Seeking council allies in the aftermath of Vas, Diaz must contend with a friend

PERTH AMBOY – The retirement of three old regime city council people suddenly and starkly revealed the delineations of two opposing forces to claim control of those seats on May 11th, one team backed by Mayor Wilda Diaz and the other supported by retired Superior Court Judge Mathias “Eddie” Rodriguez. 

A well-liked bank teller turned grassroots leader on a wave of Obama power and old administration exhaustion, Diaz as mayor now by necessity nurses caution within the four walls of any government or political institution, where former Mayor Joe Vas left a Godzilla-like footprint.

Diaz’s improbable 2008 overthrow of the two decade kingpin represented a take-down of the top man – not an eradication of his political forces.

She had made infiltrations into the local party structure, even coming as close as a 50-50 power share, but when she waged war last year for control of the organization, the new mayor’s candidate came up fewer than five votes short against veteran Democrat Leslie Dominguez-Rodriguez.

That loss gave the latter an institutional upperhand; helpful on occasions like a city council election, where the majority is at stake, in a tough political atmosphere in which Diaz, in order to combat a $10 million budget deficit left by Vas, undertook numerous controversial measures, including downsizing the staff by nearly 100 workers, privatizing emergency medical services, chopping police overtime, reducing code enforcement officers and consolidating services.

Two years in office come July, the mayor knows it’s backlash time, and knows portions of the local Democratic Party, which Vas controlled for two nearly decades, is ready for payback. 

What she didn’t know was that her friend and political ally, Judge Rodriguez, would be standing on the other side of the line.

“Leslie set up an ad hoc committee of ‘concerned citizens’ through the Democratic Party, they announced they were going to pick a slate, and then she abruptly announced she was running,” said the mayor.

“This is a non-partisan election and I’ve been inclusive. As long as you want to help the city, that’s okay with me. I was disgusted with the process. I was unconvinced of the fairness. I need diversity on my team. I am backing a Cuban/Spaniard, Puerto Rican and Anglo, each of whom is supremely qualified, each of whom loves Perth Amboy.”

Himself an institution here in the city and retired now after three decades in robes, Rodriguez claims no malice or hidden purpose in opposing the mayor, but was stunned to see two of her candidates trailing vestiges of the Republican Party – not just former GOP members – but one a party chair as recently as last year and the other a more than active committee person up to 2007.

“I have no idea why she would want to do this,” Rodriguez said. “You would have to ask her why she put Republicans on the ticket. She seems to have some advisors that nobody knows – a city attorney who’s a very well known Republican attorney and a business administrator who’s a Republican – reflecting a lack of political sophistication or lack of understanding. 

“She never consulted me, but the mayor would have found a lot of people wouldn’t have accepted these people as candidates. This is a town where Jon Corzine defeated Chris Christie by 4-1. I’m backing the Democrats in the race.”

Rodriguez downplays the fault line with Diaz, objecting to a circulating petition recall of the mayor and insisting he remains a staunch ally.

“I love Wilda Diaz, she’s doing the best she can as mayor and I’ll help her again in the next election, but I’m not going to allow Republicans to sneak in the back door of City Hall,” said the judge.

These two share a political history – a bond of ethnicity and fierce local pride in a city that died with the death of manufacturing but persisted in the Vas era, hung around just long enough to survive, but still claims the highest unemployment rate in Middlesex County.

Diaz championed Rodriguez last year as her choice to rebuild and fill the 19th District seat vacated by Assemblyman Vas and claim control of the last standing section of Vas’s once formidable and now crumbled political empire.

It didn’t happen, as Woodbridge Mayor John McCormac wrested Perth Amboy’s legislative chair away with a victory over Rodriguez by attorney Craig Coughlin, leaving Perth Amboy devoid of representation in Trenton.

Rodriguez has only praise for Diaz’s efforts on his behalf.

“The mayor was the one that fought like hell to give me the opportunity to run for that office,” he said. “Wilda is a good friend, and I’m a good supporter of hers.” 

But he’s also a supporter of Dominguez-Rodrguez, chair of the local Democratic Party, who’s running with postal worker Joel Pabon against Diaz’s team: Planning Board Chair (and Republican Party Chair turned Democrat) Maria Garcia, School Board Chair (and Republican turned independent) Kenny Gonzalez, and former volunteer Fire Chief Bill Petrick.

