Son of Joe Vas Wants to Take on Diaz in Perth Amboy

Former Mayor Vas.
Former Mayor Vas.

Perth Amboy’s Joe Vas intimidated other men. Broad-shouldered and big and intellectually imposing, he would tower over them. City Hall took on a quasi-religious significance when people began referring to the sprawling, unfinished edifice as the Vas Mahal.

In 2008, only a Catholic daily communicant bankteller named Wilda Diaz – no prior political experience – dared run against the powerful incumbent, stunning New Jersey’s political establishment (Vas pulled double duty as an assemblyman in Trenton) when she detonated his Arthur Kill-Raritan cross-river empire with a 58-42% win.

His 18-year local run broken, the humbled intimidator later went to the slammer on corruption charges, including money laundering, misuse of his mayor’s office, mail fraud and illegal campaign contributions.

Now, 12 years later, the former disgraced mayor’s son, local attorney Joseph B. Vas, wants to topple

Joseph B. Vas.
Joseph B. Vas.

Diaz, as do others, Councilman Joel Pabon, Sr. among them, in a developing local contest with murky rules of engagement as the consequence of an unsettled ballot question case conceived by Diaz’s enemies to cast her out of power. Last month, allies of the younger Vas updated his Facebook page with a campaign-style photo accompanied by the slogan: “Together Perth Amboy can do better.” One source said senior was pushing junior more than junior is pushing junior and doubts junior ultimately runs.

But the young fledgling candidates says no.

“All I can do is stand on my merits,” he told InsiderNJ. “The sentiment in Perth Amboy is Perth Amboy can do better. I am motivated by being a lifelong resident. I have two children we are raising here, I am a business owner and a local attorney who has successfully done over 1k tax appeals to help people lower their property taxes, and I get to hear from the people. If you look at last year’s election, it told a lot about the mayor, as all the councilpeople – former allies – went against her. It signified a parting of ways with this administration.”

He cites the usual issues: taxes, crime, the overall condition of the community.

Of course, comparisons to his jammed-up father are inevitable.

“The first thing is I’m my own man,” the younger Vas said. “I have confidence that Perth Amboy voters will judge me on my merits. They will try to put a little stigma on my name but the positives cannot be forgotten either. There are a lot of positives.”

Once a tentative Diaz ally, Pabon, too, this month unveiled “Joel Pabon for Mayor 2020: Character, Loyalty, Family man, Experience, Retired from US Post office and an Veteran of our Armed sevices that will tell us when Joel stands up Perth Amboy we have a tested Mayor at table who we can finally say is a leader of utmost integrity, honesty and compassion for all of the citizens near and far.” He lost once, in 2016, leaving insiders also jittery about Vas looking elsewhere for a champion. Some have their eye on Councilman Helmin Caba, chair of the local Democratic Party, regarded as another mobilizing challenger, whose presence could split the city between core Puerto Rican support for the mayor and Dominicans behind the councilman. 

Joel Pabon

More people could get in the developing race, muddying and making that much more intriguing an unresolved ballot question advanced by Councilman Fernando Irizarry, which would require the winner of the 2020 mayor’s contest to receive 50% of the vote to avoid a run-off between the top two vote-getters. Insiders interpret the move as a way to nail the mayor, who has won two citywide reelection campaigns against divided opposition without receiving a majority (37% against Billy Delgado and others in 2012 and 48% against Pabon and others in 2016). The public question passed on Nov. 5 of this year, however, the city subsequently filed a lawsuit against the Middlesex County clerk seeking an invalidation of the results on grounds that some mail-in ballots did not contain the public question.

This from Gannett:

“The lawsuit, filed in the civil division of Superior Court in New Brunswick a week before Election Day, claims that the public question asking voters if they want runoff elections for municipal races when no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote did not make it onto some mail-in ballots. …If the court grants the city’s wishes in its lawsuit, the results would be invalidated and the question would have to be placed on the ballot next November — and the county would have to cover the costs associated with the public question and the legal fees.”

Right now, that court challenge is the contest hanging over the contest, and conceivably a significant dividing line between loss and conquest.

Diaz has gutted through years of infighting in her waterfront city, beating Vas then overseeing the removal of much of his entrenched political machine from City Hall; going toe-to-toe in public with an operative who turned against her; starting out as a Senator Joe Vitale (D-19) ally before that relationship fell apart; and fighting either Hurricane Sandy, the local Democratic Party Organization, the county, both, and maybe even all three simultaneously over the course of her time in office. She started with Joe Vas, upending a power-monger who proved corupt. But in a way, the defiant, scrappy Diaz – the only Latina mayor of Puerto Rican descent in the state, has ended up fighting the male-dominated New Jersey political establishment, preparing for next year’s showdown in part by backing progressive Bernie Sanders for president over Garden State party machine goldenrod Cory Booker. Perth Amboy takes on added political relevance as a backyard 7-1 Democratic-advantage burgh in the District 19 sandbox of Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-19) of Woodbridge, who in lame duck released the subsequently signed into law driver’s licenses for undocumented workers with one eye on Amboy, where the machine – at times apoplectic over her independence – is ever aware of the mayor’s refusal to kowtow.

What started with Diaz versus Vas, could end that way, in another mano-a-mano amid freaky echoes of 2008 (her detractors continue to voice irritation over her backtrack on an initial promise to serve only one term) or simply prove yet one more opportunity, despite reanimated former local imperial name ID, for scattered casualties.


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