WEST NEW YORK – Gabriel Rodriguez raised his right hand as West New York Mayor Felix Roque swore him in as a town commissioner on Wednesday night. But as the routine procedure took place, there were reminders that Roque and another commissioner, Count Wiley, are getting ready to put up their dukes in what is anticipated to be Hudson County’s best political fight of the year.
Gabriel Rodriguez joined the West New York Board of Commissioners following the ascension of Caridad Rodriguez (no relation) to the Hudson County Freeholder board after her election victory in November. He brings significant government experience to the position. Rodriguez, 36, is the field representative in West New York and campaign finance director for U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8). He has also worked in other political and campaign positions for former Gov. Jim McGreevey, former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Jon Corzine and U.S. Sen. Bob Menendez (D-NJ).
“[Rodriguez] offers a strong and influential voice in political and community affairs. This experience has enabled him to build an extensive political network to benefit the needs of the community.” Roque said. “He has a first-hand understanding of what it takes to make government work for its residents.”
“I didn’t expect to see so many people, and so that’s very humbling,” said Rodriguez, whose parents were born in Cuba, to the approximately 100 people backed inside the town council chambers. “It allows for me to share this moment with the people around me, and it allows for me to say what I think are the two most important words that a person can learn to say in life – thank you.”
Rodriguez was voted in by Mayor Roque and Commissioners FiorD’Aliza Frias and Ruben Vargas. Wiley abstained, and the explanation of his abstention spoke to the tension between the Roque and Wiley camps inherent in West New York politics.
“I have no opinion against the appointment, but obviously I wasn’t consulted about who was going to be considered for the appointment. This has been the type of vote I’ve had in the last couple of years,” Wiley said. “I have nothing against Rodriguez, but I didn’t have an option to nominate somebody else who could have been better. This came from the same bunch of people, and I just can’t vote for something like that.”
“It was a big mistake on [the Hudson County Democratic Organization] to endorse [Roque],” Wiley added. “I think they’re going to find that out in the coming election.”
Roque, an ally of Sires, a former West New York mayor, does have Democratic establishment support going into the May election. Regarding the fight to come against Wiley, Roque verbally shrugged his shoulders.
“I don’t foresee a struggle. I’m not going to consider it a fight,” Roque said, noting that he and Wiley had once been on the same slate. “I can understand he wants to be the mayor, but I’m invested. I need to take this town forward.
“I’ve sacrificed in my [medical] practice. I wore the shackles,” added Roque, a reference to his political survival after federal charges were filed against the mayor and his son in 2012 for allegedly hacking a website set up by then-Hudson County Freeholder Jose Munoz that aimed to recall him. Munoz testified against Roque and his son at a federal trial. Roque was acquitted of the charges in October 2013; his son, Joseph, was convicted of a misdemeanor. “I feel energized.”
Wiley has already set up a United slate consisting of Carlos Betancourt, Myrli Sanchez, Hector Hernandez and Thomas Leung, with Munoz not on the opposition ticket, a fact surprising to some. As for Roque, he hinted that the unveiling of his slate was soon to come.
“It’s coming in time. Next month, I’m going to have an another announcement,” noting that he is having a fundraising event on Feb. 12 at Las Palmas restaurant in West New York. “I’m hoping to make the announcement at Las Palmas.”
Rodriguez will complete the unexpired term of the former commissioner until May, when the term expires. He is assuming his position in office as his 50,000-person town awaits another classic Hudson County political clash.
Rodriguez, still young yet a political veteran, knows what he’s getting himself into.
“This is a contact sport, but I came on in the capacity to serve the community,” Rodriguez said. “And if I am chosen to be on [Roque’s slate], then I will happily accept that.”