PATERSON – Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres and Councilman Aslon Goow live close to each other in the same ward but they’re hardly close friends. Their long-time rivalry has made them enemies and defines the city’s political landscape.
This year as Goow, a private eye and Paterson native, is trying to win a third term on the council, his opponents are either in Torres’s camp or champion the mayor’s issues. Goow, the Ward Two Councilman, needs to defeat Elizabeth Gonzalez and John Larko to keep his seat, but he is nursing his own ambition to be mayor, so he mostly keeps his sights trained on Torres, who knows Goow’s out there gunning for his job in the next election.
Torres and Goow battled each other directly in the 2002 mayoral race, when Torres beat Goow. “I came in fourth out of fifth, I was the new kid on the block,” says Goow, who received 2,000 votes to Torres’s 7,800. “I know I could beat him now.”
At almost every turn since their 2002 race, Goow has seen a chance to challenge Torres. Goow sided with Police Chief Lawrence Spagnola against Torres in a 2003 war between the police department and the mayor’s administration, when the mayor made cuts to the department. A lawsuit later filed by the police resulted in the city spending thousands of dollars in court.
“Councilman Goow initiated that lawsuit,” says Torres. But Goow responds, “I didn’t initiate it, seven council members voted for it.”
In any case, Torres beat the Goow-backed Spagnola in the mayor’s race of 2006.
Then there was the case of the police cars. Goow, chairman of the public safety committee, didn’t mind the idea of painting 23 police cars red, white and blue. “You know, so they’d be visible,” he says.
But when he saw the cars, it became apparent that the mayor had managed to make a statement there, too. “Joey had a star put in the middle of those three colors so it looked like the Puerto Rican flag,” says Goow.
The infuriated councilman called for a new paint job — straight up black and white the second time around.
Denying that he plays political games, Torres maintains that Goow’s hunger to be mayor prevents him from properly focusing on his work as councilman.
“Is this race about the mayor?” asks Torres of this year’s Ward Two contest, “or is it a race about his leadership? “All of the head-butting with him comes down to Councilman Goow not understanding the role of government.” The mayor adds, “The Faulkner form of government gives the mayor’s administration the responsibility to run the day to day operations, but Councilman Goow believes the council does that.”
Goow says his troubles with the mayor started when another Torres brother wanted to open a liquor store on a corner where the city had experienced gang-related problems. After the Torres’s tried to circumvent the process, Goow says he pressed to get the matter resolved in court. A judge ruled against the Torres brothers.
“He can’t live with it,” Goow says of the mayor’s reaction to that decision.
In 2004, Goow scored another victory off the mayor when a Torres ally, Councilman Jerry Luis Rosado, fled the scene of a car accident. Rosado tried to dig in on the council, enjoying cover from Torres as he resisted calls from the community for him to resign. Goow led the charge, and with newspaper editorial boards piling on, Rosado finally left City Hall in disgrace.
Now Torres and Goow are embroiled in a controversy over the firefighters’ contract. In his run for mayor, Torres received the firefighters’ backing. After his re-election, he signed off on a contract with wages that Goow, and most other members of the council, find exorbitant.
Councilman Thomas C. Rooney, a Torres supporter, said the administration fast-tracked the contract, which in his opinion contains too many giveaways to the firefighters.
“Joey’s pitting the council against the firefighters in an election year,” says Goow, who believes it’s no coincidence that the patrol cars and firefighters’ contract are the signature issues of one of his two opponents.
Larko, who’s challenging Goow this year, says no way.
“I never spoke to the mayor at all,” says Larko, owner of his own mason contracting company. “I don’t want to get too cozy with him. I don’t want to be classified as his boy. I was never involved in politics. As I started following it more closely, it was in the back of my mind year or so ago. No one else encouraged me to run.”
Larko says he criticizes both the council and the mayor on his campaign website. Goow’s second opponent in the race is a more obvious Torres ally: Gonzalez, the wife of former Councilman Rosado.
Four other Ward Two residents had taken out petitions to challenge Goow: Thomas Silva; Robert Sivori; Herman C. Vallellaves; and Gerardo Torres, who just happens to be the mayor’s older brother.
The ethnically diverse district of roughly 24,000 residents and 10,000 registered voters is 43% Latino. A quick glance at the demographics would suggest that Larko, who is white, could cut into Goow’s base, enabling Gonzalez to pull out a victory by capturing the Latino vote.
Goow says that won’t happen.
“The people in this district know me,” he says. “I have Latinos all the time telling me they’ll vote for me as long as they know I’m not an ally of Joey Torres.”
He appears to be going all out for his campaign, just in case.
Paterson’s working class Second Ward is situated in the northwest corner of the city on a hill above the Passaic River and higher in the hills the Township of Wayne looks down on Chamberlain Avenue, the ward’s main commercial drag.
Both campaign’s headquarters are within 100 yards of each other on Chamberlain. Goow signs blanket the area. Every small front yard displaying “Re-elect Goow” looks like it could be the campaign headquarters of the councilman. But the real office is in a storefront draped in red, white and blue bunting with an equally impressive Goow sign in the window.
A half a block west, Gonzalez’s campaign headquarters is in a low-slung hall in front of a sports bar. It is barely visible behind the Goow signs that crowd almost every available patch of dirt to north and south of the parking lot.
“I had a guy tell me her campaign headquarters looks like the cavalry surrounded by Indians,” says the councilman. “Look, her campaign headquarters is a joke. They had a grand opening, about 20 people showed up, and nobody’s seen them since.”
Larko has no presence in the area. “I’m running my campaign out of my house,” he says.
In the residential part of the neighborhood, a few people have Larko signs in their yards, and when Goow hits the streets on this weeknight with campaign workers Ryan M. Yacco and Millie Mulero, his first targets are those homes.
He knocks on a door and a woman appears.
“Is there something I haven’t done, a problem I haven’t helped you with?” he asks. She explains that her husband put up the sign, but she doesn’t know why. She says she has no problem with Goow.
“I’ll come back here to talk to him,” says the councilman.
He broke his ankle a few months but doesn’t appear slowed at all now as he bounds across another yard and up the steps to talk to another resident. He’s recognized. People tell him he can leave signs in their front yards. Mulero talks to the Latino residents in Spanish. They get a flow going from one house to the next.
Gonzalez has no signs here, and the few that Larko has, Goow continues to try to eradicate. He hits almost every house on the block.
But there’s one he stays away from: a large two-story on the corner.
When Goow sees it he keeps walking.
It’s the house of Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres.