When Wilda Diaz toppled Joe Vas, the bank teller and political neophyte catapulted herself into a City Hall that Vas dominated for 18 years.
Now with a term nearly completed, Diaz seeks another four years in the Middlesex County Latino capital of New Jersey and does so with the advantage of incumbency in a field overrun with challengers early.
Pre-Diaz, the dock front city was molded around Vas, who finally cracked up in 2009 and subsequently headed to prison on corruption charges.
If he left behind grand physical evidence of his handiwork, including a revamped waterfront and the colossally extravagant “Vas Mahal” – the first building in the history of humanity to incorporate every previous architectural style going back to ancient Egypt with a price tag to match, or so muttered the critics – Vas likewise vacated town with his political forces in tatters.
Now the energetic Diaz heads toward her November re-election campaign aided by indications that there could be half a dozen challengers in this contest, bracketed as its own nonpartisan entity on the November general election ballot.
So far, Frank Salado and Billy Delgado have spent time trying to elbow each other out of the way – quietly – to position themselves as the alternative to Diaz.
As a Dominican businessman, Salado wants to focus the largest community in the city while trying to peel away pieces of key infrastructure, including public sector unions. His strategy will include reminding the city’s overwhelming Democratic Party population that Diaz can be glimpsed in any number of background pics at photo ops staged by the messaging department of Gov. Chris Christie.
The mayor was a vocal supporter of the Republican governor’s two percent cap and pen/ben reform – just like former Orange Mayor Eldridge Hawkins, note her detractors, who suffered a defeat in May at the hands of a challenger funded by the Communications Workers of America (CWA).
Salado has some campaign heft, with former Cory Booker Chief of Staff Pablo Fonseca running his campaign, and hometown star ballplayer Manny Segura backing him.
But he only just recently moved into town, a point that insiders constantly refer to when they assess the strengths and weaknesses of the different candidates.
Delgado has a diverse backing as a local lawyer with a history of opposing Vas on controversial projects.
But he opposed Vas as a Republican candidate for office and is new to the Democratic Party.
Veteran Councilman Fernando Gonzalez could emerge as a candidate, but he’s not yet official. “He claims he’s running,” a well-connected source told PolitickerNJ.com.
Public Works employee Miguel Morales, businessman Robert McCoy, Judge Jose Cameron, and Sharon Hubberman are all jockeying toward a mid September deadline and bring storylines that siphon into one another.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, three sources close to Perth Amboy politics tell PolitickerNJ.com that the splintered field puts Diaz in a commanding position – at least right now. A hands-on mayor who prides herself on attending numerous events, Diaz remains a visible presence throughout the community.
Her opponents say they have the statistics to take her on, armed with unemployment figures, bad school rankings, taxes and a humiliated public work force.
The next two months will determine if anyone can drive a coherent message against her.
The mayor’s allies point to significant improvements, including decreasing the size of local government, privatizing EMS services, and leading the effort to get the city more federal funds.
Since 2008 when she took on the machine as a grassroots no-hoper, the movement has changed. No revolution emanates from City Hall.
When she assembled her team for re-election this year she did so without her renegade ally, Councilman Ken Balut, whose anti-Vas history prevented him from comfortably accepting alliances with anyone who even remotely associated with the jailed dock front boss in years past, including the party establishment here.
But those who see Diaz’s absorption into the Middlesex County Democratic Organization as a fatal compromise are contradicted by others among her critics who continue to harp on the conflicting narrative of her Christie connection.
The mayor has enlisted the services of veteran Democratic Party operative Julie Roginsky and enjoys an alliance with state Sen. Joe Vitale (D-19), Woodbridge.
“She restored integrity and honesty to city government in the wake of Joe Vas’s convictions,” said Vitale, who formally endorsed Diaz at her kick-off this summer.
“She lowered city debt and improved its credit rating. In the worst economy since the Great Depression she has done great work,” the senator added. “She is the only Latina in the state that in addition to her record is something we should embrace.”