HACKENSACK – Antonio Romero drove many miles for a buffet lunch Sunday at Choripan Rodizio, an Argentine steakhouse in this Bergen County city – all the way from Vineland in Cumberland County.
Most North Jerseyans hardly ever meet anyone from Cumberland County, but Romero had an important message.
“I am trying to change the politics,” he said. “This is the moment to do that.”
Romero, who was one of the speakers at a campaign kickoff for the NJGOP Hispanic Coalition, knows what he’s talking about. Just last year, he changed the politics in his home region by getting elected as a Republican to the Cumberland board of commissioners.
Frank Pallotta, the GOP candidate in CD-5, was at the event, as was Billy Prempeh the Republican hopeful in nearby CD-9. Bob Hugin, the state Republican chair, was also on hand.
In a crowded room with at least 150 people in attendance, Romero presented a message and goal that has become common of late.
Many Hispanics traditionally have voted Democratic, but now is the time to change that.
This is not mere wishful thinking. Nationally, Democrats were unpleasantly surprised in 2020 when exit polls revealed Hispanic voters’ support for Donald Trump in some places greatly exceeded what it had been in 2016.
Michael Melham, the mayor of Belleville, suggested that many Hispanics may vote Democratic, but they’re not necessarily progressive or liberal. This is not a new analysis. The suggestion is that the cultural and religious background of many Hispanics is in line with conservative Republican thinking on social issues. In other words, Republicans have a great chance of reeling them in.
As speaker Frank Valenzuela, the GOP chair in Rochelle Park put it, many Hispanics are Republicans, “But they don’t know it yet.”
Melham, however, offered a blunt dose of reality. He said that a few years ago there were no Spanish speaking employees in Belleville town hall despite a Hispanic population of almost 50 percent.
“You never mattered,” Melham said.
He explained that Hispanics only matter – politically speaking – if they get involved and organize. The mayor said that happened in his city last fall. Melham said Phil Murphy, who carried Belleville by about 2,000 votes in 2017, won it by a much narrower (about 700 votes) margin last year.
Sunday’s gathering was meant to do precisely what Melham suggested – organize and get active.
Still, there are factors that can’t be ignored.
People speak of the “Hispanic vote,” but it is not monolithic. Hispanics in New Jersey have their roots in different countries and they all do not think alike. For example, notwithstanding the traditional Democratic-lean of Hispanics, Cubans, generally speaking, always have been more likely to vote Republican.
No matter, the theme of the day was turning out all Hispanics to vote for Republicans up and down the state – from the northern reaches of Bergen on down to Vineland and Millville in Cumberland.
Pallotta mentioned that the Hispanic population in CD-5 is now about 19 percent, a bit more than it was in 2020. This probably is because the district has lost some Sussex County towns in favor of terrain in more urban Bergen.
“We’ve been reaching out to the Hispanic population for three years,” Pallotta said. “We are going to work with you … We are going to give you a voice.”