PASSAIC – On Main Street, the tower looms over everything like the past.
Vincent Capuana and Carl Ellen grew up here together and now they’re running against each other for mayor in this immigrant city dominated by an old Art Deco building you can see all the way from the high ground in Paterson, which teemed with business 40 years ago, and now stands abandoned.
The Sicilian, and the African-American from Macon, Georgia came of age in the same Washington Place neighborhood, on the same block, right next door, in Passaic.
"I’m not going to say anything bad about anyone in this race," said Ellen, now 65, sitting in his bailbondsman’s office at the corner of State and Passaic streets. "All of the men I’m running against are caballeros y carinosos."
Gentlemen and affectionate.
They are, all told, Ellen and School Board President Capuana, physician Alex Blanco, real estate developer Jose Sandoval and Councilman Joe Garcia.
The relationship with Capuana is particularly special for Ellen because he and Capuana played in the streets back when the train that ran through the city took you straight into New York, the same one that brought people en masse to Passaic to shop come the holidays.
Ellen can remember Capuana’s father strumming the mandolin on his front porch.
But Capuana has served on the School Board for nearly three decades, and the fact that there’s a school named after him in a down-on-its-heels city irks Ellen, who’s running on a change mantra against Capuana’s message of continuation.
"We’re talking about a small minority of people – maybe 30 or 40 people who are hooked together financially in city government, and in contrast, I think I offer a new perspective," said Ellen, who’s never held elected office, but whose father, Magnus Ellen, served on the council.
"I’m able to get along with people from all over the city. I speak Spanish. I’m black, obviously. I offer a unique perspective. You’ve got candidates like Vinny and Joe Garcia who have been there already, and then guys like Blanco and Sandoval, who are too fresh-faced, who aren’t connected to the community the way I am.
"I have more street communications," said Ellen.
He bails people out of the poky here: the drug, robbery and domestic violence offenders. They’re the three big ones in Passaic, and in that order.
"I had a little incident myself once, back in 1972, a CDS charge," said Ellen. "But I never looked back. I run several businesses: this here – getting folks out of jail; and real estate development out of Clifton. We buy cash houses that are in some kind of financial trouble, that would otherwise be bought out by the banks."
He admits this mayoral race will be tough, but is determined to stick it out. African Americans comprise just 12 percent of the population in Passaic. The three Latinos in the race are splitting votes of the city’s largest ethnic group among them. The city’s Orthodox Jewish population is likely to lean toward Blanco with the expected endorsement of Acting Mayor Gary Schaer.
That leaves Ellen’s old pal, Capuana, to make the case that with the $25,000-$30,000 he plans to spend on this race and his proven record as a winner of nine school board elections, he can muster broad support.
Less than a block away from Ellen’s office, there he was, walking across the street in front of City Hall after this afternoon’s ballot drawing.
"That’s a lot of malarkey, them criticizing me for the school," Capuana said. "My fellow citizens recommended that they name the school after me, and they paid me the highest honor that I can enjoy while I’m still alive. Why do people know Vinny Capuana? Because he’s served your kids for 27 years."
He took the shot from Ellen with a smile, but the blast sent his way from fellow candidate Jose Sandoval elicited a dumbfounded look.
Arguing a clear-the-decks approach to City Hall in the aftermath of Sammy Rivera’s dethronement earlier this year on corruption charges, Sandoval said Passaic’s abysmal ranking among school districts statewide warrants low marks for Capuana.
That provoked a big objection from the school board prez, who also works as the city’s director of code enforcement and housing inspections..
"Does he know the makeup of our city?" Capuana said of Sandoval. "Does he know that 25 percent of our kids go from one school to another in the middle of the school year? Does he know the state mandates we have to comply with? Listen, this year we had a kid go to Princeton University. I came here in 1948. An immigrant. I didn’t go to college, but I made sure my kids went to college.
"Sandoval doesn’t know the community," Capuana added. "He doesn’t know the makeup of the kids in the community. He says he wants golf team in town? We have a golf team, and a swim team. Every night, 90 percent of our schools are open so the kids can go there. He doesn’t know."
If Capuana and Ellen have the same street history going back over 50 years, Ellen and Sandoval share the same party.
Or at least they did until this year.
"I was a Republican," Ellen said. "I’m a past president of the Passaic Republican Party. But I made the switch to independent during Obama’s candidacy. I’ll be honest. I became disenchanted with everything under Bush. We have to change, it’s the only answer for us if we’re going to survive."
Although Capuana’s a proud Democrat, going back to when he was an Army recruit at Fort Knox, voting for John F. Kennedy, he checks anyone’s assertion that because he served with Rivera he therefore has special ties to the fallen Democratic Party mayor.
"I’ve been a city employee since 1988," Capuana said. "I’ve worked for five mayors. When I say I want to ‘continue’ the progress we’ve made, I’m speaking about continuing certain things. Nobody can say the streets aren’t clean, or that crime hasn’t been down."
There’s a new side and an old side, insisted Ellen.
"I’m on the new side," he said.
Capuana, he said, represents the old.
But on the issues, there’s no big divide.
"The gang problem in Passaic has been blown out of proportion," said Ellen. "Don’t get me wrong. There’s a gang problem. But it’s nothing like LA or New York."
Whoever proves to be the new mayor, he will serve for six months, then face another election for a full term. With that in mind, neither man will promise anything, except to run hard, and represent the diversity of Passaic, and the sense is whatever divergent tag lines they run on, they’re from the same school, and maybe that’s because they come from the same neighborhood: 73 and 75 Washington Place,not farfrom the tower.