‘I Left My Fear in Cuba’: The Intriguing Intertwining Backstory of Roque and Menendez

He walked into the room in chains.

Forget about politics.

Forget about the office he held.

Mayor Felix Roque – as a mortal man – looked like he was in serious existential jeopardy.

What horrors awaited him in Rahway or wherever it is they ship people who don’t have a future?

But miraculously he bounced back.

“Not guilty.”

That was substantial achievement enough, but it ended up just being the beginning.

He ate another indictment.

Surely, this was it.

But it wasn’t.

Again Roque survived.

Now, facing reelection in May against a ticket with the backing of key allies affiliated with the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) and U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8), he has that Teflon aura about him accompanying people who survive gunshots that leave both ears seriously singed.

He’s been to the River Styx and back.

Kind of like Bob Menendez.

There’s a story there, about Felix and Bob, Bob and Felix, which goes beyond the mere resemblance of Roque’s local ordeals to Menendez’s own bucking bronco ride to hell and back.

The two men have intertwined tales, in fact, starting roughly around the time Roque challenged West New York Mayor Silverio “Sal” Vega in 2011.

Vega was Menendez’s guy.

Hoping to protect his incumbent pal, the boss went all in with a King Arthur/Lancelot-like anointing, which included a big party for the mayor at the Venetian, and a TV truck that rolled through West New York come crunch time, featuring images from that night: Emperor Menendez with his hand on the shoulder of his own personal Proximo, and other scattershot fodder from Vega’s Menendez-inspired political career.

It was politically intimidating.

Menendez was too strong in West New York.

Surely, challenger Roque wouldn’t be able to break through.

But somehow he did, defeating the machine and turning Vega out of City Hall.

Celebrations in the street that night carried echoes of pent-up anti-Castro vibes, inevitable among Cuban Americans looking to sour their enemies with the most offensive of associations. Only in Hudson would the defeat of friendly former track star Vega get inflated into the fall of Fidel.

But it was a big deal.

Few beat the machine the way Roque and his team of upstarts did that night.

Then-Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) Chairman Mark Smith left town humiliated, as if painfully conscious that a little band of archers had laid the mighty empire asunder on his watch.

Roque wasn’t done.

They had made him sweat.

Now he was going to make them sweat.

“I left my fear in Cuba.”

He had spoken those words a hundred times on the trail when he challenged Vega.

Now in office, the former army colonel was apparently not content to leave behind a wartime footing.

Always looking to build on a Hudson beachhead established with the backing of state Senator Brian P. Stack while sticking his finger in the eye of the HCDO, Gov. Chris Christie swore Roque into office.

It got worse.

When the HCDO lined up in support of Menendez’s 2012 reelection, Roque instead announced his support for Republican challenger Joe Kyrillos, a senator from Monmouth County, and at that time a close Christie friend.

It was an extraordinary rejection of the local pooh-bah and fellow Cuban-American turned international heavyweight.

Was Hudson the new Bergen?

This sort of thing, this kind of blatant and incessant disrespect, just didn’t happen.

Not in Hudson.

Soon, City Hall was upside down.

Roque – in relentless damage control mode – withdrew his support for Kyrillos and instead declared his backing of “the great Menendez.”

But on May 24, 2012, the United States Attorney’s Office arrested Roque and his son, Joseph Roque, on charges of hacking into an email account and website run by the leaders of an effort to recall the mayor.

That’s the day the mayor appeared in court in chains.

It looked grim for him, to say the least.

But Roque was also placid that day, the usual admixture of merriment and peaceful playfulness still observable on his features.

He beat the rap.

He won reelection.

Then he immediately took a second hit.

The way it happened, it was like Jim Morrison screaming in a megaphone at close range: “no one gets out of here alive.”

He had beaten the feds.

Okay.

But now state authorities were more than sniffing around.

Th umbrella opened.

In June of 2015, the attorney general slapped Roque an indictment for accepting $250,000 in bribes in return for referring patients to a medical imaging company.

Well, it was fun, the Roque allies acknowledged.

But this time he was absolutely done.

Right?

Wrong.

Not finding enough evidence and doubting the testimony of a key witness, jurors let him go.

“I always said this is the best country in the world, the best justice system in the world,” the mayor told reporters. “And I just had a taste of what this county’s all about, the freedom, the American way of life. And when a person is not guilty and they go before a jury, they sign your fate. And I’m just extremely happy that I’m able to do that here.”

Remind you of anyone?

Sure, Roque’s legal turmoil and political survival ironically proved a precursor to the troubles and triumphs of his own nemesis, Menendez, the spiritual shaman of the HCDO, who managed to himself stay alive on the larger bloody tightrope of his own indictment, trial and subsequent hung jury; the man, the fellow Cuban man, Roque shaped into a father figure who then needed to be tested, dethroned, and deposed by the son.

Such is the son’s vision.

But Hudson thrives less on Freudian paradigms and blood and more on the caustic framework of bloodless collisions that arise from political machines driven by people in pursuit of power, uncaring apparently about the details of their intertwined deeply personal story lines, and the soulful spasms of heartbreak and the comraderies that might have come from overlapping agonies and victories, as long as the machine prevails, or a man can boast of having again bucked it on the strength of his enduring sense of an abandoned fear.

 

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