The Paterson Late Game: VBMs the Story Heading into Election Day

PATERSON – The vote by mail (VBM) process will significantly impact Election Night this Tuesday,  with an estimated 2,800 submitted so far and an additional 3,100 still in the field, amid late pushing and shoving for votes and a flashpoint at the center of the powerful Dominican community.

“The only thing that is going to be the talk are the VBMs,” a source told InsiderNJ. “They will decide the winner.”

For more specifics, go here.

And as that intensifies in a perceived-to-be-close election, At-Large Councilman Alex Mendez’s position in the contest produces harder pushback by his rivals, especially given a spate of local headlines.

“It’s crazy,” groaned a Mendez for Mayor backer Saturday, showing signs of campaign punches having connected.

It was inevitable, given Mendez’s power projection at the outset.

Having not filed his reports with the state Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC), and paid penalties 46 times for bounced checks, according to a story in the Paterson Times, Mendez faces additional late flurries.

From the beginning, and even after the negative hits scored, which they say may not have an impact on the mindset of his loyal base – his opponents fear the ongoing organically robust effort by the at-large councilman’s campaign. That fear derives in part from Mendez himself, and from the knowledge of the past work of operative Henry Sosa, Mendez’s campaign manager. Most sources – even within the Mendez network – credit the handiwork of Sosa for the VBM uptick in the field right now.

Mendez

Mendez wins the sign war, too – and again is the city’s most recognizable local member of a growing community that has backed him going back to his school board races.

“Ask those people right there who they’re supporting for mayor,” a source said, pointing to those neighborhood residents who had just witnessed an accident, one of their own down in the street after a car hit her bicycle.

They stood there in shock amid the glare of ambulance lights.

“They’re all Mendez supporters,” said the source.

A high vote-getter citywide when he landed his at-large seat in 2014 and well-known – with high visibility and tactile connectivity – in his Dominican base, Mendez is generally seen as a strong contender, if not the frontrunner, even as the party establishment, such as it is in a politically complex city – attempts to take him down.

The late stumbles by Mendez have former Deputy Mayor Pedro Rodriguez in particular elbowing in to try to gnaw Dominican votes away from him and put himself in position to be the community’s vanguard.

Sayegh

Backed by the Democratic Party, labor, and pastors, Ward 6 Councilman Andre Sayegh is running the most obvious Swiss Army Knife-styles campaign, and by any conventional campaign measure appears very strong heading into Election Day. Most insiders at this point make the case for him to win. But Rodriguez, Ward 3 Councilman Bill McKoy, Paterson PBA Prez Alex Cruz and Ward 1 Councilman Mike Jackson all also lay claim to portions of support citywide.

The Bengali community – a growing and dedicated political presence going back to when Mohammed Akhtarruzaman beat Aslon Goow for the 2nd Ward Council seat, then lost to fellow community member Shahin Khalique – forms an increasingly important part of the citywide game. Alert to that dynamic, Rodriguez is aligned with a come-backing Akhtarruzaman, who’s going for an at-large seat in a renewed rivalry with a similarly reengaged Goow.  Not on the ballot but involved in this election, Khalique is with Mendez, through the relationship with Sosa, layering on an additional (and potentially game-changing) portion of the Bengali community to Mendez’s own already muscular natural base.

Sayegh needs the African American vote – or a significant portion of it (hence the late nod by Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, the church pastors, and civil rights leader Russell Graddy, to add to his 6th Ward Arab coalition, his 2nd Ward outreach to Bengalis (he took pains to open a satellite headquarters in the ward for that express purpose; and, among other connections and his own work, he’s loosely affiliated with Goow, who served the Bengalis as a Ward 2 councilman) and that part of the Latino community supported by a PAC called Hispanos Unidos.

In the debates and in the streets, Mendez (trying to keep Rodriguez contained) and Sayegh (trying to minimize any damage done by biter rival McKoy, who arguably harmed himself when he misspoke about Martin Luther King, Jr.) weather the most attacks, perhaps signifying their neck and neck position based, respectively, on growth demographics among Dominicans, and conventional campaign infrastructure and alliance-building – and a dogged, charisma-sparked work rate by both men, who see this as their time, and who know each stands in the way of the other.

