Sunday, at 4:30 a.m., a 23-year-old man in Paterson was admitted to St. Joe’s with a non-fatal gunshot wound, according to the Passaic County Prosecutor’s Office. The area in which it occurred, only a few blocks away from City Hall, was the site of a crime scene. Unfortunately, notifications such as these are all too common in the City of Paterson, where violent crime has been rising since 2017 according to the FBI Crime Data Explorer.
Public safety is the most basic requirement for a community to thrive. Nothing can move forward socially, economically, or developmentally, if the streets aren’t safe and people cannot operate their businesses, or go about their routines, relatively secure that their persons and their property will not be violated. Enter here the Alex Mendez-Jose “Joey” Torres Alliance.
The same day that this unnamed 23-year-old man was admitted to the hospital, the Brownstone was host to Councilman Alex Mendez’s campaign party where former Mayor Joey Torres delivered a rousing and impassioned endorsement of Mendez as he seeks to oust Mayor Andre Sayegh and take the reins of City government. The party began at 7 p.m. in the glass room with about a dozen tables of ten seats set up. A DJ played a mix of older and then more recent tunes, some of which were seamlessly infused with promos for Mendez’s candidacy.
The people began coming in, and would continue to pour in, for well over an hour. Joey Torres arrived—a new table was brought up. If there was hope of a dance area, it was taken up with tables and chairs as the stream of Mendez supporters and Torres allies kept coming. The atmosphere was electric as the minutes ticked by.
When Mendez arrived, his supporters greeted his arrival with enthusiasm, unfazed by the delays. The councilman was at the top of his charm game and made sure to greet every single person in attendance. With Torres at his side, they visited the tables, took photos, shook hands, exchanged greetings, stories—as one would expect.
The people kept coming.
Out of space in the glass room, an adjacent banquet area was opened to more comfortably seat the guests who, by amateur estimation, numbered around 250. When the buffet was finally opened, the human traffic jam necessitated a relocation of the buffet to the new room. The music thumped, the conversations were a steady roar, and some did not eat until 9 p.m. but no one was complaining. They were just glad to be there because they believe that Alex Mendez, running on a campaign promising change—an Obama-esque tribute that is both vague and universally appreciated, will be able to do something about the crime problems which are plaguing the city.
Mendez acknowledged several business leaders in the City, presenting them with certificates. The feature, however, was the former mayor who used the opportunity to publicly endorse the councilman.
When Torres took the microphone, he spoke at length about his family history within the City, describing the Torres family as an “institution” in Paterson. He even poked fun at himself. “I did my 30-plus years in government, the last 13 months I even did in state government,” he said to laughs. “But it is a pleasure being here after being away.”
Torres’ address was targeted primarily at the business community, the primary target audience of the occasion. “As a business, you are more political, more of a leader than Alex and I because you are the heartbeat of our community. When we hear Alex talking about police first, he understands why, and it is no coincidence why I am here.” He then touched on his own short-lived bid for mayor, an endeavor doomed from the start because Torres’ was legally barred from holding office again following his conviction. For Torres, he said his campaign had been to serve at the behest of the residents. “In following the rules of the court, recently I was denied a representation of people like yourselves who wanted a change in Paterson, and they signed petitions for me to run. I had the honor as their spokesperson to then bring those petitions to court because if I didn’t, I wasn’t fighting for your rights. Today we are fighting for your rights via Alex Mendez. When it comes to public safety, I had a chat with Alex, we looked at the budget, and we saw how the mayor spent–or misspent–over $86 million dollars and yet taxes go up, crime is up, garbage is up, everything is up in this administration. That’s why we need change. This former mayor, Joey Torres,” he said referring to himself, “if we and you elect Alex Mendez, we are going to put 300 police officers there on Day One. Let’s be clear, there are a lot of things, but we can no longer have a young lady on 10th Avenue killed by a stray bullet because they want to buy a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread. C’mon! Or if you want to have a beer at 3 o’clock in the morning, it is your right. Alex is fighting for your rights, and I am here because I am going to help you help Alex.”
Torres’ speech was interrupted by bursts of applause and cheers which drowned his words out at times, despite the microphone. “You don’t have to see Joey Torres ever again except July 1st, OK? Help me help the great people of Paterson, bring good government, good leadership, his commitment on crime. The backbone is strong. We are going to give you cleaner, safer streets, but more importantly, we’re going to give you a community.” At times it seemed as though there was some ambiguity as to whether or not Mendez and Torres were still separate individuals or if, perhaps, Torres was thinking of his own mayoral campaign again. It was here Torres took a crack at Sayegh. “This mayor ran a few years ago on ‘One Paterson’, now I know why he ran for ‘One Paterson’, because it is only for one person, for his special interests. But your Alex, our councilman, is about community. In the word community, the word ‘one’ is not in it, but the word ‘unity’ is in it.” Torres urged those gathered to call at least ten people and urge those ten to call and get another ten, making an exponential increase of support—in theory. “We get united with ten, and then ten times ten, that makes the next Mayor of Paterson.”
