2. Blanco v. Capuana (tied with Hamilton Mayor’s race): Passaic City Mayor’s Race 2008
The Set Up
When U.S. Attorney Chris Christie took down Passaic City Mayor Sammy Rivera on federal bribery charges he eliminated the king of the streets up here, the kind of mayor who puts his hand behind your neck and leans in close and listens when you tell him you need a job. Blown out of there, Sammy left a big vacancy sign hanging over City Hall. Assemblyman/Council President Gary Schaer occupied the acting mayor’s seat while the city prepared for an epic election. A number of candidates emerged, including Councilman Joe Garcia, bail-bondsman Carl Ellen, businessman Jose Sandoval, former School Board President Vinny Capuana and sitting School Board President Alex Blanco, a Dominican immigrant not yet 40 who became a medical doctor and practiced podiatry in his hometown.
When Schaer decided to back Blanco, creating an alliance of the only Orthodox Jew in the Statehouse and a Dominican American school board member, the pair formed the only ethnic political duo of its kind in the state. Most observers saw their chief competition as Capuana, an ally of Rivera’s who was also friendly with powerful U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-8) and state Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36). It was Pascrell’s refusal to endorse Blanco, in fact, on the strength of his ties to Capuana, that in part prompted Schaer to support Steve Rothman with a clearer conscience in the 2012 CD 9 Democratic Primary. But when the Herald News endorsed Sandoval on the strength of his jobs vision for the old worn out industrial city, it looked like a three-way race. Complicating the contest was the sense that any number of trench-coated figures on line at the local pizzeria were actually FBI agents looking for leads on the Sammy case. Ellen, in fact, got a subpoena as a witness in the mayor’s corruption trial. While Capuana’s allies whispered that Blanco was a step from getting his own suitable for framing ticket to the witness stand, Blanco’s troops were saying it was Capuana who wasn’t going to survive the election without landing behind bars. Then, suddenly, it was Garcia who was the alleged second guaranteed Sammy city council vote on tape at federal headquarters. The other one, by the way, Councilman Gerardo Fernandez, actually did end up face down on his front lawn in handcuffs. By the time former Councilman Marcellus Jackson, who went down in the same corruption sting as Rivera, grabbed a microphone and backed Capuana in defiance of Schaer, it looked like Christie might take the entire city to jail. Then Blanco stepped forward and categorically denied the Capuana Team’s inference that he was the high-ranking public official implicated in a new indictment of former Councilman Jonathan Soto. Federal prosecutors added to the grime index late when they said Soto received cash payments from undercover agents posing as health insurance contractors, in exchange for exercising his official authority to secure business with the City of Passaic, including the Board of Education. Doubling down on his campaign slogan, “Honesty in action,” Blanco said it wasn’t him.
Blanco won, defeating second place finisher Capuana in the special election for Rivera’s seat. But there was no time for the country’s first Dominican mayor – or his political benefactor, Schaer – to really savor victory. Blanco would have to face Capuana just six months later in a head-to-head to head battle for a full, four-year term, which he would also win, in almost equally tumultuous fashion.