Heads down for the duration, Mendez’s allies dismiss the late not-ready-for-prime-time branding as a demolition job engineered by the establishment.

The country has always loved a great Jesse James story, but the pressing question here, according to Mendez’s rivals, is whether the voting population – already stung by two of the last three chief executives going to jail – will – based on evidence – seek an alternative Silk City political narrative, or merely embrace another variation on that iconic old west ne’er-do-well to yet again serve – as mayor of this embattled city.

McKoy arrives.

Just when it looks like the establishment may be poised to supply the answer, complete with Sayegh allies U.S. Rep. Bill Pascrell (D-9), who voted for Sayegh, and Passaic County Democratic Committee Chairman John Currie, who have a past history of clashing with Dominicans over mail in ballots, McKoy steps forward to rail against the excesses of those so-called relationships that Sayegh presents as his compelling case to voters.

But if he is indeed filled with righteous fire, McKoy – a long-serving 3rd Ward councilman – probably doesn’t have (at least) the demonstrable reach citywide of Sayegh and Mendez – the former with connections and shoe leather, the latter with shoe leather – and – ultimately – live or die – VBMs.

Respected for his organizational prowess, Rodriguez, who opposed the machine in 2014 as a critical

Rodriguez, left, and Fetty Wap.

player on the Joey Torres Team, is fighting a house to house war with Mendez for the Dominican vote, as the councilman’s allies bemoan his efforts as ultimately advantageous to Sayegh and Rodriguez’s allies make their case for small-bore tactical superiority. But then, if Sayegh needs the Black vote, Rodriguez, endorsed by worldwide celebrity rapper Fetty Wap, a Paterson native, also undertook late mail millennial-targeted salvos underscoring that support.

His efforts in the Dominican community, however, are causing collisions.

According to documents received by InsiderNJ, a Paterson resident – and an admitted backer Rodriguez – signed an affidavit on April 27th describing Mendez himself overseeing the collection of a vote by mail ballot, which is against the law. But then 11th hour charges of illegality are the very fiber of New Jersey political campaigns. The story is more illustrative than anything of the pinpointed vigor with which Rodriguez is going after votes. Mendez, according to the affidavit, showed up at the house with another unrecognized man on April 16th between 4:30 and 5 p.m., and instructed how to complete the mail in ballot, both for the man in question and for his absent mother.

“Mr. Mendez than stated that he could send the vote by mail ballot in for me and then proceeded to take my mother’s and [my] mother’s unsealed and signed vote by mail ballots.”

On Saturday, the witness confirmed that he had completed the affidavit, and acknowledged the front porch at his residence on the northeast side of the city where he said Mendez stood and harvested the mail in ballots from him.

“Yes, he was here,” said the man, standing outside his home.

He discussed some discrepancy over whom his mother had wanted to support for mayor, and told InsiderNJ his family had wanted to cast their votes for former Deputy Mayor Pedro Rodriguez, not Mendez. He admitted to getting the candidates confused. When his mother returned from the Dominican Republic and found out he had cast the votes for Mendez, not Rodriguez, she marched him up to county to reverse the VBMs. He said the whole encounter was simply a mix-up, and didn’t wish anyone harm.

Mendez.

Rodriguez.

He just wants a Dominican mayor, he said amiably.

But his mother wants Rodriguez.

She got it done.

But for the moment, not just the election but Paterson’s VBMs are an unresolved situation.

Mendez would not respond to a call or text message for comment on the contents of the resident’s story.

But the potential exists for chaos on Tuesday and in the aftermath.

If all the angles boil down to Mendez and his VBM production versus Sayegh and the Democratic Party establishment – and their rivalry blocks out the rest of the field, for all of Rodriguez’s and McKoy’s efforts to sneak in – the at-large Dominican councilman – himself a veteran of overseeing the Passaic County Board of Elections going back to the 2012 CD9 race when he backed Rothman over Pascrell and roamed the county offices to ensure fair treatment – could find himself face to face with Sayegh benefactor Currie, chairman of the Board of Elections in addition to serving as chair of the Democratic Party, tasked ultimately with untangling the votes.

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