Revisiting the River: Passaic Acting Mayor Lora Coming Up Hard on May 9th Election

The scene on Wednesday in city Hall.

PASSAIC – Rain spattered and brown, with exterior walls that look belched a darker shade by exhaust fumes and factory smoke, the 1970s era architectural monstrosity otherwise known as City Hall here resembles either a parking garage or a Jawa Sand Crawler, a brick and mortar backdrop for three out of the last four mayors getting hauled off in handcuffs.

On this particular day, Acting Mayor Hector Lora came out of the rain to talk eyeball to eyeball with a handful of those 80 First Street residents displaced on Tuesday night by an industrial fire. Wearing a dirt-colored DPW uniform from a run around the city as part of his clean sweep initiative, Lora looked the part of a work gloves-wearing guy who rides on the back of a truck more than chief executive of a four-ward, A+ bond rated town of 90,000 overseeing an $89 million budget.

But if that’s the image he sought, it came as no heavy lift for Lora, who’s running in a May 9th nonpartisan election for the right to succeed Dr. Alex Blanco, short-circuited last November when he fessed up to corruption charges in a Newark courtroom. Looking to withstand four challengers – businessman Jose Sandoval among them, his larger than life image plastered on a billboard on the south side of town – Lora doesn’t have to work at being street level. He grew up here and has a very regular guy approach to other human beings, the handshake and smile coming naturally in the presence of a group of Spanish-speaking workers who recognize the city’s chief executive under the city-issue baseball cap.

“Alcalde,”one of them said, proudly, and Lora reached out in acknowledgement. If Cory Booker was the Twitter mayor of Newark, Lora has turned to Facebook live (a sore spot to his critics, see below) to reach out and touch his constituency on the web, but he’s just as good at it in person.

There was a Bergen Record reporter there looking for information about last night’s fire, and when he approached one of the displaced people with a notepad, Lora hung around and translated the questions.

The city took in 30 people last night, housing them temporarily at the senior services building before giving them vouchers for two nights to stay at an area hotel. The mayor told InsiderNJ that people should be able to move back into their homes within 48 hours. Officials on Wednesday continued to investigate the cause of the fire.

“I choose to focus primarily on the job itself,” said Lora, upstairs in his office at city hall, when asked about the campaign. “Three out of the last four mayors left under a dark cloud, so people don’t want words. They want action. It’s been said before, I didn’t come with it, but the best politics is good government.”

So he’s on that truck in every ward.

He’s on that fire scene, up until five in the morning.

And he was eager to share with InsiderNJ the letter he wrote in March to acquire the just-in-time-for-last-night’s-fire $175K ladder truck from La Plata Fire Department in Maryland as exhibit a for how he’s serving ahead of the curve.

“I’m not perfect – just real,” he said, sitting at the same desk occupied by his jammed-up predecessors.

“I have a deep appreciation for Dr. Blanco and what he meant to so many in this city,” said the mayor. “He was dedicated to diversity. He was someone who was raised by a single mother, graduated from Passaic High School and came back home to practice medicine. And [also indicted] Sammy Rivera before him was very accessible and very big on law and order.”

So how will he be different, if elected to the full four-year term come May?

Blanco had financial troubles that put him in range of trying to fatten his own account at the public trough.

“Everyone has different troubles,” said Lora, a full-time mayor. “I don’t have a lot of money to the point where I don’t relate to the problems of my community. I have to tell my teenage son that those new sneakers he wants will not be new a month from now.”

A former freeholder and long-serving councilman, who headed up three different departments at St. Mary’s Hospital, he lacks the wide-eyed wonderment of one who might find himself seduced by the sudden trappings of power, he argues. “This isn’t new for me,” he told InsiderNJ. “I do understand that I have to be accountable every day. I’ve worked in municipal, county and state government [as chief of staff to Assemblyman Gary Schaer]. I don’t expect to get much from government.

“The ministry is who I am,” said Lora, a religious man, and married father of four. “The mayoralty to me is ministry.”

He said he approved a tax hike this year – 1.7% – rather than sign off on a zero increase now only to clobber residents on the other side of elections. The city payroll has 17 people on sick time, accounting for a chunk of the budget uptick. But he feels good overall about a budget that hinges on $69 million in local taxes.

While the rest of the Passaic County Democratic Party has ponied up support for Democratic front-runner Phil Murphy, Lora on this side of the election is staying away from a formal endorsement. But he looks to be leaning in that direction as a team player at  Camp Currie. “He’s doing exactly what the people want,” Lora said of Murphy. “He’s a good man, a good family man.”

He’s city-focused for the moment, in a city with its share of hard edges.

On this wet day, a man struggled to shove his way into city hall, got tangled, finally negotiating the glass doors and clattering into the foyer amid a shower of expletives. Outside, a man pushed a baby carriage in the rain, with his woman steps behind him yelling curses at him and him, craning his neck in agony to mouth back his own garbled heavy-on-the-F-word response. Brown, gray and drab. A man with a cane made his way up the front steps with difficulty, under the stenciled letters of city hall and when InsiderNJ asked him who he likes for governor, he said back in Spanish, one hand gnarled around his cane, and the other forming a thumbs up sign, “Democrata.”

When he rounded the tiled corner, the man found his shoulder supported by the mayor, who greeted him in Spanish, helping to hold him upright as he listened intently to the complaint or ache or groan that he met with respectful intensity, even as the human services cubicle at his back swelled with people, one of them a baby crying.

There’s one out of four people who refuses to buy it.

In a phone interview, Richard Diaz, the former police director, says he has strong support on the ground and has keyed into the fed-up factor. Lora makes the case for his Facebook live communications as real-time connecting capacity with people in his city.

But Diaz strongly disapproves.

“The people of Passaic are fed up with the Facebook videos,” said the challenger. “He’s a fake who’s misappropriating government for political purposes. People are asking me, ‘who is this guy managing the city like a TV host? Look, am I saying he doesn’t have fans? No. Every TV show has fans. But this is not a TV show.”

Then there’s Sandoval, whom Diaz dismissed as a non-factor.

“Sandoval comes out every four years and thinks he has support,” said Diaz. “Look, you can’t disappear for three years and ten months, surface and expect people to trust you. They don’t. Am I saying he didn’t have a shot at one time? No. But that time is not now. People feel strongly that the race is between me and Lora, and Lora is Gary Schaer’s puppet.”

But Lora makes no apologies for his relationship with Schaer, that powerful and understated presence who stays put even as mayors through the years crash like timber around him.

Lora’s a big fan.

“Relationships matter,” said the mayor. “Some of the other people say we don’t need outside help. But when we have an assemblyman who chairs the budget committee – that’s significant. He’s brought $300 million into the 36th District. We have a congressman [Bill Pascrell] who has earned respect. We have a senator [Paul Sarlo, chair of the budget committee] also in a leadership position, and an assemblywoman [Marlene Caride] – all players. I can pick up the phone and call these people and address them by their first names. How do you govern without these relationships?”




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