder and the spine snapping of Freddy Gray. That’s something that people absolutely have the right to protest about, and there’s no reason we should be sending out over militarized police for that. So, I am for de-defunding the police in the sense that I want to take away funding for them to buy military gear, military vehicles, military grade weaponry, because they are not needed in this town. They simply are not. And anybody who is asserting that honestly just simply has a fear of working class people of color. But those things are not needed there. They’re not needed anywhere, not in the suburbs either. What we need to do is take that money and transfer it into our public school systems. We need to transfer that money into better paying social workers. We can transfer that money into having paid professional mental health folks who can accompany police on different outings when they’re called in. And it may be an issue of mental health. That’s what we need to be spending money on. Not tanks, not militarized, SWAT gear, not machine guns.

JCT: My understanding of this and maybe I’m wrong is that a lot of that hardware that the police have is given to them by the federal government, that it’s not something they actually spend money to get and that most of their budgets are for hiring cops and related activities. Are you in favor of reducing police department head counts as opposed to military hardware?

IO: So, from my understanding, it’s both. As far as military hardware is concerned, some they get from the government, but some, they also purchase it themselves. And I think there are also some programs where they actually purchase from the federal government. So, there is money going towards that, number one.

Number two, I think what has to happen is we have to have police personnel retrained or refitted for something else. We don’t need every single police officer going around with a gun. We don’t need every single police officer responding with a baton. We don’t need every single police officer showing up in SWAT gear. We simply don’t need that. So, I think this argument that people put out there, ‘Well, you’re anti-cop, you want … cops to lose their jobs,’ no. We want cops to have different jobs that actually make more sense for healing communities and for rehabilitation and getting rid of this culture of brutality that people think will clean up neighborhoods and fix neighborhoods.

JCT: It sounds like you’re saying you would reduce the number of uniformed police walking the beat or riding around in patrol cars and repurpose them or some percentage of them towards social services of some kind. I’m just trying to get you to give me a little more detail on this because it’s something that people care a great deal about in Jersey City.

IO: I think you’ve just nailed it. They can still call themselves police. They can still call themselves the blue brotherhood or what have you. But they would be doing different jobs that don’t require a gun that don’t require a baton. And I think if somebody gets into policing so that they can carry a gun, that’s somebody we don’t want in policing.

JCT: How overstaffed do you think police departments are? Just give me a percentage. I’m just curious if you have an idea in mind that there’s 10% more police than we need? When I say police, I mean uniformed police doing what we traditionally consider police work. Do you have any idea?

IO: That depends on the city. I mean, and in this district specifically, that really varies because you’ll have towns like Glen Ridge who have a very, very small police force. You’ll have a suburban town like Montclair who … in comparison to a Jersey City or … a Newark also have a smaller police force. It’s going to vary. I mean, that’s very hard to give … one succinct answer for the municipalities in my district. But, I am very interested and looking forward to working with municipalities to really hunker down those numbers for what makes sense for their area and making sure that we’re making the right decisions with regards to … making sure that we don’t have police on the force who joined the police force because they want to carry a gun … we don’t need this many police with guns. We probably need some more social workers. We probably need some more people who are de-escalators. We probably need some more people wh  train folks on anti-violence initiatives. And they can still be police. They can still have their ceremony. They can still do that. But we need to start taking away as many police that are on the streets with guns and batons and SWAT gear. Because that is a system and a culture of brutality that really does not heal cities. And it certainly does not heal communities of color.

JCT: Is there anything that you would like Jersey City voters in particular to know with respect to specific issues that Jersey City is concerned with?

IO: Yeah, for sure. So, we went over the affordable housing stuff, so I won’t bore you with that. … Two other policy areas that I think will be important for Jersey City: one, infrastructure and green infrastructure. I am a proponent … of the Green New Deal, which again will give people jobs to lessen the unemployment rate in order to make our infrastructure more green. And again, Jersey City, just like the rest of the district is really bogged down by the amount of smog that comes from non- electrified buses and trains. We also want to make those things faster and more efficient. I mean, we’re right next to the city. People go in and out all the time for work or for play. We need to make sure that we’re making those things green and we’re making them efficient so that we can really compete with our competitors in other similarly situated countries that have a much stronger transportation system. So I really want to make sure that I’m doing my best and acting as a voice on Capitol Hill to not only bring those things and make them more efficient, but also make them green so we are not contributing more to a worse carbon footprint and contributing to childhood asthma, for example, which, this area in this district actually has some of the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. And so that’s one thing with regards to Green New Deal, environment and infrastructure.

