Every Hispanic kid learns the story of Don Quixote tilting at windmills, and now it would appear that fate in this state is tilting at Latinos in public office – in pretty unforgiving fashion.
It’s been one of the worst months in recent memory for Hispanic elected officials in New Jersey, starting with the release of that tape of Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez Gregg (R-8), connected to an incident that prompted her to decide not to run again; the ongoing cough-up of details from the Bob Menendez Trial, related to the corruption case of the state’s senior U.S. Senator; and then – worst of the bunch – the plea of guilty to corruption charges last week by former Paterson Mayor Jose “Joey” Torres.
Torres was mayor as of 8:59 a.m.
Then he wasn’t, a condition of his government plea agreement.
And while Menendez’s allies maintain his innocence and insist that his connection to Dr. Salomon Malgen hinged on friendship, not quid pro quo, the sidelining of the country’s most prominent elected official, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, boomerangs on the entire community. It hurt Hillary Clinton last year not to have Menendez at full strength, just as it now hurts the cause of those Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA) defenders not to have him at full strength.
You can throw in there too the Democratic Party establishment’s efforts to toss Speaker Vincent Prieto (D-32) to the curb in favor of Assemblyman Craig Coughlin (D-19); and Woodcliff Lakes Mayor Carlos Rendo dragging the Republican ticket with news this month that the feds are investigating the borough over a possible religious land-use breach.
Poked earlier this month in Atlantic City on the subject of diversity in Trenton leadership as Prieto slides into the abyss, Democratic State Chairman John Currie acknowledged the likely very glaring party eyesore of three Irish American guys occupying seats of power: Phil Murphy (Governor); Steve Sweeney (Senate President) and Coughlin (Speaker). “We have a diverse state,” the chairman told InsiderNJ. “I respect every person running, but we need some kind of diversity in our top leadership. We need diversity in legislative leadership.”
And yet – yet – it’s painful to say – but based on recent history, have Latinos – 20% of the state’s population, at least – exhausted the patience of the rest of the state’s ethnic groups? Prieto got his shot, and blew it – right? Menendez struggles – so must the community he comes from, the unwitting victims of either his missteps and misdeeds, or his misfortune. And so on. It’s a big and diverse state with a lot of groups jockeying to get to power. Who says any given ethnic enclave is entitled to perpetual leadership, a cemented seat at the table, based on demographic trends?
No. We must seek a deeper level of examination, and make it case by case.
When Passaic Mayor Alex Blanco went down last year on corruption charges, a source told InsiderNJ that it was merely something in the “Hispanic culture” that caused the mayor’s crack-up. Whatever that means. Anyway, we reject the notion utterly. In a few of these cases – Rodriguez-Gregg’s comes immediately to mind – we aren’t talking about corruption, but maybe simply a very bad run of luck, even punctuated by injustice in the case of the assemblywoman, who found herself under arrest after getting rear-ended in a traffic incident.
As for the senior senator, a jury will decide Menendez’s fate.
That’s another matter.
But that’s on Torres.
For those Latinos in Paterson who looked up to the ex-mayor and now must find a way forward hampered by a terrible community narrative, consider those leaders making a mark out there, still seeking a way to make a positive impact.
There are a few handfuls of NJ Hispanic leaders who stand out, including U.S. Rep. Albio Sires (D-8), Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz, the state’s only Latina mayor; state Senator M. Teresa Ruiz (D-29), chair of the Senate Education Committee; state Senator Nilsa Cruz-Perez (D-5), Assemblywoman Marlene Caride, state Senator Nellie Pou (D-35), Hudson Freeholder (and future Clerk) Junior Maldonado, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, Assemblywoman Angelica Jimenez, Assemblywoman Gabriela Mosquera, Assemblywoman Eliana Pintor Marin, Assemblywoman Annette Chaparro, West New York Mayor Felix Roque, North Ward Newark Councilman Anibal Ramos, Passaic Mayor Hector Lora, North Bergen Commissioner Julio Marenco, Paterson At-Large Councilman Alex Mendez, Jersey City Councilman Danny Rivera, and former Paterson Deputy Mayor Pedro Rodriguez.
“Hopefully 2018 brings better openings for us,” Marenco told InsiderNJ.