PASSAIC – Mayoral candidate Jose Sandoval stands on the porch of a voter who’s frustrated by gangs, sexual predators, drug dealers, cops and politicians.
The voter says the cops own local bars and nitpick residents with parking violations if they get in the way of business traffic. If the drug dealersharass the pit-bull that guards his property, he’s convinced the cops will kill his pit-bull.
He calls to his son-in-law, who stands dutifully at attention as the man grasps the child’s slender shoulders in two calloused hands. The boy shows no emotion in the face of three strangers who tower over him.
“He’s autistic,” explains the man. “He can’t play outside here. There’s a child molester who lives up the street with three children. His wife’s a crack head. There are gangs in the streets. How can this boy play outside?”
As for politicians…don’t get him started.
The man looks like a tough guy. He’s not close to tears. He can take it. But there’s a cynical edge in his voice as he asks Sandoval, one candidate in a five-man race for mayor, “You’re not going to be another Sammy, are you?”
It’s a reference to Sammy Rivera, former mayor of Passaic, who now sits in a federal pen after pleading guilty to taking a bribe. “Sammy,” as everyone still calls him, once walked around these streets like a king and controlled a lot of people on a big public payroll, and ultimately got bagged by the feds for trying to sell council votes. But he never controlled Sandoval, an immigrant on the same streets who hit pay-dirt in banking and stayed away from the machine – stayed out of the entire party, in fact, and took two blowout losses in runs for Congress and the Assembly.
He’s at another house now. There’s a portrait of the Last Supper in the kitchen as a woman fills out the form for an absentee ballot. She plans to be in the Dominican Republic on Election Day, and she wants to make sure she votes for Sandoval.
“We need someone who hasn’t been part of the system,” she says.
When he first came from the Dominican Republic in the 1970s, Sandoval worked jobs in a broom factory and a fabric mill while he went to school and he says people used to laugh at him for his determination back then but he persevered and went into international banking – the Spanish proved helpful and so did his knack for languages, not to mention business – and he made his money there then turned to real estate development. He’s a family man now with young children and he lives somewhere – on the other side of town.
“If you want something rehabilitated, Jose’s the man you call,” says his campaign manager, Linda Ellerbee. “We’re looking at a whole city that needs to be rehabilitated now, and that’s why he’s the man for the job.”
He walks a neighborhood in the first ward where shadows of the older manufacturing world rise over the packed tenements and chained-off vacant lots. He started here in the factories that burned down in 1985, and the brick shells of those buildings remain and so does the Passaic River and Sandoval sees potential. The city owns some of the waterfront land now, some of it’s private, and he believes he’s the man to make the deals “through an open and transparent and competitive bidding process, of course” to get the old structures bulldozed or rebuilt and Passaic revitalized. He passes a small shopping district – plugging a space between a grassy lot and a clutch of packed houses – that backs up to the river.
“All they put here was the Shop Rite but we need this whole area developed,” says Sandoval. “When this area is done – I envision a crew team practicing down here on the river. I picture those kids getting scholarships to Harvard, Yale and Princeton. This waterfront area could look like Hoboken.”
His detractors brand Sandoval the “Republican” in the race, usually the kiss of death in urban politics, and in this case he’s the man who went up against U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-Paterson) no less and gotten beaten – badly; but even as he continually makes the point that this is a nonpartisan contest, he also doesn’t back down from his party. Plus, it seems a lot of the politicians here have been with the GOP at one point or another in their lives. One of his rivals in the mayoral contest, physician Alex Blanco was a Republican until six months ago when he became an independent. Now the most powerful Democrat in Passaic, Acting Mayor Gary Schaer was a Republican until only a few years back. If the Democrats grind anyone who wants to be in politics into their own product, says Sandoval, he takes pride in standing outside the machine – as his own man.
That’s why things broke down between him and Blanco.
It’s a prickly subject for both men. Sandoval supported his fellow Dominican American in two school board elections. But he doesn’t think Blanco fought hard enough. He didn’t go against Board Member Vincent Capuana – also running for mayor this year – and Sammy in a concerted way, the way he should have – the way Sandoval wanted.
