By Joseph Ax, The Record
TEANECK â€” Mohammed Hameeduddin became the first Muslim mayor in Bergen County history Thursday, as a divided Township Council elected him after a fierce, weeks-long debate over who should take the gavel.
Hameeduddin, who won a council seat two years ago, earned five out of seven votes at the annual reorganization of township government, which took place outside the municipal building.
Councilwoman Lizette Parker, who had served as deputy mayor since her election in 2006, fell short of votes needed to become Teaneckâ€™s first female African-American mayor.
Parker and Barbara Toffler voted for Parker, while Hameeduddin, Adam Gussen, Monica Honis, Elie Katz and Yitz Stern voted for Hameeduddin.
At recent council meetings, a number of residents had questioned whether Parker would be denied the mayorâ€™s seat in part because of her race and gender, pointing to her status as the top vote-getter in May.
And earlier this week, while a clearly frustrated Parker stopped short of accusing her fellow council members of using her color or gender as factors in their decision-making, she said that â€œperception is realityâ€ and urged the council to â€œdo the right thing.â€ On Thursday, however, Parker struck a conciliatory tone, vowing to work with her colleagues.
â€œI am a woman of integrity and honor,â€ she said. â€œIâ€™m not going to harbor any hostility, because if you harbor hostility, it just eats away at you. While I realize that there is disappointment for some, tomorrow is a new day, when I begin my second term on the council.â€
Parkerâ€™s supporters continued to express their displeasure, with a murmuring of catcalls during the meeting, but public comments were generally more subdued.
â€œIâ€™m saddened by what I believe took place this evening, with people making a decision for the wrong reasons,â€ said resident Angela Taylor. â€œI just hope, moving forward in Teaneck, we keep the youth, not personal agendas, but the youth in the forefront of our minds in our decision-making.â€
Honis criticized those who suggested that race and gender had played a role.
â€œItâ€™s a little disheartening for someone to call racism and sexism when thatâ€™s not the case,â€ she said. â€œIn this case, it wasnâ€™t. It was purely a matter of policy. I think it does a disservice to the womenâ€™s movement and the civil rights movement when you call it something that itâ€™s not.â€
The role of the mayor is essentially a ceremonial one: performing marriages, making appearances and running council meetings. The mayor also holds a seat on the planning board.
This year marked the first time in memory that a mayoral selection created a public uproar, adding to the divisions that have frequently plagued politics in recent years.
Though he possesses no more power than any other council member, Hameeduddin will be seen as the townshipâ€™s most visible representative as it continues to deal with a sluggish economy and lingering resentment from the public school community over the councilâ€™s decision to slice $6.1 million from the districtâ€™s budget in May.
He is one of only a handful of Muslim mayors, including Prospect Parkâ€™s Mohamed Khairullah, serving in New Jersey. His brief remarks included a nod to the historic nature of the moment, recalling that President Obama was attacked in 2008 for being a â€œcloset Muslim.â€
â€œIn Teaneck, New Jersey, my religion never played a factor in people voting for me or against me,â€ he said. â€œThat is a testament to the town that we live in.â€
The council remains one of the most diverse in North Jersey, with a mixture of gender, races and religions.
Adam Gussen, who won a second term in May, was elected deputy mayor with four votes. Gussen, Parker, Elie Katz and Yitz Stern all were sworn to four-year terms.
The township also swore in its prosecutor, Deborah Veach, and its attorney, Stanley Turitz.