Running against the machine, Roque wins in West New York as voice of a silent rebellion

WEST NEW YORK – By Hudson County contest standards, the day was quiet, with little fanfare, suggesting a low turnout election favoring the incumbent, who enjoyed all of the organizational advantages of the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO).

But when renegade challenger Doctor Felix Roque and his team won Tuesday night after a late afternoon early uptick in the polling places, 60th Street filled with the people who had all day long quietly rebelled at the ballot box.

It was the street where the immigrant Roque grew up, where his father had his office, and where the candidate now houses his pain clinic, and from where, for almost the last three years out of a corner offfice, his Together We Can team organized.

“Doctor Roque deserves congratulations, he ran a good campaign,” said HCDO spokesman Paul Swibinski.

The supporters of the losing team clung to the hope that Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega might squeak in as the fifth commission winner on the night, but it didn’t happen. Nor did Vega want it, say sources close to him as the final votes came in and Roque and his four running mates won.

Police closed the street and the chants grew in the lead-up to the challenger’s claim of victory, stunning to some of the oldtimers who gathered here.

“This is the first time this has happened in my memory,” said one, standing agape as he gazed up at Town Hall, where indistinct figures milled on the stairs. “Remember Defino was mayor for 24 years, and when he was done, he gave the reins to Albio and then Albio gave the reins to Sal. They were torchbearers, but this time – this time the people spoke.”

He spoke above a din that included, at various times, chants of “Roque,” and “USA,” full-throated with the coming sense of victory after the day’s relative quiet.

“This is my hometown, and there have been three mayors in my lifetime,” confirmed former police officer Richard Rivera.

Roque’s win tonight was significant because he attacked an entrenched organization as an outsider, with no lasting prior ties to the machinery of local politics. Ridiculed by insiders as a no-hoper, laughed at as he campaigned in suit and tie at events – often alone – compared to former Mayor Albio Sires, who hacked away at public life for years before finally being admitted to the circle of power, Roque appeared to have one shot at the mayor’s seat and that was an alliance with Union City Mayor Brian P. Stack and U.S. Rep. Sires, the man who once had the job Roque now sought at City Hall.

But it turned out that Roque had several additional advantages, not least of which was the nagging voter memory of a 2009 tax increase, which Vega allies tonight blamed for their candidate’s loss.

“You might say the election was lost in 2009,” said Swibinski.

On Monday, an insider with deep connective tissue to the Democratic organization here spoke to PolitickerNJ.com on condition of anonymity, guaranteeing a Roque victory.

“I’m talking to people – they haven’t forgotten,” said the source. “They won’t talk about it publicly. They won’t put a Roque sign in the window. They fear reprisals. But they want Sal out. I am telling you, Roque is going to win tomorrow. If he had the backing of Stack and Sires he would win big, as it is, he’s going to win.”

Less recognized in the immediate aftermath of his win was the compelling story of Roque himself, who grew up on the very street on which he now worked and campaigned, a medical doctor who was also an army colonel, whose references to military tactics as part of why he would win the race inspired some and discomfited others. 

“Too macho,” said one insider earlier in the day. “If the opposition had run a woman, they might have had a shot, but Roque does the tough guy act and it just gets old.”

As he circulated the streets of the city in his Smart car on Election Day, and in the lead-up, too, Roque pointed out the number of people who gave him a sly thumbs up or smile of recognition, or fist pump. He swore it would translate into votes.

But all day long, even as Vega allies expressed no great confidence in victory, there were few visible signs of a coming revolution.

It was too quiet.

Tuesday evening, when he learned he was probably going to win, Roque absorbed the news with the same sense of quietude.

“America,” he said in humbled homage.

“America.”

That was shortly before his supporters poured onto 60th Street and loudly savored victory.

Running against the machine, Roque wins in West New York as voice of a silent rebellion