A social worker who fell into an emotional embrace with Diaz after defeating the mayor’s candidate for party chair, committed to working with her, then felt herself part of some deteroriatering disconnect, Dominguez-Rodriguez walked up State Street two nights ago and entered her newly opend campaign HQ.

Pabon was inside.

With less than four weeks to go in the race, they meet every night to strategize.

This past Monday they had a $250-per-head fundraiser at the Barge. Thirty people attended.

“They’re Republicans, they’re Republicans,” fumed Dominguez-Rodriguez, referring to Garcia and Gonzalez. “I’ll be damned if Republicans are going to take over.” 

Diaz welcomed Gov. Chris Christie (then-U.S. Attorney) to swear her into office nearly two years ago. 

A partisan wearing a mischevious grin let that drop in the conversation.

“She campaigned for Corzine to get money last year, now she’s chummy with Christie again,” added Dominguez-Rodriguez, whose relationship with the mayor now consists of prickly “hi” and “bye” proximity. 

In this room with the red, white and blue bunting already hung and the big campaign poster facing the street out front, notwithstanding their closeness to Rodriguez, they know the three-letter cattle brand the other side has primed for them: V-A-S. They’re going to be called the clinging leftovers from that era; two wounded afterthoughts trying to kickstart angry sentiment on the street.

Pabon smiled at the small tortures of poltics with a tabloid newspaper unfolded on the table in front of him.

While he and Dominguez-Rodriguez and Diaz’s slate grab headlines, there are other candidates in the race, including longtime GOP activist (and 19th District Assembly candidate) Richard Piatkowski, whose ad in this this week’s Amboy Beacon shows a picture of Pabon chest to shoulder with Vas and the caption, “Some candidates want to influence you with who they know.”

“Everybody was with Vas, then dumped him,” said Pabon. “Look, Joe and I grew up in the same neighborhood. He was my friend – he’ll always be my friend. These other people out there – the minute he lost, they wanted to turn their backs on him. 

“We didn’t publicize anything this week – so that ad was a freebie,” he added triumphantly.

Of course, Vas faces numerous state and federal corruption charges.

“Not been found guilty yet,” Pabon pointed out.

Although they insist they want nothing to do with the Diaz recall and ultimately support the mayor’s efforts, they criticize most – if not all – of the mayor’s initiatives, her hires, and her alliances.

“I’ll eat rice and beans for weeks before happily paying for someone’s salary who comes in from the outside when I’m paying $6,700 for a one-family cape,” said Dominguez-Rodriguez. “The parks are disgusting, we’ve got code enforcement issues. The mayor’s not in charge – the BA’s in charge. The city over the past two years has taken a real dive. 

“Now the mayor wants two Republicans in there and a guy – Petrick – who seems like a nice guy, he just hasn’t been seen in 15 years,” said the party chair. “I wouldn’t run with a Republican, even if you paid me.”

Diaz said only three people in her administration are from out of town: the business administration, attorney, and public works director.

She understands the wounds on the street as a consequence of her government-reduction efforts.

She takes no delight in the job.

“That woman in City Hall is stressed,” someone observes.

She doesn’t disagree.

But she believes she’s doing the right thing for her city.

“I don’t want people to lose their jobs, but I don’t want people to lose their homes,” said the mayor.

Her cost-reduction efforts in part enabled her last year to land $3.5 million additional dollars in state extraordinary aid from the Department of Community Affairs, the biggest allocation of its kind in the State of New Jersey – an effort that just as fast was undercut by Christie’s announcment this year that Perth Amboy would lose state aid.

But as worrisome as the static out of Trenton, more immediate is the already factionalized condition of the city council. Diaz never had control of the five-person governing body. She and two running mates won two years ago. They’re councilpeople, she’s not; and they both went small bore rogue just as fast, with Councilman Kenny Balut out of nowhere announcing his working class hero challenge of Gov. Jon Corzine from his city council perch.

Diaz talked him down.

But if she can get three solids on the council – not “yes” people, she maintains, but three pragmatists unshackled from the traditional Perth Amboy divisions, she could advance her agenda – potentially – with more cohesion. 

She packages the team as a trio of disconnected parts on the surface that have come together for the good of the city. The message ostensibly is, “If they can do it, why not us?,” a laughable slogan to Dominguez-Rodriguez and Pabon who see Reagan and Bush I in 1980 when they observe Garcia and Gonzalez.

But Diaz argues that the coalition is sincere.

