PATERSON – That most pagan rite of NJ politics rages on the day before Easter here, on the day before the death of Paterson boxing legend Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, on eight square miles packed with 52 ethnic groups all seeking representation three and a half weeks until Election Day.
In that 1.5-mile concentration known locally as “the hood,” the mood is grim among seniors crammed in high rises afraid of going outside because of gunplay that has left people dead and bullet holes in aluminum siding on the nearby scraggly homes of their neighbors.
A 95-year old woman shows a picture she keeps of former NBA player Tim Thomas, a treasure to her, because the Paterson native once visited the building, but that was a long time ago, she says.
“The workforce system is a mess and nihilism among Paterson youth is the highest I’ve seen,” says a woman, speaking on condition of anonymity, who rose out of this city of 150,000, the state’s third largest, and made her own way into the world beyond its borders.
In a mayoral election season, one man becomes the natural focal point of blame.
No one who knows him seems to dislike incumbent Mayor Jeff Jones. Indeed, many preface criticisms with an apologetic, “I like him personally.” But in a city that once lived under four terms of iron-fisted Mayor Frank X. Graves and continues to face the consequences of laying-off 125 police officers to cope with a budget crisis, critics bash his sitting administration for lack of visibility.
If they happen to be running for mayor, they bash with relish.
“He is Plato among Caesars,” a source concludes, referring to the incumbent mayor, a visionary to his closest allies and a remote academic to his detractors, who faces seven contenders to the second story throne he now occupies in City Hall.
“The mayor and I are close friends,” admits Donna Nelson Ivy, Jones’ director of Health and Human Services. “But I felt I had an obligation to run. There was no communication anymore.”
Jones allies tried to talk Nelson-Ivy out of the race, but the native Patersonian who lost her husband to AIDS and worked to put her only son through mechanical engineering school wouldn’t listen.
She wants to win.
Politics animates Paterson on this Saturday, with the city council contest sparking as much visual impact as the mayor’s race. The coming departure from office of At-Large Councilman Rigo Rodriguez, who’s also running for mayor instead of pursuing re-election, sets up a stunning community rivalry between two Dominican candidates aiming to represent the city’s largest and fastest growing population: School Board Commissioner Alex Mendez and Passaic County College admissions administrator Maritza Davila. (See pictures here).
They come at the contest from very different vantage points, with single mother Davila very much a Democratic Party player who worked hard to re-elect U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9) in 2012.
A grassroots animal who has a reputation as a nonstop campaigner, one of a number of Dominican elected officials who unsuccessfully backed Pascrell’s rival in that storied 2012 Democratic Primary, Mendez runs his own limo company out of Secaucus.
The father of three, he radiates future political star when he walks down the street.
“We need to see a police presence in this city,” says Mendez. “We need to have police in every ward. Too often I see police focusing on traffic. We don’t have a traffic problem in Paterson, we have a drug problem. We have shootings in Paterson. I’m afraid to let my kids out of the house to walk the dog, and I see it as a failure of leadership.”
Asked to identify what caused this, Mendez says, “A failure of leadership,” and he blames both the administration and the city council, carefully straddling both.
“I’m a team player,” he says. “I will not go in there to fight the administration. We can definitely disagree, but at the same time, we need to find a solution. Right now, I don’t see a collaboration between the mayor and the city council.”
At the heart of that legislative-executive stand-off are Jones and veteran At-Large Councilman Ken Morris, Jr.
Twelve years on the council, Morris faces some irritation in the African-American community among certain pastors critical of him for taking the lead role into an investigation of the Jones administration over Hurricane Irene overtime pay.
“That’s my job,” shrugs Morris.
Although the councilman has the sharpest financial sense on the council and faces backlash, too, for what some observers of City Hall say should have been a blown whistle on his part over former Mayor Jose “Joey’ Torres receiving a $74,000 2010 severance package, some Morris backers argue that if Paterson loses him, the city will lose its one lone emblem of competence.
“Vote for Morris or we’re screwed,” is a sign that appears on a lawn on the East side. But those same people who fear the city’s condition likewise confront the unsettling question of why Morris should persist with the core of Paterson government fractured by a warring council and mayor.
Asked whom he backs for mayor, Morris won’t say.
He’s too focused on his own campaign.
But sources continue to talk about a longstanding friendly relationship between him and Torres…
Mayoral Street Notes: Pascrell on the Trail with Sayegh and Goow goes 4th Ward
The appearance of a struggling Jones and three Latinos in the contest -Torres, in a quest to get back to City Hall by all appearances leading the way – sends at least two other candidates onto old Jones and Torres terrain looking to strip votes away in a play for new leadership.
Council President Andre Sayegh on Saturday afternoon looked like he was ready to high hurdle a privet hedge if it meant grabbing a constituent.