Mendez was defeated by Sayegh in the 2018 election. Wooing the crowd, spending significant time greeting everyone, Mendez rode the ambient energy. He spoke of the support he had from the various ethnic communities within Paterson, an essential strategy for any aspiring mayor, and exuded confidence.
Mayor Torres’ stint in prison and subsequent inability to run for office again is no secret, although the latter may have been, in Torres’ mind, an area of interpretation, but the courts put the kibosh on any such notions. The City Clerk rejected Torres’ petitions on March 4 and one week later acting-Attorney General Matthew Platkin charged Torres with contempt of court with the potential for stiff fines and even a return to jail. Mendez has his own legal issues from a since-dropped lawsuit with former Councilman William McKoy. Last summer, a video from the Paterson Times showed McKoy shouting in Mendez’s face that he was unwelcome at the Jamaican Day Festival in Eastside Park. Mendez kept his cool.
More concerning for Mendez, he and Councilman Jackson, were indicted by a state grand jury on electoral fraud charges connected to the May, 2020, special election in the city.
When TAPinto Paterson recently reported at the City Council meeting Mendez, frustrated by Mayor Sayegh’s investigations into his petitions, claimed his was trying to ruin his campaign and likened him to Vladimir Putin, a Russian leader on his way to joining the ranks of Stalin, Hitler, and Mao in the 21st Century. Sayegh dismissed the name-calling, saying that Mendez was “reckless” and exhibited a “pattern of criminality.”
The fact of the matter is, things are said and done during campaigns, but ultimately the ballot box decides. Whether or not the appearance of solidarity Mendez’s campaign has with Torres will actually bear fruit will be seen in due time. In 2018, Sayegh was elected handily, gaining approximately double the votes Mendez reaped, the second-highest vote getting after Pedro Rodriguez, William McKoy, Michael Jackson, and Alex Cruz. Since then, however, the world has changed and the city with it, not the least of which from the COVID pandemic which crushed the city’s health and economy. The pandemic, for now at least, seems to finally be under control, but the damage done will take time and substantial resources to repair.
If Mendez and Torres have baggage—and Torres is honest enough about that to tease at his own expense—then their supporters could not possibly care less. Their concerns are about the security situation on the streets and affordability in the City of Paterson. If Mendez might have gone astray, or whatever Mayor Torres did to benefit his family on the public dime, those matters are abstract and far less important than the daily press releases of yet-another person shot or killed on the streets. The irony of a law-and-order platform being espoused by a candidate slogging through serious legal concerns, endorsed by a former mayor who went to prison, was released and agreed not to run again, ran again anyway, was rejected and subsequently charged with contempt of court, may not be lost on Paterson’s anti-Sayegh business leaders, but it certainly occupies a place of lesser importance compared to City matters.
Americans in general, and New Jerseyans in particular, are willing to tolerate a lot from their elected leaders, provided they can deliver on the basics. Just so long as “It’s no skin off my nose,” and the messaging resonates with the concerns of the voters. “Locker room talk” from a former president or a governor enjoying beach exclusivity or a mayor using city resources for his family’s benefit does not really matter. If taxes are reasonable, the schools are decent, and the streets safe, then most people remain politically content or apathetic. In a practical sense, for the leadership, these could be two words for the same thing. New Jersey has always been a pragmatic state, and that pragmatism perhaps stems from its early Dutch settlers. New Jersey does not have the legacy of the Puritanical hypocrisy of New England or the perverse nostalgia for institutional and implied stratification in the South. New Jersey is about delivering results, and if the results are delivered by someone less-than-angelic, so be it. That is what Mayor Sayegh needs to be concerned with as election day marches forward.
The Mendez campaign will continue to hammer on public safety and taxation. Attempts to smear Sayegh personally fall short, either as comic at best or highly insensitive at worst. Sayegh has at his disposal a kind of inverse toolbox: he can hammer on the personality and legal woes of Mendez—and now Torres, too, by extension—questioning his credibility in handling the City’s all-too-serious problems.
All in all, Mendez had a good night Sunday. The Brownstone had a fine buffet, there was an open bar to keep spirits high, Latin music had people bopping in their chairs, and the number of supporters who arrived clearly outweighed the number originally planned for. If party happened to run over budget, then it was worth it: Mendez, with Torres cheering him on, is optimistic that the dividends will pay it all back and more in May.