By Clyde Hughes | AC JosepH Media
ATLANTIC CITY — Judge Jason Witcher knew it could cost him his career as a judge if he spoke out against what he saw as an injustice, namely Latinos being made to appear in court in person rather than virtually two years ago.
The controversy led to two investigations and a lawsuit by the Attorney General’s Office against the City of Millville for discrimination against Hispanics in case scheduling. It also led to Witcher resigning after a backlash from others in the local judiciary addressing an unrelated matter.
For Witcher, he said he would do it all over again despite the outcome.
Front Runner New Jersey.com’s inaugural 2023 Newsmakers of the Year recognizes those who have stood up against the odds to speak truth to power. Other Newsmakers have spent countless hours speaking for the voiceless and taking on some of the community’s most difficult challenges. Others were recognized — and carried the burden — of being a “first” in their field. Others risked their own standing to make sure their region and district were being represented with honesty and distinction.
These are the qualities that our 12 Newsmakers of the Year have in common. They are change-makers. They are risk-takers. And they have all shown a will to stand up and be counted when their neighborhood, community or region needed someone to take action.
Likewise, our roughly two dozen Special Recognition honorees deserve praise for their continued service, willing to get involved for the betterment of South Jersey and even make waves if they have to for positive change.
This is the latest new feature for Front Runner New Jersey.com to spotlight, recognize and honor people, groups and institutions impacting people of color and others throughout South Jersey.
“I would absolutely do it all over again,” said Witcher, one of FRNJ’s Newsmakers of the Year. “I knew when I made the statement, there would be repercussions. I knew that. But I’m a Christian, for starters, first and foremost. And secondly, I’m a judge. That’s what my oath expects me to do. Do the right thing because it’s the right to do.”
In September, Cristian and Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez, of El Pueblo Unido, were stunned at the rhetoric that came from a press conference of bipartisan leaders in Atlantic County to protest a proposal to possibly move migrants to the Atlantic County International Airport.
More surprising to them was that the group consisted of political leaders they had supported and held in high regard. The language at the bipartisan press conference turned from simply moving the migrants to Atlantic County to common xenophobic rhetoric one would find at anti-immigrant rallies.
The brothers said they simply could not have such language go unchallenged and be normalized, even if it was coming from many of the county’s top political leaders. They organized their own news conference a week later to counter the images portrayed in the previous briefing.
That news conference highlighted many leaders in the Atlantic County’s Hispanic community, labor leaders and others who addressed the demonization of migrants and how it affects Latinos who are a part of the community.
“Hate speech can lead to violence, intimidation, and exclusion,” Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez said at their rally. “If left unchecked, this alarmist language can also lead to violence and death. We have seen that here in the United States. It can create a climate of fear and intolerance, making it difficult for immigrants to live their lives freely and openly in this great country.”
Days later, when the longtime Atlantic County Executive tried to get the county commissioners to pass an anti-migrant resolution, rejecting New Jersey as a sanctuary state, the Moreno-Rodriguez brothers were there again with a rally and attending the commissions’ board meeting. In the end, commissioners backed away from the legislation.
“We will not let elected officials spread hate and misinformation, nor will we let them scapegoat the undocumented community for all of society’s ills,” Cristian Moreno-Rodriguez said in a letter before the hearing. “Today will be a show of love for our peoples and a show of information and facts about our immigrant communities’ contributions to the local and state economy.”
Witcher and the Moreno-Rodriguez brothers are two examples of courage, determination and dedication to the community that runs through all the Newsmakers of the Year award winners and special recognition honorees.
Here are the Front Runner New Jersey inaugural 2023 Newsmakers of the Year Awardees:
Melanie Collette, incoming Cape County Commissioner
Collette became the first African American to win a county public office seat in Cape May County when she was elected to the Cape May County Board of Commissioners in November. A longtime Republican community activist, commentator and financial talk show host, Collette said she has been humbled by the support she has been given in her historic election.
“It just really feels good and I’m hoping that is going to help us find common ground,” said Collette, who has appeared nationally on Newsmax.
“I just think my visual presence will reflect the openness of the entire board of commissioners to hear everybody’s thoughts and perspectives, and I’m looking forward to engaging in that way.”
Collette said she hopes to stress the importance of people getting involved in their community, whether it’s through politics, nonprofits or a variety of other activities.
“I find it disheartening that quite a few people don’t really understand how their government works,” she said in hopes of breaking stereotypes about people of color and their political leanings. ” I feel like that’s part of the reason why both parties, you know, have such vitriol against each other during the election cycle.
