PERTH AMBOY – As the state staggers toward putting more time on the clock for the three white males supposedly running the show in Trenton, and the majority party somehow simultaneously pretends to be diversity-friendly, Democrats want to make it more difficult for New Jersey’s only elected, corruption-busting Latina mayor – herself a Democrat – to hold office.
There’s a history here in this Middlesex city of over 50,000, 80% Hispanic, and might be shameful to that segment of the population describing itself as “male,” which propped up corrupt Mayor Joe Vas for years until a bankteller named Wilda Diaz (while the men quivered underground, intimidated by Vas’s formidable presence) yanked his statue off the pedestal in 2008, the same election year that Barack Obama blew up the party establishment.
But this was also the place where Royal Governor William Franklin tried to hide from the rebel forces of the guy whose statue stands in Market Square, otherwise known as General George Washington.
Now Diaz wants a fourth term, and in a five-person field, faces Vas’s son – downtown attorney Joe Vas – and local Democratic Party Chairman Helmin Caba (who’s also a councilman), whose organization backed the referendum question changing the rules for the election so that the victor needs to get 50% plus one to avoid a runoff. Doubtful about the integrity of the process, Diaz’s allies are already preparing for a runoff election (most likely with either Vas or Caba).
It’s a free country, of course, but this is the history-making mayor mayor who steered Perth Amboy through the aftermath of the Vas trainwreck, his jailing, the reanimation of his allies trying to regain entry to City Hall, the naked misogyny of a 2012 reelection effort, ravages of Hurricane Sandy and this hard juncture of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“She’s a nice person,” said Vas, a common dismissal, incidentally, in South Jersey right now where Amy Kennedy wants to knock off President Donald Trump-endorsed U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew (R-2).
Diaz runs as 12-year veteran.
“I am the mayor with the most experience and the most understanding of what we need to do to keep our residents informed,” she said, seated in the park in front of Perth Amboy’s historic City Hall. “I understand the needs of our community. We are going through a difficult time period of our lives; COVID is not going away. Not until we have a proven vaccine are we going to have a normal life.”
The daughter of Antonio “Tony’ Soto, a taxicab driver from Puerto Rico who also worked as a corrections officer to support his six daughters, Diaz grew up hard and said she never forgot. “I am a strong woman,” said the daily communicant whose son served two tours of duty in the Army in the Middle East. “I’ve always stood grounded and always reflected what’s important. You can’t grow up in public housing, waiting in line for cheese, as I did, and not understand the needs of others. Your past experience really develops who you are as a person. I saw the needs of others, and at the end of the day, it’s what we do to help others.
“I have been at the forefront,” the mayor added. “We inherited a disastrous situation and recently we got an A plus rating from Standard and Poors. Years ago they wouldn’t have given us the time of day. During this COVID-19 crisis, I didn’t hide. [She canceled the scheduled state of the city out of an abundance of caution, prior to Governor Phil Murphy’s declared state of emergency.] Since March, I have been working with a dedicated team of individuals, and I’m still here today helping our community.”
She and her sisters buried their father in February, right before COVID clobbered New Jersey.
“If anything I proved I am a strong woman,” Diaz said of her service to date. “I proved I have leadership skills. Many women have the same life experiences. Women, because we multi-task, bring a lot to government. Living and working over 20 years in the banking industry, for example, really helped me understand the budget process and the budget woes we came through. Amazing women have always supported me, like the Latina Women for Political Empowerment; they are a wonderful resource.”
Her detractors try to characterize Diaz as a rogue mayor who doesn’t get along with the Middlesex County Demoratic Organization, but she proudly points to her membership in the New Jersey League of Municipalties, where she and her colleagues routinely review legislation impacing local leaders and their constituents. “I am Perth Amboy,” she said. “My allegiance is to Perth Amboy. Do we [her and other officials] have disagreements, yes, who doesn’t, but my job is to speak up for our community. But I have also built great relationships with many other people including the Middlesex County Clerk, which is one of the reasons why we have a state-of-the-art county park in the City of Perth Amboy.”
When she grew up here, Puerto Ricans dominated, but Perth Amboy more recently has absorbed large influxes of Peruvians, Mexicans and Dominicans. “We are a welcoming city,” the mayor said. “What we all have in common is our devotion to family.”
Diaz reflected on her city and the ongoing challenges of the COVID-19 virus a day after President Trump announced the positive results of his COVID-19 test, and shortly before former Governor Chris Christie reported testing positive for coronavirus.
“I pray for him,” the mayor – who herself went into social isolation in March after coming into contact with someone who had tested positive for COVID-19 – said of Trump. “I wish a speedy recovery to him and his wife.
“It shows that anyone can get the virus,” she added. “If anything, it teaches us to pay heed to… wearing a mask and washing our hands. To put it in perspective, if the President of the United States can get the virus, anyone can.
“The challenge from the beginning in Perth Amboy has been getting the residents to understand how important it is to listen to the warnings about taking care of ourselves, protecting ourselves with masks and washing hands,” the mayor said. “This was all new to us, especially for Latino communities. It has been nonstop, having the conversation with our small businesses, for example. Stores got a lot of information from us. We went in and spaced distances for them. But it caused havoc. In Perth Amboy, 2,500 residents contracted COVID.”
The city suffered 137 fatalities.
“We have to continue to remind our residents about the seriousness of this virus,” Diaz said. To this point, “We really rallied together. We came together as a city. We always have. The [different organizations] came together… to take care of our own.
“More attention does need to be paid to the small businesses, especially the mom and pop stores,” she added.
The virus revealed the country’s need for universal healthcare and the perilous financial condition caused by the cost of higher education, the mayor said. She hopes if he is elected president that Joe Biden absorbs some of Sanders’ priorities into his national agenda.
“Today, he really showed true leadership when he [Biden] removed his negative ads,” Diaz said. “That showed leadership but it also showed respect. That says a lot about Biden.”
Bracketed seperately from the presidential contest, on Nov. 3rd, Diaz hopes her service says a lot about her, and in the midst of turmoil everywhere, a lot about the endurance of storm-wracked and COVID slammed – but always family and faith-grounded – Perth Amboy.