PATERSON – When Ilia Villanueva nearly brought Councilman Thomas C. Rooney to his knees in their 2004 showdown, losing by just 68 votes to the Ward 6 legend in her second campaign against him, she figured she was in a good position to knock off the 80-year old Irish-Americancome 2008.
But when Rooney announced his retirement this year and heartily endorsed School Board President Andre Sayegh, the rules changed for Villanueva – even more dramatically when 21st Avenue businessman (and fellow Latino) Eliecar Montoya entered the race.
Paterson’s 6th Ward is home to 72 ethnic groups, but Latinos, Arabs and Middle Easterners and whites make up the bulk of the areas’s dedicated voting block. Montoya’s running a soft campaign. He was a no-show at the city-sponsored debates two weeks ago, and doesn’t have the grassroots support that Villanueva built over 27 years in Paterson.
Still, he’s enough of a presence to deflate some of Villanueva’s support, particularly given the fact that Sayegh is running a charged-up shoe leather campaign throughout the ward’s diverse 11 districts.
"I tried to convince him not to run," Villanueva said of Montoya. "No, I don’t think he did it to help Andre beat me. Montoya’s his own person. He has good intentions. His heart is in the right place."
Sitting in Dunkin Donuts out of the rain on Madison Avenue, the 50-year old social worker says she doesn’t feel well. She’s getting a cold. She’s running as hard as she can with the knowledge that Montoya on paper probably proves just enough of a difference-maker to prevent her from beating Sayegh.
Then there’s Sayegh, who says Montoya isn’t a factor.
At his headquarters on 21st Avenue, the converted wing of Francisco and Elsa Mantilla’s store, the 34-year old candidate is surrounded by Dominican supporters working the phones and wearing baseball-style T-shirts with Sayegh’s name and the number "6" printed on the back.
"I’m a big sports fan," says the Paterson native, son of a single mother from Syria, and a Lebanese father.
Sayegh couldn’t break away from politics after passing out flyers for Michael Dukakis in 1987. He received degrees from Seton Hall and Columbia University, went to work for state Sen. Jack Girgenti (D-Passaic) and later U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8).
His longstanding ties to the congressman began as early as working the streets for Pascrell – a former Paterson mayor – in Pascrell’s first congressional campaign victory – against U.S. Rep. Bill Martini in 1996.
Having served four years on the school board, including a year as president, Sayegh now believes it’s his turn to represent his ward. His combination of deep roots in the community and sterling political connections from Rooney to Pascrell have backed other Paterson power players out of the ward in advance of Election Day.
While he’s vocally involved in some city races – specifically in the 2nd and the 5th – Mayor Jose "Joey" Torres is not robocalling or working his political muscle for Villanueva in the 6th.
The candidate is stoic about her fellow Puerto Rican’s decision not to outright back her with an endorsement, to add to the favorable comments Torres has made on her behalf in the local media.
"In life," says Montoya, "you have to respect the political loyalties that people have. In the end, what happens tomorrow is going to be what God wills."
At his campaign headquarters Monday, standing in front of a map of the ward where everything is marked off, block by block indicating where he has walked, Sayegh says he’s confident he’ll win on Tuesday.
"I have an appointment with the podiatrist on Wednesday," says the candidate. "In the meantime, we don’t cry here. We only work. Then we celebrate."
His three school board candidates won last month. Newly elected Commissioner Danilo E. Ino says he is proud that Sayegh has won supporters throughout the entire 6th Ward.
"Andre has the ability to lobby for us," says the commissioner. "Who’s going to be able to talk to Trenton for the 6th Ward? Andre. We miss that right now. This is a guy who started from scratch, and the community has embraced him."
Says Elsa Mantilla, "You have to be diplomatic. Professional. My trouble with Illia is if she knows you are supporting someone else, she doesn’t talk to you. She gets mad. It reminds of my friends when I wouldn’t back Sandoval against Pascrell. They called me a traitor.
"Look, I watched Andre grow," Mantilla adds. "I watched him as a child. I’ve known him all his life. I knew a long time ago, he’s going to go higher than a councilman."
"I’ve reached out," he says. "I’ve stood in every doorway. I’ve had six fundraisers here, all in the ward. My victory party is across the street at the Macarena. All of these people, they may not be blood relatives of mine, but we’re all family. My mother cameto Patersonfrom Syria. Very little formal education. I took on her work ethic, family values and character.
"I grew up on the playgrounds," he adds. "I grew up eating Columbian food. This is the only home I’ve ever known."