“I’m hoping that my face being there, first of all, will get people who look like me, especially women, the courage to be conservative and they don’t have to be silent.”
J. Curtis Edward, President and CEO, CompleteCare Health Network
Edwards was quick to shy away from the spotlight when he learned he would be named Newsmaker of the Year and point to his board and staff at CompleteCare, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year in providing critically needed healthcare from many of the disadvantaged in Cumberland County.
“I’m honored and I owe this to a lot of people because I work with them to make this happen, whether it’s our frontline staff like doctors and nurses to our board. The members of our board are the ones who trust me and guide me to do what I do every day.”
“We did a lot of events to celebrate 50 years of uninterrupted service,” Edwards said. “This year has taught me a lot, but the main thing is that we’ve been able to continue to do what we do best.
Edwards said 75% of their patients come from Cumberland County, arguably the poorest county in New Jersey, according to poverty rates by the U.S. Census Bureau. Edwards, who also serves on Bridgeton City Council, said it is not lost on him just how critical of a role CompleteCare plays in Cumberland County when it comes to access to high-quality healthcare.
Now CompleteCare is looking to expand into Gloucester County as well.
“If we weren’t here, many of our clients would go without care or go to the emergency room,” Edwards said. “Both of those are the worst options. We work with all of our local hospitals to make sure there is a referral network, so if someone shows up to the emergency room and what they need is a primary care doctor, they can refer them to us.”
There were challenges, like a ransomware attack on CompleteCare files that happened near the end of the year.
“Because we handled things the way we did over the first 49 years of service, we were able to come out of that,” Edwards said. “Most places our size would have had to have shut down with such a cyberattack.”
Edward, a Navy veteran, learned about community healthcare under the tutelage of CompleteCare’s late founder and community activists Gwendolyn Gould. Edwards continues to make it his personal mission to expand on Gould’s dream of making sure everyone has access to great healthcare, regardless of income and circumstances.
Angel Fuentes, President, Camden City Council/Founder Hispanic Leadership Association of New Jersey
Drawing from his own personal experience growing up as well as his daughter’s, Fuentes created anti-bullying legislation for the City of Camden that is being viewed as a model for other cities around the country.
This year he built on momentum by calling for middle school and high school students to become anti-bullying ambassadors through a special program he led.
“After months of designing and strengthening, this city-wide community-based ordinance was approved by city council, and Mayor Vic Carstaphen signed it into law of that year, making this law the first in the state of New Jersey,” Fuentes said then.
As founder of the Hispanic Leadership Association of New Jersey, which celebrated its 10th annual Awards Gala in Atlantic City in October, the event was revived after a three-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Hispanic leaders throughout the state honored Fuentes during the event with the Founder’s Award, for his collaborative effort to bring issues concerning Hispanics to the state policy level and raising money for scholarships.
Coalition of Life Worth Living, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb McRae, Inspira Health Network, Gateway Community Action Network
In the wake of a chilling mass shooting at a house party two years ago, a coalition of nonprofits was built and led by Life Worth Living, Inspira Health and the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office to tackle community violence and make the county a safer place to live.
The alliance won a $1 million federal grant meant to get at the heart of violence that had taken too many lives of young people in Cumberland County.
“This bipartisan funding will allow this coalition to work together to actually do the work,” said John Fuqua, founder of Life Worth Living at the time the grant was announced.
Webb-McRae, a native of Vineland, said the funding will increase the collective impact of community-based organizations by increasing access to resources and activities which support youth living in communities most impacted by violence.
“Each year we receive more than 400 visits that are related to violence of some kind at Inspira Medical Center Vineland,” Amy Mansue, president and CEO of Inspira Health, said. “We urgently need to correct this problem, and this initiative and these funds are critically important to helping curb the cycle of violence in this community.”
It was a phone call between Mansue and Bridgeton businessman and community activist Richard Todd Edwards that got the movement rolling.
U.S. Rep. Andy Kim
Kim is in a safe Democratic Congressional district in the Blue State of New Jersey, yet he said he could not stand idly by when U.S. senator and fellow Democrat Bob Menendez was indicted for a second time in his career on corruption charges. Risking his seat and possibly his political career, Kim immediately threw his hat in the ring to challenge Menendez in the upcoming election in 2024.
“I think I just hit a breaking point when it came to the brokenness of our politics,” Kim, who represents parts of Burlington and Ocean counties, told the New Jersey Monitor in November.
“I just have to do everything that I can right now to be able to try to fix that. In particular, I just get so frustrated when it comes to the lack of trust in our government.”
In a growing field for Menendez’s seat that now includes New Jersey’s First Lady Tammy Murphy, Kim said he is determined to represent the district.
“There is so much at stake in our country right now. There are millions of families living paycheck to paycheck,” Kim said on X, formerly Twitter on Thursday (Dec. 28). “New Jersey families deserve a battle-tested Senator ready Day 1 to deliver.”
Bert Lopez, president of the Hispanic Association of Atlantic County
The Atlantic City Electric executive has been the driving force behind one of the most influential volunteer Latino advocacy groups in South Jersey. His work this year has been no exception as HAAC revived its annual Nuestro Pueblo Awards, which honors local Latinos and allies for their support of the Hispanic community and conducted the successful Atlantic City Latino Festival, which was moved to the Showboat Hotel this year.
Lopez is also the executive producer and host of Latino Motion, the only locally-produced television show that highlights the Hispanic community in South Jersey.
Jessica Grullon, HAAC’s vice president, said Lopez is the voice and the face for many in the Latino community because of his activism and television show.
“Bert has been a trailblazer in the Latino community in various capacities for over 30 years and I have witnessed many of his accomplishments for over half of my life,” she said. “What made me realize the depth of his dedication to the field of communications was when he asked me to do the voice-over for Latino Motion when I was interning at NBC 40 as a senior in college over 10 years ago.
He opened the door for me and continues to open doors for Latinos interested in or studying in that field as well as broadcasts issues that affect the Latino community every chance he gets.”
Nayi Lorick, who runs HAAC scholarship program said she first met Lopez in 1996 and while not joining HAAC then, Lopez was always her connection to the great community.
“Bert was a staple in the community even then,” Lorick said. “Fast forward to March 2021. My Facebook feed showed Bert, his son, and his wife, Ivenny, with masks feeding our local community. I thought he was insane! There he was with his family, providing for hundreds of people who had lost their income due to the pandemic shutdown.”
Lorick said Lopez’s dedication to the community inspired her to join HAAC, where she learned even more about Lopez’s work in the community, which she called “beyond admirable.”
“He continuously pushes forward with programs and services that help build the community,” Lorick said. “He lives and believes in the city of Atlantic City. He works diligently to unify professionals willing to donate and dedicate their time and effort towards keeping the Latino culture and heritage strong in New Jersey.
“He holds his office as President of HAAC with style and grace and is an example to the state of those he represents. He is a pillar in the community and an emblem of pride for those of us who he leads.”
Cristian and Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez, El Pueblo Unido
Cristian Moreno-Rodriguez serves as executive director and Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez serves as president of the non-profit El Pueblo Unido of Atlantic City Y Pueblos Cercanos, which is dedicated to empowering marginalized immigrants from Atlantic City and nearby towns in order to create a more just and inclusive community, one that respects the rights and dignity of all immigrants.
The brothers have been courageous up front in speaking out and fighting for the rights of immigrants, even when it has not been popular or trendy to do so in South Jersey and Atlantic County. They have not been shy to challenge those in power regarding respect for immigrants, including the previously mentioned examples.
Irvin Moreno-Rodriguez also ran hard in a Democratic primary for a seat on the Pleasantville City Council, coming within 20 votes of knocking off incumbent Joanne Famularo.
Isiah Pacheco, of the Kansas City Chiefs and Markquese Bell, of the Dallas Cowboys
Both overachievers, Pacheco, a Vineland native, made a name for himself in his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs by first, winning the starting running back spot and then helping the Chiefs win the Super Bowl in February against the Philadelphia Eagles.
Bell, from Bridgeton, in his second season with the Dallas Cowboys, is having a breakout season. He is currently second in tackles from a hybrid defensive back-linebacker position as the Cowboys compiled one of the best records in the NFL this season.
The City of Vineland held a parade in Pacheco’s honor that brought together the Vineland community and filled Vineland High School’s Gittone Stadium, where Pacheco played high school football.
Bell, who joined the Cowboys as an undrafted free agent from Florida A&M quickly became a favorite of Cowboys coaches and has inspired youth in Bridgeton.
“He’s the epitome of the ‘be ready, you have to get ready’ mantra,” said respected Bridgeton community activist Jerry Young. “When he joined the team, he was willing to do whatever it took to make the team and to make the team better. He held steadfast to that work ethic.
“Since being called on to move from his natural safety position to linebacker, Bell, though undersized, has not only served as a capable replacement, he has excelled. That’s just a testament to what his grandmother, Pauline, a deeply religious woman who played a major role in raising Markquese, instilled in him.
“He has held on to her teachings and he uses them on and off the field. I’m very proud that a young man from Bridgeton is a star in the NFL. More so, I’m proud that this young man is also a star in life.”
Young said Bell hasn’t forgotten where he came from and when he returns to the area, he’s approachable and makes it his business to help take care of his now elderly grandmother just like she helped take care of him during his formative years.
“All of Bridgeton and Cumberland County as a whole should be proud of young Mr. Bell,” Young said. “However, the younger people, especially those of color, should strive to overcome the obstacles that are placed on their paths to greatness. Bell’s life has not been without hiccups, but he put on his big boy shorts and worked his way around, over and through those roadblocks to get where he wants to be.
“That’s not bad for a young man of color from what most consider the worst municipality in what most also consider the worst county in the state of New Jersey. Even at my age, I’m inspired by Markquese to keep doing what I do. He has truly shined a positive light on Bridgeton and Cumberland County.”
Ralph Padilla, PRAC of Southern New Jersey
The renowned leader of the PRAC of Southern New Jersey is recovering from liver transplant surgery in October but has continued to remain active.
Padilla, the president and CEO of the South Jersey nonprofit Puerto Rican Action Committee of Southern New Jersey and former Salem County detective and mayor, went into surgery this week after battling with Nonalcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, or NAFLD, according to PRAC board President Jose Sanchez Sr.
Before his surgery, PRAC had just come off its biggest fundraiser of the year in the Playero Latin Music Festival. The two-day concert drew thousands to Wildwood and is considered one of the largest Latin music festivals in the region.
In November, Padilla called for an independent investigation after a custodian was charged with urinating on cafeteria equipment and performing lewd acts at the Elizabeth Moore School in the Upper Deerfield Township School District.
Six percent of Upper Deerfield residents were born outside the U.S. and 18% identify as Hispanic or Latino. The Hispanic population within the school district has grown to 32% over the past three years, with nearly half the student population identified as economically disadvantaged, according to the Census statistics provided by NJ.com.
“This incident is beyond deplorable, which appears to have been caused by an employee of the district,” Padilla said in a statement. “An independent investigation should be conducted by the state to provide answers to parents and students.”
Superior Court Judge Demetrica Todd-Ruiz
Todd-Ruiz was already a history maker when she became the first African American and first female municipal court judge in Vineland in 2017 and then being elevated to chief judge in 2021. She took another trailblazing step this year when she became the first Black woman to be named a Superior Court judge in Cumberland County.
The Bridgeton native said as a role model, she would want young girls looking up to her to set high goals and believe in themselves enough to achieve them.
“I would tell them to dream and dream big,” Todd-Ruiz told Front Runner New Jersey.com. “It starts with having confidence in yourself and in believing you belong. I am thankful that it was instilled in me. My parents and my family let me know that I can do anything and be anything I wanted. Wherever God leads you, wherever your steps go, you belong there.”
State Sen. Troy Singleton
Singleton’s stature as one of the leading African Americans in the New Jersey legislature continued to grow in 2023 as he was elevated this year to New Jersey Senate Majority Whip, one of the rare times a person of color has held the position in the history of Garden State politics.
Senator President Nicholas Scutari said Singleton, who was first elected to the Senate in 2017 after serving the Assembly representing Burlington County, was a natural for his leadership skills and making sure all voices are represented on his leadership team.
“He possesses a firm grasp of public policies and an innate understanding of the impact they will have on the lives and livelihoods of every day, working people,” he said of Singleton at the time. He is sharply attuned to the needs and priorities of the people we serve. Troy will make significant contributions to a team of leaders that will be the most diverse in the history of the State Senate.”
Singleton is known throughout his district for meeting and talking to his constituents at the grassroots level through his visits to a wide range of community events. He spent the past year working as chair of the Senate Community and Urban Affairs Committee, vice chair of the Senate Economic Growth Committee, a member of the Senate Budget Committee, the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Joint Committee on Housing Affordability, and as vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus.
Judge Jason Witcher (Retired)
“The time is always right to do the right thing.” — Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Judge Jason Witcher quoted one of King’s best-known passages in leading to his decision to question what he saw as an injustice being done to local Latinos being forced to appear in person in Millville Municipal Court instead of receiving the option of virtual hearings in 2022.
Speaking out led to an Attorney General Office investigation, which led to it suing the City of Millville because of the alleged injustice facing Hispanic defendants there. It also led to a backlash in the state judiciary, leading to Witcher’s departure from the bench in August.
Witcher said that it was a matter of principle and faith – two things that drove him as a jurist – to make the call to speak out. The community has embraced him and his stance.
Special Recognition Honorees
Front Runner New Jersey also wishes to bring attention to the following South Jersey Newsmakers of color for their contributions to the community over the past year as well as their continued efforts to make a positive, newsworthy impact.
- Dr. Elizabeth Arthur and Vineland High School African American Experience Students: For their effort to rename a street in Vineland after Martin Luther King Jr.
- Tyrus Ballard, President, Southern Burlington County NAACP: For his tireless work within the local branch through modernization and education efforts.
- Virginia Ruiz Betteridge, Camden County Commissioner: Ruiz Betteridge won election to the Camden County Commissioners Board in November after being appointed to replace Carmen Rodriguez.
- JT Burks, Positive Vibes: For his continued work engaging young people through his nonprofit and calling community leaders together this summer to find solutions during a spike in youth gun violence.
- Jon Diego, Pleasantville attorney: For his work as president of the Hispanic Leadership Association of New Jersey Board of Directors and seeing through its 2023 Awards Gala in Atlantic City.
- Angelia Edwards, Manna From Heaven, Greater Vineland NAACP: For her continued service in feeding those in need and shining a spotlight on uplifting others through her Father’s Day program and other events.
- Richard Todd Edwards, Edwards & Son Funeral Home, community activist: For his unwavering support for people of color in Cumberland County and the state from his activism and ability to bring people together.
- Curate Noir: The Moorestown Mall consignment shop that promotes Black and brown-owned businesses expanded to a second location in Camden.
- Fatima Heyward, President, New Jersey Young Democrats: The Burlington County native was appointed by Gov. Phil Murphy to the Amistad Commission and was appointed vice chair of the Evesham Township Human Rights Advisory Committee.
- Albert Kelly, Mayor of Bridgeton. Gateway CAP: For his passionate voice as the ambassador of Bridgeton while juggling the responsibilities as president and CEO of one of the largest organizations that low-income residents in South Jersey.
- Assemblyman Antwan McClellan: Won re-election in District 1 of the New Jersey Assembly and remains the only Black Republican in the New Jersey legislature.
- Maisha Moore, Casino Reinvestment District Authority: For being named interim executive director in December, becoming possibly the first person of color named to the position.
- Lydia Munoz, Spanish Community Center, Atlantic City: For her continued dedication and work within the Hispanic community of Atlantic County.
- Andre Murphy, Healing for the Soul: His feeding tour has made more than 10,000 meals for the hungry in South Jersey and he expanded his operation to North Carolina this year.
- Native American Advancement Corporation: For the acquisition of the Cohanzick Nature Reserve in Salem County, as it serves as “a monumental step toward preserving this ancestral homeland and sharing its significance with the broader community.”
- Andrew Parker III, Atlantic County Commissioner, District 3: The Egg Harbor Township resident and educator won re-election in November and remains the only African American male to ever hold the seat.
- Albert Porter, Vineland High School teacher, Vineland African American Community Development Corp.: For his continued work in honoring community leaders through his programs connected with Vineland AACDC.
- Lovell Pugh-Bassett, President, Camden County College: For her outstanding work in completing her first year as the first African American female president of the college.
- Sheena Santiago, City of Vineland: For her tireless work in bringing cultural and mainstream events to the city in 2023, including the historic parade for Vineland natives and Kansas City Chiefs Isiah Pacheco. Mayor Antony Fancucci praised her for her drive and passion for the city.
- Kaleem Shabazz, Atlantic City NAACP President, City Council, Atlantic City: For his continued work on behalf of his constituents while engaging issues of interest of African Americans as NAACP president.
- Marcus Sibley, National Wildlife Federation: For his energetic and determined advocacy for the environment and people of color on a local, state and national level over the past year.
- Marty Small, Mayor, Atlantic City: For his scholarship initiative to award 100 scholarships to local students through American Rescue Plan funds.
- Luz Vasquez, Cumberland County: For her appointment as deputy administrator for Cumberland County government, and her longtime community activism.
- Vineland Puerto Rico Festival and President Leonides Nigro: For its service to the Hispanic community during its annual festival in July, one of the largest events recognizing the Puerto Rican culture in all of New Jersey.
- Audrey Wiggins, President of NAWBO-SJ: One of the first presidents of the South Jersey organization that advocates on behalf of local women business owners.
- Loretta Winters, Gloucester County NAACP: First person of color to serve as chairperson on the First Harvest Credit Union Board of Directors and for continued leadership with the NAACP in Gloucester County and across the state.
Follow Us Today On:
Note from AC JosepH Media: If you like this story and others posted on Front Runner New Jersey.com, lend us a hand so we can keep producing articles like these for New Jersey and the world to see. Click on SUPPORT FRNJ and make a contribution that will go directly in making more stories like this available. Thank you for reading.