PERTH AMBOY – They had a shark problem around here over a hundred years ago, but the area townsfolk handled it, bludgeoning the beast out of commission and into local folklore, though the baywaters still have a Peter Benchley glisten in early autumn.
On this Sunday with 37 days until Election Day, the candidates in the mayor’s election – mangled by
COVID-19 – took to the streets in pursuit of Perth Amboy voters, where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 13,158 to 1,959, the biggest plurality of Dems in Middlesex County. The candidates – incumbent Mayor Wilda Diaz, Councilmen Fernando Irizarry, Helmin Caba, Joel Pabon, and attorney Joe B. Vas – occupy a bracket on the ballot distinct from the presidential and other federal contests, but a ballot question concerning the legalization of marijuana inevitably spills into the conversation.
“I’m for cannabis legalization,” Vas told a voter as he stood on his porch, his mask in the bomber wing down position. The voter pushed back. The town was already in trouble. Too many kids are already vaping and drinking. Society’s teetering at the brink.
And now we’re going to making smoking grass legal.
“I’m against it,” the voter said unequivocally.
Vas made the classic argument about regulating it to make it safer and put the emphasis of his argument on enforcing existing nuisance and disorderly persons laws.
He galloped down the steps and headed for the next house on the block here on Ridgeley Street off main artery Amboy Avenue.
Proccupied with cleanliness and order, Vas has some history in this town as he tries to take down the Diaz Administration.
His father was the mayor of this waterfront city for 18 years and built a fearsome reputation as a strong mayor who turned the place around from its former downtrodden self, but overreached, got taken out by Diaz in a shocking 2008 upset, then went down hard on corruption charges.
His son doesn’t run from the name.
Of course, it’s impossible to campaign around here as “Joe Vas” – they have a different middle initial, “B”, in this case, so the latest incarnation isn’t even a junior – without reconjuring the image of that damaged elder statesman: a power broker who literally loomed over people and sufficiently scared the local male political population in a way that propelled lowkey bankteller Diaz into the arena.
“I’m born and raised in this town and I’ve seen where it was and where it was going, and where it has been stuck for the past 12 years,” Vas told InsiderNJ. “As far as my father’s concerned, I think he made an impression on this community. Most people would say that. I think the proof is really that you don’t get elected to four terms if you’re not doing something good.
“If people want to associate me with my father and his hard work and the things he was able to accomplish, by all means,” the candidate added.
But part of his argument against Diaz is that she’s been in City Hall for too long.
His father was almost in power for 20 years.
“The difference, I think, is that Wilda Diaz made a promise to the voters when she ran initially that she
would only run for one [or two] term[s], and so I’m only holding her to what she said,” said Vas, whose law office is located downtown, blocks from the historic City Hall, which is the oldest city hall edifice in use in the United States.
“Property values are tied to a good school district, and they’re not meeting the standards,” said the mayoral candidate, who’s running with School Board hopeful Manuel Fernandez, one of 17 candidates in search of four seats. “They’re graduating 80% of the high chool but they’re not meeting the basic standards of proficiency. We need to be concerned about that. Taxes have gone up 40% in 12 years. As a private resident, I have filed nearly 1,000 tax appeals and successfully reduced taxes for a sinificant portion of those 1,000 petitions, so I’m the only one who has really done something to reduce taxes.”
How else does he expect to help Perth Amboy change course?
“Positive ratables,” said the candidate. “We need to get back to redevelopment. That is essential for us.”
That needs to go hand in hand with efficiencies in government.
It’s unfortunate to mention it as this vigorous candidate zigzags up and down the block, but if his father championed redevelopment as mayor, he also got jammed up after flipping a Vas-purchased property to a contractor for $950,000, on an inducement of state Regional Contribution Agreement (RCA) funds to help pay for the building’s renovation. It’s not to say that young Vas would do the same (other sons of corruption-pulverised mayors have gone to serve with distinction; Marlboro Mayor Jon Hornik – son of the late Saul Hornik – comes to mind), but name cuts both ways in these parts.
Vas’s challenge is to convey the freshness of self in the face of 12 years of Diaz, while perfuming the better aspects of the older Vas record, which the candidate argues speaks for itself.
Fernandez walked with Vas on Sunday and the young school board candidate testified personally to the former mayor’s creation of Washington Park, for example, as one of those critical quality of life improvements he enjoyed as a youth in the Vas era.
If the conversation revolved around those local stories and personalities and rivalries even in the midst of a presidential campaign, it spoke to the primacy and uniqueness of Perth Amboy as its own political organism. But it also reflected national election fatigue and disillusion.
“It’s not a positive election,” Fernandez said of the presidential collision. “On the trail, I have run into some Trump backers, and they consistently seem to be for Trump because they’re looking to stick it to someone. And the Biden voters I’ve talked to are for Biden because they are against Trump. So it’s a contest between two groups that are against something.”
In this local contest, at least one insider ho-hummed the race as a case of too many candidates being
against Diaz, thereby giving an advantage to the incumbent, who has a solid base; though failing a shocking Nov. 3rd upset, the challengers also seem to be individually hoping for a shot at a runoff election with the mayor. A local Democratic Party chairman with connections to the county, cognizant of establishment irritability over Diaz going rogue, Caba seems in part to quietly inhabit the hopes of those fellow area electeds who once nursed good relations with Vas, and could never depend on a sustained political friendship with Diaz. It was not merely out of progressive fervor that Diaz backed Bernie Sanders over Cory Booker (when the New Jersey senator was a presidential contender) and Joe Biden, for example. Pabon and Irizarry (like Caba a former Diaz running mate) have their grudges with the mayor. But if the former occupied the Vas wing of the party when he ran for a city council seat, and failed in his 2016 mayoral bid, only one man in the race now has the corner market on making the case for a complete reversal of this waterfront burgh back to the Vas era – courtesy of a younger version, preoccupied with cleanliness and order.