INSIDERNJ ANALYSIS: Andre Sayegh, NJ Politics, and Reanimating the Cory Booker-Bill Pascrell Model

Andre Sayegh’s mayoral victory on Tuesday signified political perseverance through the static of those who counted him out and real political promise: both to the fascinating but troubled city he loves, and to a disjointed state of New Jersey, which at one point lost its way from believing any of its mayors – even its elected officials for the most part – could aspire to more than zones of tough guy parochialized influence.

It is a larger national story, of course, to find private sector bigshots with their own mega bank accounts to come in and do for the great unwashed what they – sometimes hailing from humble beginnings- did for themselves and their families.

It’s not a good story, because it essentially acknowledges that those would-be harmonic scales of our political system, which should produce real competition, and the testing of individual ambitions against one another on the trail to greatness – don’t yield, in the end, anything other than local or district dysfunction. No one believes in the system as structured – it’s corrupt – so we must, of course, reach to a Wall Street or big pharma millionaire with no experience in elected office, or a screaming reality TV star, for at least the assurance that he or she won’t make money off the public trough.

Well, it’s truly too bad.

We’ve abused our system and here it is, with few stories to tell that don’t reinforce the general public’s essential well-considered disregard for what the founders died for and designed – in places like the hillocks around the Great Falls.

That’s why every once in a while when a local guy with promise has a good night you pay attention.

Because it’s rare. Hampered by all the usual hobgoblins of New Jersey politics – but still rare.

As rare as someone like Cory Booker riding the mayoralty of Newark to the U.S. Senate and the possibility of a 2020 presidential run.

And it’s rare when an embattled city like Paterson, which much of the time toils in Newark’s shadow, receives nearly a half a billion dollars annually in state education aid and struggles with ongoing image problem, offers its own humble take on the possibility of politics, as it did in 2012 when U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9), Sayegh’s mentor, drove up pluralities in his home city and beat the suburbs to take the Democratic Primary.

And as it did last night.

It was ten years ago when School Board Member Sayegh, a nerd in some ways – Master’s Degree in government from Columbia University – and native of Silk City, a socially excitable intellect, launched his Ward 6 candidacy at the side of retiring Councilman Tom Rooney amid buzz of bigger things.

That was a long time ago.

“People aren’t laughing with you, but at you,” the sitting mayor told Sayegh.

He had a quirky sense of humor and that habit of being unable to resist a pun that rankled some around him.

But he was irrepressible politically.

Two years later, the obviously politically ambitious Sayegh ran for mayor, and cut sufficiently into the base of incumbent Jose “Joey” Torres to help propel Jeff Jones to victory. Torres didn’t forget. Sayegh stayed busy by pounding doors for Pascrell in 2012, and was a critical South Ward part of that party win for the congressman. Pascrell didn’t forget that, either. Two years later, with Jones hobbled, Torres returned and went to war with his old nemesis from South Paterson, with Pascrell and Passaic County Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie behind him. Not unlike Booker and Pascrell in terms of raw oratorical gifts and a knack for word play, the Ward 6 councilman with a history of bucking Torres animated that portion of Paterson that dreamed big.

So he went down hard to Torres in 2014.

He was in shock when the results poured in.

More than a few people told him he should leave Paterson.

It’s a Latino city.

Move to the Shore.

Forget it.

But political insiders called Sayegh “Mosi,”short for mosaic for a reason. He had his flaws. He was an intriguer. To borrow an Augie Torres image, he could be a Iago. But fundamentally he understood the value of relationships in politics, a much derided term during the campaign season, and challenged with particular eloquence and force by Sayegh rival Bill McKoy. In this case, though, it means so much more than simply relying on power players for an edge. Sayegh ran without the machine, such as it is in Passaic County, when he won his council seat the first time, reaching in and forging connections with Dominican community leaders for that first ward-wide win, powering past a Torres-connected candidate. Always living with the political encumbrance of being a Lebanese Catholic in a ward where the Muslim faith is a political plus, and in some annoying and isolated instances the pushback of at least one vociferous religious zealot, he needed to maintain good ties to those faith leaders and did. Significantly, his loss in 2014 emboldened ward pit boss Al Abdel-aziz and his Palestinian base to challenge him in 2016, a true ward brawl that strengthened both men in the end. They forged an alliance this time, which came to fruition for both of them last night. Saygeh also leaned heavily on Chairman Currie and his network, for critical African American support. And of course, he depended on Bill Pascrell III, son of the congressman, for financial contacts. The backing of Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly was not insignificant. Wimberly’s presence on the 2010 ballot helped Jones over Torres in the African American community and the tough minded Wimberly, a legendary local coach, honestly believed in Sayegh through two elections (2014 and 2018), and took to the councilman’s eccentricities with a coach’s tolerance for raw talent. To his harshest critics, Sayegh – like Booker – could be a ham, and will inevitably encounter the Uncle Floyd comparisons as he tries to carve out a bigger political niche.

But it gets back to those ward races, the shoe leather dynamism of the guy, pounding on doors; and constituent-driven results – like shutting down a late-night rocking hookah lounge and finessing the deal that transformed a residential neighborhood menace into a pre-school.

So “relationships,” as understood in its worse sense, did not constitute a phoning in to power players who made him, so much as a blending of all contacts to work on his behalf: from the rank and file voters who backed him in 2008, to the loyal lieutenants like Javier Fernandez and Miguel Diaz who bled with him when it was difficult, to the politically wired0in Abdel-aziz to the Black pastors, to the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, to his old friend Brendan Gill – to his wife, the always supportive, smart and equally politically hyperkinetic Fahanna Balgahoom Sayegh.

His win was old school Patersonian in the best sense, a block by block woven mosaic of Arabs, African Americans, Hispanics, Bengalis, white ethnic Catholics and politicos at all levels of the process. It was the opposite of a nativist play to a single base.

That’s Paterson, gentleman, to paraphrase Al Pacino.

That’s all it is.

And he’s still young and vigorous in his mid forties; a good amateur boxer, too.

The larger outside world will pay attention to Paterson a little more now that they will pay attention to Sayegh, even if he has the immediate condition red of a council led by a fierce rival (McKoy) where he can only honestly claim three allies (Councilman Luis Velez, Councilwoman-elect Lilisa Mimms and Councilwoman Ruby Cotton). He also – let’s be real – received 8.8K votes for the win in a city of 140K. That’s hardly an epic output. It’s a shameful commentary, in point of cold fact. Facing that kind of oceanic indifference citywide and a presumably resistant council at City Hall, Sayegh will have a helluva bucking bronco ride.

But we’ll be watching.

Attention’s good for Paterson.

It’s good for New Jersey politics.

It’s a statement that it still exists for those who come up the hard way, walk through the punches, and persevere in the day in, day out grind of local elected office.

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