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A Councilman Wins Clout, Criticism; Israel Nieves Has Risen From Welfare To Leadership Drops Bid For Reelection To Camden Council
A Councilman Wins Clout, Criticism; Israel Nieves Has Risen From Welfare To Leadership.
By Elisa Ung, Dwight Ott and Frank Kummer
24 February 2005
It's almost 9 a.m., and Israel Nieves, Camden's most powerful Hispanic politician, is leaving for work.
The city councilman steps out of the two-story split-level he owns with his wife - in Pennsauken - and walks to his black Chevy Blazer for the ride to the state's poorest city.
Nieves has much to do.
He is planning a mayoral run this spring for his sister-in-law, Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez. The Camden neighborhood where he rents the apartment that is his official home is to be redeveloped. He is running for reelection. And he is always looking for funding for his "legacy," a Puerto Rican cultural center where his wife is the highest-paid employee.
Of course he has his critics, those who question not just his residency but his use of the word racism to lash others into line or his decision to align himself with Camden County's Democratic machine.
And this month, Nieves made news of a slightly different sort after a Camden police officer accused him of "pulling, swinging and grabbing" a Courier-Post reporter who was asking about the funding of the cultural center. Nieves promptly pressed assault and harassment charges against the reporter.
But there are signs he is tiring of the political rough-and-tumble that has defined his life for the last decade. He says this will be his last election.
Born and educated in Puerto Rico, Nieves, 52, has risen from welfare and unemployment to the top ranks of city leadership by placing Hispanics - who make up about 40 percent of the city population - squarely on Camden's political map.
"When I came to this city, Hispanics were disenfranchised in the political process, in services, everything," said Nieves, also director of the county's Office of Hispanic Affairs. "Never in the history of Camden has another Hispanic leader done what we've done."
In the early 1990s, Nieves gained the ear of South Jersey Democratic power broker George E. Norcross 3d. Nieves eventually gained so much clout with the Camden County Democrats that the freeholders created the county Hispanic Affairs Office at his request in 1993. He makes $76,474 a year running it.
Nieves then became a mastermind behind Milton Milan, who became the city's first Hispanic mayor in 1997, after helping swing the Hispanic vote toward Milan's predecessor, Arnold Webster. He also worked for Milan's successor, Mayor Gwendolyn Faison, but is now trying to unseat her.
After his election in 1994, Nieves played a key role in the elections of two other Hispanics to City Council, another to the freeholder board, and Cruz-Perez, his wife's sister, to the Assembly.
"I have to be grateful for what he has accomplished," Cruz-Perez said. "He told us the only way we can be empowered is through politics."
"He is very vocal, more so than anyone else," she added. "This is why he is always taking heat."
Eliud Gautier, a Pennsauken Republican and a minister active in Camden's Puerto Rican community, said Nieves has "done some good things, but he's crossed the line on others."
"If he can't live with the people he's representing," Gautier said, "he should not represent them."
Although he is a Camden elected official, Nieves acknowledges that he spends much of his time at the Pennsauken home he bought in 2001 with his wife, Ivette Cruz-Nieves.
Nieves lists an apartment in Camden's Cramer Hill section as his official residence, and he said he spent time there as well.
Nieves and his wife met at the University of Puerto Rico, and they have a son and daughter in their 20s.
But the couple separated, Nieves said, after he had an extramarital affair that produced a son. His wife also wanted to leave Camden after drug dealers attacked their home, the councilman said.
He said they had remained married because they are Catholic and because he did not want to pay alimony. They co-own the Pennsauken house because she has no credit, he said, and they sleep in separate rooms when he is there.
"I have a responsibility to protect her," he said.
He also arranged for her employment. Cruz-Nieves makes $26,000 as program director of the Puerto Rican and Latino Culture and Arts Center, founded by her husband and two others out of concern that Puerto Rican children were losing their identity and drugs were filling the void.
Nieves said the city's failure to give the center grants throughout the years was one reason why Cruz-Perez would campaign against Faison.
In response, Faison said Nieves was unwisely steering Camden politics along racial lines.
"He divides the community more than he brings it together," Faison said.
Jose Delgado, a former mayoral candidate for whom Nieves campaigned in 1990, agreed. "Whenever Israel wants something, he cries racism," Delgado said.
Delgado condemned Nieves' decision to align with Norcross shortly after the 1990 election. As a result, Delgado said, Camden's Hispanic community has elected representation but no real power because its members are under party control.
Nieves disagreed. He said the political doors opened for Hispanics the day he was ushered into Norcross' Cherry Hill office in 1992.
Norcross' spokesman, Richard McGrath, said Norcross was not available for comment.
Nieves said his run for reelection this spring would be his last. He plans to return to Puerto Rico.
"The county party put a lot of responsibility on my shoulders," he said. "I feel exhausted.
"I have weathered a lot of attacks. I have just tried to do the best I can for my community."
Nieves Drops Bid For Reelection To Camden Council; The Surprise Decision Comes Amid Questions About His Residency And Finances Of A Charity He Founded.
By Kera Ritter
6 March 2005
Camden City Councilman Israel Nieves has announced that he will not seek reelection in May, a sudden decision that came after weeks of scrutiny over his residency and his financial oversight of an organization whose spending has been criticized.
Nieves, 52, made the announcement Thursday night at a meeting of Hispanic Democratic leaders, sending the party into a frantic search for a replacement two months before the election.
Nieves could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Council President Angel Fuentes said he expected the party to name a candidate by midweek. He added that Nieves would continue to be visible during the election this year.
"He's not going anywhere; he's going to be very involved," Fuentes said. "He'll continue to do voter registration, and he's going to make sure the Hispanic community, in particular, has access to all institutions throughout the city of Camden."
Nieves, Camden's most powerful Hispanic politician, has attracted considerable attention over the last month. Questions have been raised about how the Puerto Rican Culture and Arts Center, which Nieves cofounded and on which he serves as treasurer, spent public funding.
And Nieves has been plagued by questions about his residency. As a councilman, Nieves is required to live in Camden. He maintains an apartment in Camden's Cramer Hill section as his official residence but has acknowledged spending much of his time at the Pennsauken home that he shares with his wife, Ivette Cruz-Nieves.
Nieves also is planning a mayoral run this spring for his sister-in-law, Assemblywoman Nilsa Cruz-Perez.
There were some indications that Nieves was losing his political drive. He said a few weeks ago that this would be his last race and that he planned to move to Puerto Rico.