The other thing is I am very ready to get into Washington and fight to abolish ICE. Right now it’s no secret: We have had a lot of issues with ICE in New Jersey. We’ve had, again, detainees who have been raped, maggots found in detainees’ foods. We have sitting elected officials who go on Twitter and brag about how much putting people in cages brings money to different counties. That is absolutely unacceptable and all of this because somebody was born on different soil. That doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We should not be ripping families apart because they were born on different soil. We should not be devastating people’s lives simply because they were born on different soil. That makes absolutely no sense. And I look forward to fighting that fight to get rid of it and defund it and abolish it when I get to Congress. So I think that’s what Jersey City residents would like to know most about me.

JCT: Let me ask you about the ICE issue. If an undocumented person is charged with a crime, let’s say a felony, perhaps robbery or a crime of violence, should that person be held as would any American citizen who is documented, should that person be held at all? Or should that person be put out on bail? What is your position on that?

IO: Yeah, so this is brought up a lot, especially when we talk about ICE facilities in Texas. It’s always the first thing that conservatives will say, ‘Well, well, what about the violent ones?’ Well, listen, it’s obvious if somebody is violent and obviously a harm to the community, then yes, they should be separated from the community. But that’s not mostly what we see. Mostly what we see are things like marijuana charges, which we’ve overwhelmingly legalized in New Jersey. Somebody can have a marijuana charge or arrest from years ago and end up detained in ICE. And that makes absolutely no sense. So, when we’re talking about crime and people being picked up by ICE for crime, we’re talking about things that we as a society have decided that even Americans shouldn’t be picked up for things like this. And so, if it’s something where Americans wouldn’t even be picked up … somebody who’s born on a different soil should not be subjected to that simply because they were born elsewhere. That doesn’t make sense. There’s no way that somebody who was picked up four years ago for something, didn’t pay a traffic ticket or something very, very small, which is the majority of folks who are being picked up, and then being subjected, one, to these inhumane conditions but, two, [facing] a threat of being deported and being separated from their families … for these things that really we wouldn’t even like for Americans be punished.

JCT: In the case of someone who is undocumented and violent, would that person be held as part of the general prison population? If we get rid of ICE, what do we replace ICE with for that subset of undocumented people who do commit violent crimes?

IO: Like typical Americans, they would be put in jail until they get to…

JCT: You’re saying shift them to the regular system that we use for citizens.

IO: If they are truly committing heinous, violent crimes. I do want to make that clear because oftentimes when we bring up issues of ICE, the first thing that’s said is what if they’re violent? I mean, if somebody is violent, just like if somebody is American and violent, then they should be separated and also rehabilitated so that they are not causing harm to other folks.

I think it really puts a damper on what’s happening with this conversation because what’s often happening more so than not is not that immigrant groups are being violent. In fact, there’ve been studies that have shown that immigrant groups are actually less violent than people who were born on this soil. And the reason being is because they’re extra cautious about committing crimes as a result of wanting to not be deported and wanting to stay here. So, they’re actually less violent than Americans. And yet we still always go to this place where we say, ‘Well what if they’re violent?’ Well, I mean, if they’re violent, then we would treat them as though they’re American.

JCT: How are you going to fund your campaign?

IO: So, one, we are not taking money from corporate PACS nor lobbyists nor developers. And so, our funding is going to come from the people, it’s going to come from grassroots donors who just believe in our mission. It will also hopefully come from organizations who endorse us, and we are in talk with folks right now, as well as any politicians who decide to endorse us. So hopefully the Bernie Sanderses of the world, the Elizabeth Warrens … hopefully if they decide to endorse at a point we can also change lists and get some funding from their PACS as well. So, that’s how we’re funding it. But for clarity, we’re not taking any money from corporate PACS or lobbyists or developers.

JCT: I see that representative Payne receives a fair amount of funding from some local unions. I assume that you would be interested in their support though?

IO: Absolutely. And we are reaching out to folks now. They do have their own process that we’re not going to interfere in. There’s a questionnaire, an interview, etc., but we are ready and willing to go through that process. And I think once we do go through that, it will be very clear that our campaign is the right one and my candidacy is the right one and ultimately my being a congresswoman is the right choice for working people throughout the state.

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....