In Paterson, Sayegh Seeks a Political Time to Shine

PATERSON – Which Silk City will have shown up when it’s all said and done on Tuesday?

Alex Mendez allies see a simple path to victory based on ethnic politics.

It goes something like this:

Mendez is Latino. Latinos account for 58% of the population.

Aslon Goow and Sayegh will fight for the Arab vote, and the mayor will struggle – and ultimately fail to connect – with African Americans.

Amid all that ethnic division, proud Latino Mendez can’t lose.


Well, Sayegh wants people to believe it’s somewhat more complex.

Not that much more complex, but somewhat.

First of all, Sayegh has a long history of reaching out to different Latino groups, going back to his first Ward 6 victory in 2008. In fact, Sayegh has a pretty good history of reaching out to all different groups, and for identifying big projects – like Hinchcliffe Stadium – that benefit all Patersonians – not just one group.

He has a history of steering Paterson out of the corruption dumpster fire of the guy that sat in the mayor’s chair before him: Jose “Joey” Torres, who incidentally, backs Mendez in this election cycle with a kind of vengeance.

Torres cracked up in office on corruption charges, just like the guy he originally replaced, the late Marty Barnes.

What’s the worst that can be said about Sayegh?

“He has too much energy,” a source morosely observed to InsiderNJ.


There are probably some other deficits.

Too cozy with developers?

He actually originally ran on a platform that included more development for the long-beleaguered Paterson.

His campaign reelection coffers this year ballooned to a quarter of a million dollars incidentally, compared to less than $15K for Mendez.

Of course, Sayegh ran into the misfortune of having to lead Paterson during a pandemic. But he also acquitted himself honorably as he faced that test.

“Government is here to improve people’s lives, and must be measured by how many people we help each day,” Sayegh told InsiderNJ late last year. “Our vaccination rate is 93%. We take the vaccine to the people. We have done our best to eradiate hesitancy about the vaccine and to that end we recruited credible messengers – educators and athletes – to prove the path out of the pandemic.”

The classic manufacturing city founded by Alexander Hamilton now relies on the cannabis trade as its most emergent industry, one of six in the state with a medical marijuana dispensary license. Sayegh vetoed the city council’s resistance to the dispensary trade, then ran out the clock to avoid a council override. “Paterson is open for business,” said the mayor. “Not only is this about equity and justice for too many men and women who lost opportunities [because of marijuana convictions prior to the substance’s legalization in New Jersey], but now you can open your own business, while it generates revenue for our cash stripped coffers.”

In his campaign this season against old rival Sayegh, Mendez has fixed on Paterson’s crime rate, which rose five percent since 2017. But Mendez doesn’t really offer an aggressive and detailed solution to crime in Paterson.

Again, his most significant endorsement is Torres.

The messaging is simple, again – but muddled.

I like crime.

Alex likes crime.

Vote for Alex to solve the city’s crime problem.

Of course, Mendez pushes back hard on the notion that he “likes crime,” vowing to beat the mail fraud rap from his last election, which he says is politically motivated by a terrified, paranoid mayor, who has to resort to jailing his opponents because he can’t beat them on… the demographics.

But the motor-mouthed Sayegh does, in fact, thrive on issues, and, in fact, occupied the frontlines of one of them through the COVID-19 crisis. While Trump-ites indulged in conspiracy theories, Sayegh undertook a specific educational effort in Paterson’s sprawling and diverse Muslim community, which expressed some resistance to the vaccine. The mayor said the FDA’s and CDC’s initial recommendation to halt the Johnson and Johnson exacerbated people’s concerns.

The resumption of Johnson and Johnson vaccines – in addition to the city wanting to give residents the convenience of a single shot – prompted Sayegh to try to encourage people, especially Muslims, to receive the vaccine near them. “I’m using myself as an example,” he said. “It’s been four weeks [since receiving a Johnson and Johnson shot] and I feel fine.”

The mayor said he also believes the language barrier is a factor. For over four months, the city saw population lag at a local high school. “We decided that if our numbers are not coming up, and they’re not going to come with us, then we’ll go to them,” said Sayegh, initiating what he describes as pop-up vaccination sites at Muslim houses of worship, within subsets of Paterson’s Muslim population, including Arab, Bangladeshi, and Turkish.

“They’re pop-up pod points of dispensary,” said the mayor. “We’re telling them ‘one visit, one vaccination.’”

The African American community in Paterson – as elsewhere – also expressed reservations about the vaccine. But “We’ve seen our African American numbers increase,” the mayor said. “At a Baptist church a couple weeks ago, in one day we used Johnson and Johnson and we vaccinated 1,000 people.”

Of course, he’s made enemies as mayor of Paterson.

A Sayegh friend, Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35), tells him – should the mayor win a second term – that he needs to focus more on building bridges in the African American community. On Saturday, looking like a human Renoir painting under an umbrella (above) Sayegh worked the First Ward in the rain, with African American allies who said they expect him to win on Tuesday in a landslide.

Most, though, don’t know exactly what will happen when it comes to Paterson politics.

Joey Torres, for example, was supposed to win reelection easily in 2010, and ran into an African American vote that propelled Wimberly onto the council, while coat-tailing Jeff Jones into the mayor’s seat.

It was a stunning result.

Even Jones was shocked.

Alert to the history in his own city, Sayegh has trotted out some heavyweight endorsements – just in case – including that of the governor, and the state’s two U.S. Senators: Bob Menendez and Cory Booker. On Friday, he welcomed Booker, who put his own animated exclamation point on Sayegh’s reelection.

Will it be enough?

Sources say the city feels moribund – even for Paterson, notoriously quiet around Election Time, with the exception of 2012, when Bill Pascrell ran and won a ferociously contested primary.

Incidentally, where is Pascrell?

He usually tries to stay out of local politics; one of the exceptions being when he outright worked against Jones in 2014 by joining forces with Sayegh, who lost that year to Torres.

This time, the former mayor turned congressman again turned up for Sayegh.

Has the sitting mayor sufficiently stomped on Torres politically to put him – and Mendez, for that matter – out of commission?

It sounds like a light enough lift, given Torres’ history of corruption.

But this is Paterson, where simplistic messaging supposedly supplants ideas, and the place – unlike other cookie cutter Democratic Primary cities – remains notoriously complex, stubbornly May election nonpartisan, and disorganized.  If he wins on Tuesday, Sayegh will secure another term as mayor, but in a larger sense, against the odds, particularly given the preeminence of ethnic crosshairs here, he will prove himself a Cardinal Richelieu-like master of the political conundrum that is his home city.

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