Blanco makes no apologies.
“I’m one man on the board, and Jose has never been elected to anything so, of course, he doesn’t understand that you need a majority on the School Board,” says Blanco. “I’m not a demagogue. I’m going to make my case and vote my conscience and be good with God, but I’m not going to run out into the streets and stir angry feelings. I won’t do it.”
The aftermath of a fire at one of the schools revealed employees with sexually explicit material on the premises. When Capuana as president of the School Board soft-pedaled punishment and recommended that the transgressors be suspended and then relocated to other schools, Sandoval felt Blanco had a moment to make a statement. Blanco did object – did so forcefully, he says. But in the end, he abstained on the issue, instead of making a stand with a morally outraged vote to fire the culprits.
Sandoval didn’t like that.
“All these guys have some kind of interest in government,” he says, and it’s true, Blanco’s wife teaches in the school system. “I know Alex is going to argue that he’s different from the others – from Sammy and Vinny Capuana and the older guys who have been there a long time. But he had an opportunity. He’s been in public office, and our schools are still in terrible condition, ranked among the lowest in the state. His first term, I gave him the benefit of the doubt. He was learning. But the second term – he hasn’t done anything.”
Blanco says the older man doesn’t get it because he’s not connected. “His kids are in private schools,” he says. “My kids? They’re in the City of Passaic school system.”
In any event, the political alliance Sandoval hoped to build with Blanco came apart, and the Dominican community split between the older patron and the young doctor, and now Blanco’s close ties to Schaer are no secret, and Schaer’s yet another longtime Sandoval adversary whom the businessman tried to beat in another race when he ran for the Assembly. Although Sandoval lost, his effort again kept him in the sights of the Passaic County Democratic Party, who want him neutralized before he gains an edge with an “I told you so message” post-Sammy.
The other mayoral camps watch Blanco and Sandoval and take a certain measure of enjoyment in the conventional wisdom that these two well-educated, buttoned down Dominicans are draining votes fromeach otherand opening up the very real possibility – at least today, at this moment – that either Capuana or City Councilman Joe Garcia will become mayor. Such an outcome would perpetuate the Sammy era, the Blanco and Sandoval camps both maintain.
Capuana and Rivera were tight. In his public job ascode enforcement director, Capuana’s salary jumped from $60,000 to well over six figures under Sammy. A landlord in Sandoval’s old neighborhood, Garcia has proved a mostly under-the-radar representative, first on the school board and now for years on the council. A fifth candidate, bailbondsman Carl Ellen, is running on a promise that he’s “loyal, honest and fair,” a slogan his rivals believe will test him this Thursday when Ellen goes before a federal Grand Jury to answer the question of who allegedly offered him $25,000 to get out of the mayor’s race. That could shake up the contest, and everyone following politics here knows it – everyone’s waiting for Thursday.
In the meantime, Blanco has taken the month of October off from his job as a podiatrist to focus on getting elected. He faces criticism that he jumped into campaign mode too late, and now follows a trail Sandoval says he already blazed with voters and not just over the past few months – but years; years of going to little league games, attending services at different churches and temples, and doubling back to the old neighborhood. Last month, as school started, the Sandoval campaign distributed 4,000 children’s backpacks with his name on them.
All up and down Monroe Street in the heart of the 4th Ward with three weeks until Election Day, it looks like a sign war between Blanco and Sandoval. The biggest Latino commercial district in town, it’s not like Main street downtown where the bus line from Paterson to New York ensures the presence of shoppers from outside Passaic – not as many as there used to be but some.
On Monroe, the apartment buildings stand on both sides of the street, and residents spill down stairs right into the shopping district, Little Italy-style. It’s residential stacked on commercial; packed tenements heaped on top of bars and hair and nail salons and barbershops and bakeries and supermercados and restaurants – Puerto Rican and Dominican big here, of course, 99 cent stores, bodegas and hardware and Latino music shops.