While simultaneously carrying on about 15 conversations on 15 different topics with 15 different people, the electric candidate ran across the street, grabbed the hand of an unsuspecting resident, and while momentarily suspending all interference around him, gave that person his friendly, undivided attention; then pivoted, sprinted back across the street and engaged another homeowner.
This kind of activity has impressed the Pascrells – the congressman father and his three sons – who see a younger version of their patriarch in the voraciously political Sayegh, who skirted a pothole in the middle of the road that looked like the impact site of an asteroid but not before finding a nearby griping neighbor and leaving his card and phone number.
This is the 3rd Ward, Pascrell’s home ward, and that sixth of the city that typically yields the most votes.
The most brutal breakdown of demographic numbers leaves Sayegh at a disadvantage in a 60% Latino city dominated for eight years by the come-backing Torres. “One Paterson,” is the mantra he runs on, and with good reason. In the hardest terms, Sayegh fights to get African American voters to think of him as more than white, Arabs to see him as more than non-Muslim, and Latinos to think of him as more than an Arab.
He plays the education card. He went to Seton Hall – graduated with honors; attended Columbia University to get his Masters in public policy.
He’s a professor at William Paterson University.
He projects high energy and willing work rate.
But it’s the presence on his team of the Pascrells and the Democratic Party, including its best team of operatives, that over the last two weeks has begun to give Sayegh’s campaign the appearance of real political efficiency.
As the indefatigable candidate mowed down another block and headed for the next event and the next event and the next event, someone in the street stared after him and gave a mournful disapproving look, unwilling to grant “the kid” adult status despite his 40 years, and seeming to say, “How dare that callow youth make life difficult for my Joey.”
While Sayegh campaigned, so did one of his rivals” former 2nd Ward Councilman Aslon Goow, Sr.
Goow had a bad week last week.
He had to read in the paper about his dredged record as a young adult of numerous expunged offenses, including burglary – and he’s private eye and special cop by trade campaigning as the law and order candidate.
The former Ward 2 councilman released a statement to PolitickerNJ, which in part read, “America believes in redemption. Redemption has been granted to many people who have turned their lives around – including police officers, fire fighters, judges, and many elected officials, and, yes, myself. But with redemption also comes responsibility. A responsibility to live our lives with integrity and to help our youth rebuild their futures. I have striven to do that, I believe I have made a difference in their lives, and I will continue to do so as Mayor.”
In an attempt to saw votes away from the wounded Jones and also make a statement about his commitment to attacking the city’s worst problems in the most afflicted neighborhoods, Goow headed into the 4th Ward, down one of the most dangerous streets in the city. (see pictures of Goow campaigning here.)
He was in the area of Rosa Parks.
Two men on a front stoop looked up and looked squeamish.
Goow extended his hand, looked them both in the eye.
Both men reluctantly warmed but only momentarily.
They didn’t want to hear any political speeches.
“There’s no hope here,” Goow says, gesturing everywhere: to the trash strewn on the sidewalk, a house that looks like it’s ready to topple over with a sign out front that says $35,000, and vacant, trash filled lots.
He walked into Mack’s Laundromat.
A lone woman stood inside amid the spinning as Goow strode up and held out his arm.
“If you want safer and cleaner, please vote for me,” he says. “All I have is my word.”
On the other side of town, above the Great Falls, the Sayegh camp regrouped at 5 Front Street, where members of Paterson’s old timers’ youth baseball league, Duffy’s Boys, assembled for awards.
Gravel crunched in the driveway as Sayegh, sporting an ear piece phone, pulled up behind the wheel of a sedan with Arab-American leader Al Abdelaziz .
Eighty-year year old local legend Larry Duffy had invited both Sayegh and Pascrell to the same event.
When Sayegh arrived, the scrappy older politician was already head first in a pile of constituents.
“I’m not endorsing, but I’m voting for Sayegh,” Pascrell tells PolitickerNJ, moving among the tables and shaking hands while his protégé promptly hit his stride and worked the other side of the room in sync.
Duffy happily surveyed his handiwork: kids in baseball caps eager to put their hands on the gold trophies at the front of the room.
“When I die they won’t be able to only say I was an Irish guy who drank too much,” says the league commander. “The only thing that bailed me out in life was baseball. Sports. I would have been in a lot of trouble without sports. When I see these kids – many of them showing up here to play ball without the support of parents – it hurts.”
Duffy says he’s backing Sayegh for mayor.
“And I’m a Republican,” he adds.
“You just ruined my day,” Pascrell cracks.
Back in the 4th Ward, Goow vowed to keep going until darkness.
He and his team gained access to a senior citizens high rise, boarded the elevator and rose to the 15th floor.
Some team members looked fatigued; others robust. A hobbled Veronica Ovalles learned the hard way when she campaigns with Goow to leave the high heels behind. Now she’s ready.
So is School Commissioner Corey Teague, and so is Pete Oneglia, former deputy chief of staff to former state Senator John Girgenti (D-35), redistricted into retirement.
Oneglia had the clipboard and the battle plan and Goow took the lead pounding on doors.
“I can tell you this,” says Ernie Rucker, the campaign liaison man in the 4th, brandishing his cane as he maneuvered down the hallway at Goow’s side. “There will be primaries next year. Mark my words. The Democrats overreached in this election and they will not be able to withstand the backlash. Those freeholder seats next year? Primaries. Just watch.”
PolitickerNJ stayed with Goow for 11 floors, and it was clear based on the former councilman’s interactions that Jones has few vocal allies here.
“The city is doing nothing for us,” says a woman, a Jamaican in this country now for 28 years. “Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. It’s terrible what they’re doing to us. Two people got killed over here the other night. You hear gunshots all the time. I’m tired of the gunshots. And then I go outside where the policewoman says I could park because I’m a senior citizen, and there’s a ticket on my car. Let me tell you something. I’m tired. I’m not going to vote in this election.”
“I’m asking you to vote,” Goow urges. “Your community fought for the Civil Rights Act. You have to vote. And I’m asking you to vote for me. Vote for me if you want safer and cleaner streets.”
“I’ve heard it too many times,” she says, shaking her head. “Too many times.”
Goow dug in, urgently trying to make contact.
Mendez Sighting, Davila Encountered, and the Party of Jose “Joey” Torres
The traffic backed up on Market Street as something or someone created a commotion amid festive horn blares and attendant hoopla.
It was GOTV animal Mendez.
When someone called his name, he ran across the street to find an outstretched hand.
“He’s the new Andre,” says an insider.
On the other side of town, Davila appeared, and hastily up held two signs of herself as she prepared for the next campaign stop in her ongoing effort to secure one of three seats.
She’s ubiquitous, too.
There are eight candidates in the running for those at-large council seats, including herself, Mendez, incumbents Morris and Ken McDaniel, Mike Jackson, Bernard Jones (who on Saturday backed Goow) and Eddie Gonzalez.
The night descended on Paterson.
A backbeat was going south of Market.
Someone over on the East side saw the mayor buying a ginger ale.
One of his allies quietly praises him for muscling into a deal already done by Pascrell for the Great Falls designation, and making sure, in the name of the late great Larry Doby, that the feds recognize Hinchcliffe Stadium as a national landmark.
“But why doesn’t anyone know about the mayor’s accomplishments?” the source mourned.
Another car swung wildly to avoid a pothole near Dover Street, where a merengue rhythm flowed out of the Makao Lounge as partiers in shimmery shirts and backless gowns with sequins and stilettos and platforms and red skirts poured through the double doors and into the bowels of the bar and pressed closer and closer and the atmosphere combined politics and fever.
“There’s not enough parking,” someone complains.
This was a $20 per-head event for Torres, which was apparently so successful that they had to turn people away even before the candidate appeared and make a big show of scheduling a second, future event at another, bigger venue – all in the name of the candidacy of Torres.
Once the Democratic Party’s ally in city hall, Torres runs this time deprived of establishment infrastructure now firmly in Sayegh’s corner. But there were giggles in the room about Sayegh’s Hispanic event at this same place that hardly shook the walls by comparison.
On the streets if Jones indeed is finished, sources it’s a two-man race between the micro-targeting Sayegh campaign and Torres’ big and bold play to regain what he lost, to recover the poise he had before Jones’ win discombobulated him and wounded him and left him with no choice but to come back now and attempt to reverse the narrative of loss amid whispers that it’s time to let go, as Sayegh persists until he’s hoarse that the city must move on from the last 12 years.
The former mayor’s confident he has the numbers.
But he’s not so confident that he wants to repeat 2010, when he was overconfident.
An indictment-weakened Rodriguez, and first-time candidate Maria Teresa Feliciano – lacking a long-nurtured base – make him the only credible Latino in the contest – and the only one with an executive record, his allies argue and insist, with finger-pointing passion up and down the bar.
As bodies continued to mob Makao, Omar Rodriguez, Torres’ political confidant, waved them in with delight. “We’re going to have to get a bigger place,” he cackled.
From afar, Saygh allies panned the event as glitz and glam with little telling political firepower.
They’re disciplined, they insist, in the face of these garish setpieces.
The Torres camp concludes otherwise.
“Mi pueblo,” a radiant Torres finally exulted from the VIP-packed stage late Saturday night, in a festive wheelhouse of power projection. “Mi gente!
“On May 13th, we can change this, for our language, for our culture, for our rights!”
He was difficult to hear as his voice tried to ride the crest of rising passion.
The surge of cheers and catcalls from Torres supporters lifted from the strobe-lit dance floor and engulfed him.