NORTH BERGEN – Doctor Felix Roque answered West New York Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega’s shock and awe Thursday night fundraiser with his own more modest event Saturday night at Schuetzen Park that nonetheless inevitably embraced the mayoral contest as a heavyweight fight.
“They’re going to have their 1,200 people of insurance and legal contacts,” a Roque ally at the door shrugged, in acknowledgement of Team Vega. “What you’re seeing here are 400 voters. Voters. You’re looking at people in this room – from the $400,000 waterfront condos – tired of the taxes. You’re looking at people who signed the 5,000 petitions we submitted for the recall.”
The VIP bar and back chamber environs propped up the elbows of enough renegades, pols long ago banished to milk cartons and deja vu all over again faces to stock a dubbed, foreign language, straight to DVD action picture. Seen among the luminaries: Paterson Councilman Julio Tavarez, former Hudson County Sheriff Juan Perez, former Orange Mayor Paul Monacelli, Gospel Tabernacle Church Pastor Dr. Joe Santos, and boxing promoter Murad Muhammed.
“We’re both colonels in the army,” Monacelli said of his connection to Roque.
One half expected to see Gerry McCann, Garrett Smith and Rudy Garcia walk through the door, and yet it was former heavyweight champion Larry Holmes who finally elevated the event to another strata of surreality. Somewhere a Hudson County Democratic Organization operative was debating whether to call Bayonne Mayor Mark Smith and ask him to rig Chuck “Bayonne Battler” Wepner up with a Vega meet and greet to soften the impact of Hall of Famer Holmes.
“We gotta take out the Vega virus,” said the Easton, Pa. superstar who ruled the heavyweight division for seven and a half years and famously announced that Rocky Marciano wasn’t fit to carry his jock strap.
“If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” Holmes said. “The doc’s gonna turn on the stove.”
In an impeccable blue suit and red tie, Roque onstage blunted rival Tommy Bertoli’s cocktail comment from the other night that the challenger had simply wooed Holmes to North Bergen with a sack of cash.
“I am honored to be in your presence,” Roque told the champ. “When I got on the phone with Murad, he said I’m going to get Larry for you. And they don’t want to charge us one single cent to be here tonight.”
“It says a lot about this man – your future mayor – that he could bring in Larry Holmes,” Muhammed told the crowd.
An unimpressed Bertolli – recruited last week by Team Week for his janitorial prowess, had said, “We used to bring in Joe Frazier, so what?”
A 35-year veteran of the U.S. Army, Roque also singled out the presence of West New York Boy Scout Troop 1 in the back of the room. Himself a former scout, the mayoral candidate locked up in a perfect salute in the direction of the troop commander and his dress uniformed troopers, who responded in kind.
The room was not without some angst.
Two days ago, U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) formally endorsed Vega, the equivalent of a bunker buster on the head of this maverick operation. On Saturday afternoon, he walked Bergenline to provide the week’s double dose of high visibility for the incumbent. Roque running mate Count Wiley felt the laboratory-like dimensions of this local race for an HCDO still reeling from the 2009 corruption dragnet and looking for a way to reinflate itself.
“What’s happening here is we’re becoming a target for the entire countywide organization,” he said.
Prior to his event Saturday evening, Roque sent out a text message blast to Latino elected officials around the state, tellling them they would be sorry they backed Vega and the HCDO.
But once the live Cuban music – including the sax of the celebrated Jordi Pares – blared into the Crystal Room, the mood loosened. People headed for the dance floor.
“These guys know I like music,” said Holmes, shuffling massively onstage. “I still got one or two steps in me.”