This is Sandoval’s old neighborhood. He lived in an apartment building near where he worked at the factory back in those days when he was riding the bus to Paterson to go to college and before he got his break with the bank. On Sunday, Garcia will take over the street and throw a party in a vacant lot catacorner to the Polish bakery and across the street from where Sandoval once lived. Red balloons will adorn the grounds. There will be a grill going next to the bandstand, and music will flood the area.
“Now it’s everyday,” Garcia will say, understated as always. “At this point, you’ve got to work it. And that’s what we’re doing. We’re visible. We’re going after voters.”
But on Saturday, Blanco versus Sandoval is palpable.
The latter’s rivals write him off as the lordly banker on the hill who moved away to the distant 2nd Ward, who can’t mesh with the people down on this side of the highway. They overlook the facts that he’s from here, and that he’s been organizing for months – ever since last spring.
He’s got cars with workers roaming all over the neighborhoods – hooked into his campaign headquarters run by Ellerbee. He heads into one store after another: kisses the women in the salons and hugs the men who swing around on the stools in the bar and grills. A car pulls up driven by his sister. She slows. His father’s in the passenger seat. Sandoval kisses him. Keeps moving. When he walks into a crowded hair salon he travels up two rows of people, like a quarterback slapping hands of his fellow players as he sprints out on the field for the Superbowl, only here it’s the women under hair dryers on one side and their husbands and boyfriends on the other – and Sandoval runs the packed shaft that parts for him, slapping, touching, hugging, bumping – and at the end of it runs straight into… Blanco.
His rival and onetime friend turned toxic political enemy.
He’s already in here campaigning. In a movie, the playful merengue rhythms in the background would stop. But here they don’t. They keep going. So the men shake hands and keep moving: Sandoval for the back of the store, Blanco for the front door. They run awkwardly into each other again later on the street, as Blanco and his team in a Hummer stop at a light with the engine growling and Blanco waves to Sandoval and his men on the sidewalk and Sandoval smiles and waves back before the light changes green and the driver of the Hummer guns it.
Sandoval can’t resist.
“That’s how he campaigns,” he says, the implication being that the 36-year old Blanco is trolling the street in an oversized paramilitary vehicle, perhaps half-asleep, in any case, desperately out of touch. It dismisses the fact that the two man passed each other on foot in the salon, where Blanco looked to be working overtime, but that’s besides the point.
Later, Blanco tries to minimize Sandoval as a candidate who’s usually missing in action.
“My first reaction when I saw him in the hair salon was I couldn’t believe it, then I saw he had a reporter with him and I realized that this was part of the show,” says Blanco.
The two guys are in a war, and neither can acknowledge that the other is putting up anything close to a fight. If one can impose a narrative on the other that he lacks credibility as a candidate, that he doesn’t want it badly enough, that he’s unwilling to work for it, then he can prove himself the legitimate Dominican candidate. Of course, neither one will admit that’s the case. Each is nearly Obama-like in his unification message. Each argues persuasively for how he’s reaching out to everyone. But in an election where 4,000 votes could mean victory, those 900 registered Dominicans constitute a meaningful base.
Sandoval’s people say because they ultimately will rely more on their own campaign organizing than the largesse of someone like Schaer, for example – whom they believe will overnight deliver a 2,000-vote gift to Blanco – they’ve had to go harder after those other communities: the Filipinos, Jews, Poles, Indians, Blacks, and additional Latino groups besides the two big ones – in short, everyone. And they’ve gone after individual voters – all those disaffected under Sammy’s rule. Block by block.
Sandoval crosses the street to a Polish bakery in front of where he lived when he first came to Passaic. The apartment building’s gone, replaced by a custom-made vinyl window store. The bakery’s one of the last commercial remnants of the old era, and there are a pair of campaign signs in the window. One reads “Pascrell for Congress,” and the other reads “Sandoval for Mayor,” and when someone points out that he’s occupying the same space as one of his diehard political foes – the Democrats’ leading man in these parts, no less – Sandoval just laughs and keeps campaigning, the political outsider in the old neighborhood.