“Maria Garcia was never a ‘yes’ person,” said the mayor. “She was at the forefront of fighting the previous administration. Her heart is in helping the city of Perth Amboy. She was a Republican, but she’s now a Democrat.

“Kenny, the School Board president, was a Vas supporter. The fact that the two of them are on the same team sends the message that we have to put all this animosity behind us. I know some of the grassroots supporters – original Diaz supporters – are upset. But nothing is ideologically pure.” 

The “Moving Forward Together” team drove in Petrick’s van to their downtown headquaters, walked past a decayed storefront with the words “Assemblyman Joe Vas” printed and peeling off the side of a window pane two buildings and an alley removed.

Pinpointed on the details, they collectively don’t agree with a lot of of Diaz’s moves to date in chopping the city budget down to $77 million.

“I’d like to keep things in-house, if economically possible,” said Petrick the firefigher, when asked about the mayor’s decision to privatize EMS.

The urban police department is struggling with 100 on-duty officer when they should have 130, by statute. They would like to restore police overtime, add two cops at a lower salary for every one retiring, and add more code enforcement officers to crack down on residential stacking.

Gonzalez, an attorney and 11-year member of the board who during his tenure as Republican chairman controversially backed Vas, takes aim at the Christie Administration.

If his biggest local challenge is beating the Republican rap, the GOP governor with his school and municpal cuts has provided him with an easy political target. 

“We had a $15 million surplus on the Board of Education,” Gonzalez said. “Chris Christie said we needed to use that surplus, while decreasing us $8 million in aid. That means we’re down $23 million. So our budget now contains a $1.7 million tax hike. Our teachers don’t even belong to the NJEA (New Jersey Teachers Association). They’re with the New Jersey Federation of Teachers. 

“This governor was harsh, very harsh.

“A problem right now, with the taxes people are paying and with the cuts, is that people in government have the feeling that to accept a paycheck is shameful,” Gonzalez added.

Unconvinced, Rodriguez pronounced two-thirds of the other team in the race “DINOS, Democrats in name only.”

Asked if his distress regarding Diaz’s endorsed candidates could morph into a mayoral bid in two years, Rodriguez said he has no such plans.

“Everybody keeps saying that,” groaned the judge. “They keep pushing me to declare my candidacy. I am not a candidate for mayor. Unless Wilda Diaz does something terrible where this city must change leadership, I’m not going to be the candidate. I have no intentions of running for mayor. Wilda Diaz is very stressed, I just retired. Why would i want to jump into that. I’m very grateful to her, I have no aspiration. Could i change my mind about that? Yes, I could; but at this moment I have no intention of running for mayor.”  

The Diaz/Rodriguez divide and the Vas and GOP associations dominate the landscape, but, again, there are alternatives to the two teams on the May 11th ballot: Robert J. McCoy, Nephtaly Cardona (both of whom chose to run individually rather than align with Pabon and Rodriguez, even though in Cardona’s case he has the backing of the Democratic Party), and veteran Vas antagonist and perennial Republican Piatkowski.

“I wasn’t going to run, then I saw who was running, and had to run,” said Piatkowski, whose slogan is “The Obvious Choice.”

“A disaster,” he added.

And not the only one.

In the midst of these building political tensions last month, a storm hit the waterfront and exacted severe punishment; upjolted pylons, destroyed guardrails and outdoor patios, shut-down power: millions in damages to a city already reeling, between state cuts and its own excesses of the past – most obviously, the so-called Vas Mahal municipal complex, stalled in half completed glory in the middle of the city, which will end up costing $100 million dollars when it’s all untangled.

At City Hall this week, five young people in dress blues stood in the front row of Council chambers as Mayor Diaz in royal blue entered with the deputy chief, police captain and other brass. The Department wanted more fulltime cops but the mayor told them the city can’t afford it right now.

Painful. Painful.

But can’t do it.

“The mayor has agreed to meeting us halfway by hiring the five of you as auxiliary officers,” said the chief, standing at the head of the room.

The place was half filled with family for the short ceremony.

“Take a look at your uniforms. You look very similar to regular officers. That means you have a special responsibility to this department. Everything you do will be scrutinized. You wear the uniform of the Police Department of the City of Perth Amboy.”

The men and one woman rose, and faced Diaz, who walked forward, to swear them in, absorbed afterwards into the pride and happiness of five families, with the wrenching undercurrent – political, governmental – momentarily gone.

Seeking council allies in the aftermath of Vas, Diaz must contend with a friend