Paterson Mayor’s Race: suddenly swarmed Sayegh answers his critics

PATERSON – The best laid plan was for Council President Andre Sayegh to appear as the heroic, good guy alternative

PATERSON – The best laid plan was for Council President Andre Sayegh to appear as the heroic, good guy alternative to worn-out older generation Paterson brand names. 

He was also going to stay out of the political fist-fighting while other candidates in the mayor’s contest sniped at old rivals and did one another in, leaving a mostly un-scuffed Sayegh to stride into City Hall amid all the winged and dinged casualties.

But a story out of the Paterson Times this week has the council president in the crosshairs, as his competitors attempt to muddy him with a variation on the attack they say he leveled at them, while they continue to quietly but fiercely nip at Sayegh’s connections to the Democratic Party in a fast intensifying May 13th nonpartisan election.

The story this week reports that Sayegh accepted numerous contributions from developers whose projects he later voted on, including a tax abatement for a law firm that donated to the council president.

Sayegh’s allies dismissed the piece as hardly noteworthy; a non-item, in fact.

His opponents disagree,

“It doesn’t look good,” said Mayor Jeff Jones, banged up after Hurricane Irene when he and members of his administration submitted requests for overtime pay while the city reeled.

“It doesn’t look good,” the mayor added. “I wish him well. But it doesn’t look good.”

Former Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres, stung by Sayegh’s criticism of his collection of $74,000 in back pay from the city as he left the mayor’s office, now jabbed at this opponent.

Torres pointed to the Silk City’s pay-to-play ordinance, which prohibits council people from voting on development projects when they have received donations connected to those projects.

“The current pay-to-play law is one of most stringent and is modeled after the state,” Torres said. “It’s quite concerning. It’s troubling. He’s quick to be judgmental of others and he says he doesn’t know. But you can’t shield yourself because of ignorance. He’s a college professor and former chief of staff to a senator. He’s being dishonest to people he thought he was helping and to dishonest to the taxpayers.”

Nibbled at on all sides and contacted for comment, an unruffled Sayegh said he did not violate the ordinance, which he said he wrote, which specifically cracks down on the potential financial relationships between elected officials and vendors doing business with the city – not developers.

“We did everything right,” the council president said. “We did everything above board. I am the sponsor of the pay-to-play ordinance. I knew what I was doing. My votes were in the areas of development. This city is dying for development. We need growth in Paterson.”

Unsurprisingly, his critics stayed on the attack.

Dave Gilmore, an activist running in the eight-person race for mayor, said, “It doesn’t meet the smell test. When you look at Paterson’s history of corruption, influence peddling and wrong-sidedness, you have to look at this thing with squinted eyes. It doesn’t seem kosher.

“He sounds just like the others whom we found less than stellar,” Gilmore added. “It’s the same response given by Jones and Torres.”

At a city council meeting last night, the other candidates and allies hounded the sitting Council President on that issue and on the attendance record of his close ally, Councilman Julio Tavarez.

Running for re-election to his at-large seat, veteran Councilman Ken Morris, Jr., said, “I think overall, when you’re examining campaign fundraising, you’re likely to get campaign contributions from a variety of contributors – from the little old lady who believes in you, to the businessman developer. Obviously have to be cognizant and file proper paperwork.

“I don’t have an issue that he received contributions,” Morris added, “but the concern I do have is his vote after receiving the contribution. In the case of the councilman’s vote on the tax abatement, he should have recused himself to avoid the appearance of impropriety.”

Sayegh’s fellow competitor in the mayor’s contest, former Councilman Aslon Goow didn’t throw a punch. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” Goow said. “I’m focused on what I need to do. It doesn’t make a difference to me.”

Insiders on the ground in Paterson say there’s a reason for the up-swell of attacks on Sayegh.

Two sources PolitickerNJ spoke to say the race comes down to Torres versus Sayegh. 

“He’s obviously making inroads,” shrugged one source, referring with little interest to the details of the Paterson Times story.

The insider gives Torres the edge based on the former mayor’s history of raw base voters: or 4,000 to 5,000 for Torres and 2,000 to 3,000 for Sayegh.

Deprived of his 2010 campaign manager and wobbled by the Hurricane Irene headlines, Jones prior to this week failed to signal that he’s running a full-bore campaign.

But the mayor on Monday opened his campaign headquarters, thrilling Latino Torres supporters.

If Jones runs to win, he will drain votes from Sayegh, a source said.

Advantage Torres.

If Jones drags his feet into the next 48 days, Sayegh will take advantage of African-American voters seeking an alternative to the incumbent.  

But as he walks through the first scourge sent in his direction, Sayegh will have to summon the case to pluck those voters from no man’s land, a source said, especially with Goow making a strong case for cracking down on crime: the issue the former councilman has chosen to amplify in his quest for City Hall.

One source, uncommitted to a candidate and speaking on condition of anonymity, said more than the usual hand-to-hand combat of the campaign season he fears the empowerment in Paterson of the Democratic Party, and identifies Sayegh as a conduit to that influence.

The city now maintains a certain independence from the county party organization, the source argued.

But if Sayegh wins the mayoralty and an ally from the party takes his 6th Ward seat, and loyal party member Maritz Davila secures an at-large seat on May 13th, pieces will be in place for the county party to take over the local political process.

The source said he worries about a change in the present format from May nonpartisan races to the June Primary model, which would turn Paterson into a partisan city and limit anyone from holding office save those willing to take marching orders from the party.

“There is no Democratic or Republican way to fill a pothole,” Sayegh said. “As mayor I wouldn’t take a partisan approach. I would take a pragmatic, practical approach. I don’t have any issues with the elections as they are now.”

Paterson Mayor’s Race: suddenly swarmed Sayegh answers his critics