PATERSON – The word “ebullient” likely never found a better fit than the prime contenders in next year’s mayor’s race, whose respective energy in Atlantic City at last week’s League of Municipalities Convention alone could have lit up all the pre-holiday season Christmas trees in all the hotels and casinos of the seaside gambling mecca. But the independent and electric path of incumbent Mayor Andre Sayegh and Third Ward Councilman Alex Mendez inevitably merges not in festive phosphorescence, but on a no doubt lurid but potentially politically fascinating Paterson collision course of a local election slated for May 10th, 2022.
They ran against each other before, in 2018, when Sayegh defeated At-Large Councilman Mendez to become mayor. Mendez subsequently ran for the Third Ward council seat, found himself jammed up on a VBM indictment, nevertheless won, and assumed the oath of office as a somewhat mangled, ward-shrunken version of himself, no less intent on the mayoralty. A former mayor, also expunged within the context of an ongoing political war with Sayegh, likewise wants to resuscitate his political career, but the state Attorney General won’t permit former jail occupant Jose “Joey” Torres to sit in the mayor’s chair, even if he undertakes the exercise of running and somehow wins.
Ward One Councilman Mike Jackson ran for mayor four years ago, lost badly, made a widely reviled anti-Semitic comment, like Mendez found himself ensnared in the citywide VBM drag in 2020, nonetheless won back his seat, then last week appeared to punch a local business owner. Sources say he wants to run citywide again, but the snag of past and present troubles may prove too cumbersome for him to mount a serious candidacy.
Another would-be mayoral challenger, At-Large Councilwoman Lilisa Mimms, this week announced her intentions to pursue reelection next year rather than oppose Sayegh. “Serving the community that I’ve been born and raised in has been a great blessing and I’m looking forward to return to my ‘seat at the table,'” said Mimms.
That leaves Mendez, who in an appearance at The Brownstone in September said he wants a rematch with incumbent Mayor Sayegh, who beat him in 2018. Mendez’ announcement occurred after a group of his friends grabbed the microphone and popped the question.
Are you running for mayor in 2022?
Mendez replied: “Yes, I’ll be running for mayor.”
The councilman – who beat bitter rival incumbent Councilman Bill McKoy in a special election following a controversial – and scandalous – first encounter, still faces voting fraud charges filed against him and Paterson City Councilman Jackson in connection with the May 12, 2020 special election in the City of Paterson. But it didn’t stop the councilman from channeling positive energy early as he made the rounds in Atlantic City, even as Sayegh, not to be outdone in the effusive bearhugging department, likewise scrambled from event to event.
InsiderNJ caught up with Sayegh back in Paterson this week on the heels of President Joe Biden signing the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill into law, as the mayor here prepares to run for reelection next year. “My optimism is irrepressible,” said Sayegh, in his office in City Hall. “I truly believe we are moving Paterson in the right direction. It’s what gets me up in the morning. Everyday for me is like fighting for a cause. I have an unbridled passion for Paterson.”
In addition to the optimism, the mayor boasts policy chops – and some achievements in a challenging era. Now with a new chief of staff, Christian Callegari, Sayegh said Paterson is in the process of hiring a director of policy and planning to help the city navigate its share of federal infrastructure money.
Below, he discusses where he envisions Paterson making use of those federal funds:
Sayegh also considered the results of the statewide election earlier this month and specifically its impact in Paterson, where Democrats lost Commissioner Assad Akhter, the city’s sole commissioner, who this week formally conceded the race. “We didn’t highlight the governor’s leadership,” said Sayegh of the campaign, which his ally, Governor Phil Murphy, won, but by only three or four percentage points. “He’s America’s governor, and the campaign needed to remind people of that.”
The mayor said he discerns he flat features of the most recent election cycle, and intends to undertake a campaign next year that highlights the work of his government.
“Government is here to improve people’s lives, and must be measured by how many people we help each day,” said Sayegh, who has led Paterson during the pandemic and himself contracted the virus. “Our vaccination rate is 93%. We take the vaccine to the people. We have done our best to eradiate hesitancy about the vaccine and to that end we recruited credible messengers – educators and athletes – to prove the path out of the pandemic.”
The classic manufacturing city founded by Alexander Hamilton now relies on the cannabis trade as its most emergent industry, one of six in the state with a medical marijuana dispensary license. Sayegh vetoed the city council’s resistance to the dispensary trade, then ran out the clock to avoid a council override. “Paterson is open for business,” said the mayor. “Not only is this about equity and justice for too many men and women who lost opportunities [because of marijuana convictions prior to the substance’s legalization in New Jersey], but now you can open your own business, while it generates revenue for our cash stripped coffers.”
Below, watch and listen to the mayor explain other critical initiatives undertaken during his tenure, which he intends to highlight in the weeks ahead of his showdown with old foe Mendez:
Finally, Sayegh considered the politically sensitive role on the election of Council President Maritza Davila, herself up for reelection in 2022, and the possible return of McKoy: