At 11 a.m., a press conference was held in front of the Old Courthouse in Paterson, called by Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, the Paterson Branch NAACP, along with local, county, state, plus Congressman Bill Pascrell. The press conference was hastily arranged in response to a racially antagonistic mailer circulated by Stephen Miller, a former Trump administration White House aide and, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a right-wing extremist and white nationalist.
The mailers come at a time when the US Supreme Court is considering a case on the constitutionality of affirmative action policies in places of higher learning. The mailer accused President Biden “widespread discrimination against White and Asian Americans even though it’s against the law.”
The State Democratic Party was swift to condemn the mailer while the Paterson officials organized their Thursday rally.
“There is no place in New Jersey for Stephen Miller’s racist, white nationalist agenda and every Republican who doesn’t want to be associated with Miller and his group should join us in disavowing this filth and standing against racism in any form,” Chairman LeRoy J. Jones, Jr. said in a statement. “While Republicans want to tear us apart for their own political gain, Democrats are fighting to help working families of all races and backgrounds thrive by pursuing an agenda that will build the middle class. New Jersey will not allow an extreme right wing agenda to advance in our state, and we will always stand up against racists and white nationalist like Stephen Miller.”
With an all-Democratic assembly of speakers addressing the audience, some of whom were carrying “Justice for Felix DeJesus” signs in reference to a Haledon man who disappeared after an interaction with Paterson Police this winter, the speakers condemned the mailer and called for Republicans to reject racist messaging.
Republican candidate for Congress Billy Prempeh arrived, calling out the speakers and interrupting the speeches. He accused the leaders of spreading propaganda and blasted Pascrell for not debating him during the campaign season. Some supporters of Prempeh in the audience likewise decried the press conference itself, saying that America is not a racist country and accusing Democrats of “playing politics.”
After a tense verbal exchange between the speakers, particularly with Assemblywoman Sumter, the candidate left.
As to the mailer itself, it comes at a time when Democrats are looking to hold onto their seats in the upcoming midterm elections, where inflation and energy prices have been fueling Republican sympathies among voters. Democrats, in large part, have been emphasizing the social stakes at risk in the upcoming term, especially in light of the recent Supreme Court ruling which overturned Roe v. Wade. Paterson, a highly diverse city, has a majority Hispanic population, with large African American, South Asian, and Middle Eastern demographics. Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh said, “The mailer may resonate with some people who may not know any better, they’ll take the race bait. But as far as Paterson is concerned, and Democrats, that’s why we’re here today—so we can emphasize the fact that you have to reject that, you have to renounce that. Choose vision over division.”
Mayor Sayegh believes that the mailer ought to serve as a warning for voters ahead of Election Day. “This should motivate voters, especially a piece like this aims to divide and conquer. We have to unite and prosper. Hate has no place in Paterson, no place in Passaic County, no place in New Jersey, and no place in the United States of America. When people are desperate, they resort to fear and smear. But we’re not going to embrace those tactics.”
As far as a ground-game to get out the vote, Mayor Sayegh said he would “double down” on going door-to-door. “I’m going to knock on more doors this week. I plan on knocking on doors for a couple hours, I’ll go multiple hours.”
Assemblyman Benji Wimberly said that Democrats have to be energized in these last few days before voters go to the polls. “We went through it the last cycle of elections where they ran on a race that talked about critical race theory, sexual education in schools, and things like that. That motivated their base. We have to really dismiss this. There is no ‘replacement theory’. As far as the Democratic Party is concerned, that’s not what we’re doing, no critical race theory, none of than that. But when you talk about hate, and this case in particular when it comes to equal opportunities, this is really some race-baiting stuff. Not only do you bring in white people, you have Asian people to try to add on to what’s going on. It’s just a different tactic. Anytime that somebody is putting $33 million into a mailer, and to spread throughout not just New Jersey, but throughout the United States, it’s a serious matter.”
The assemblyman believes that Asians and Whites were referenced together as victimized groups in the mailer because of the Supreme Court’s posture on equal opportunity, or affirmative action. “Obviously, the numbers of people of color and the Asian community are very large, and particularly in many of the fields that are talking about be it education and higher education. Those play a major factor.”
When Commissioner Nicolino Gallo, a Republican, won a seat on the County Board of Commissioners, the solid blue hegemony was cracked for the first time in years. A potential crack in the Democratic stronghold, largely credited to former State Chairman and current Passaic County Chairman John Currie, seemed to form. For Wimberly, Democrats should not take the matter lightly. “It has to be a wakeup call because the reality is that in a county like Passaic County, where Democrats outnumber Republicans two to one, they still won a seat last time. So, there was enough spur in certain areas to put a person in place. Now we have to wake up and say that we can’t just sit back and rest on our laurels and say, ‘Oh, this is just wrong.’ We need to explain to folks why this is wrong.”
Insider NJ spoke with Prempeh after the rally had concluded. He blasted the Democrats as disingenuous. “Commissioner Bartlett and Assemblyman Wimberly asked, why haven’t any the Republicans come to disavow this? First off, the first I heard of this was last night. Last night was the first time I heard about this mailer. Come [today], they put this mailer out and as if the Republicans are trying to spread all this nonsense, and they’re talking about ‘they’re using fear’. That’s what the Democrats have been doing for a long time. I see it happening in the city of Paterson. It has been happening for many, many years. I am sick and tired of them using race, using the black and Hispanic community to pander for votes. They called for someone to disavow, I came over to disavow.”
Prempeh and Libertarian candidate Sean Armstrong called for a debate with Pascrell over the summer, reported by Insider NJ. A debate, however, never materialized and Prempeh ascribes it to Democratics afraid of putting their views up for discussion.
“The Democratic party needs to stop spreading propaganda like that, and spreading lies,” Prempeh told Insider NJ. “They’re using that as a reason to get people to come out and vote, rather than even debating. These people talk so much about democracy, they don’t want anybody to hear the other opinion or to hear the other side. We all know that Paterson is one of the largest cities in Passaic County and the 9th District. It’s one of the cities that helped put Pascrell in the position that he’s in. Every single year, they do the exact same thing. They disappear throughout their entire term, they show up when it’s time for a press conference, and throw some mud at the Republican Party saying that they’re the problem. This, despite the fact that they’ve been in control of this area for the past 26 years and nothing but violent crime has happened to this community, gentrification, and a terrible standard of living. The problem is not the Republicans and even this crap,” he said, referring to the mailer.
“We didn’t send this. The Passaic County Republican Party, the state Republican Party, none of the Republicans in the state did this,” Prempeh continued. “They knew exactly what they were doing coming to Paterson, New Jersey, and specifically doing that. They know exactly what they are doing, that is the real fear. They see something in the water, the people are not satisfied with what they’ve been presented. So, the only way that [Democrats] can try and get the votes to help benefit the party is to stoke fear, bring up Trump, bring out these kinds of things. They don’t say anything personal about me. Why? Because Pascrell won’t even debate. He won’t even talk about it. They start talking about Mason Maher, he went bankrupt, talking about those things, but they don’t want to come to the table and have a debate. Even when the League of Women Voters set it up, all the Republican candidates agreed to the debate. None of the Democrats chose to. And it was the League of Women Voters, a left-leaning organization, that set this up. What exactly are they afraid of? That is the real fear. They use propaganda, they use fear tactics, and use race baiting to control black and Hispanics in this community to sway a vote. But they won’t come in front of you and put their actual positions front and center.”