America served as a civic and civil savior for young Albio Sires, whose family fled communist Cuba and resettled in West New York, in Hudson County, beloved proving ground for the young athlete, who would distinguish himself as a St. Peter’s Basketball star and come to epitomize immigrant opportunity made good in a life of public service.
After 16 mostly frustrating but also – in the end – gratifying, if simultaneously heartbreaking years in the United States Congress, the former WNY mayor doesn’t want out – but back in at the local level, where it all began for the 11-year-old anti-Castro American diehard with the ready smile and instantly recognizable stentorian voice.
He climbed from mayor up the totem pole to Congress, and – a little horrified by what he found up there – craves a return to that more local perch, where he says the real power resides.
Some people have politics welded to their souls, and many of them – let’s face it – reside in Hudson County.
As 2022, his final congressional term, and his epic federal ride come to an end, Sires reflected on increasing political discord in the country, arriving full circle for him in cruel and disheartening fashion, when armed guards escorted the West New Yorker and his congressional colleagues out of the Capitol on Jan. 6th, 2021, ahead of anarchist rioters who would cut a swathe of desecration and even defecation in their wake.
It hurt Sires especially because he always saw America as better than banana republic antics like that, particularly given how the commies in Cuba came down on him, pulling up in jeeps to the home his father built, trying to find grounds for arrest, and ultimately leaving the older Sires with no recourse but to get his family out of the country.
America wasn’t supposed to devolve into bullies storming the sacred halls of Congress in confederate gargoyle mask mayhem.
Sires, ever the 6’4 tower of public dignity, could but shake his head at the arc of the country over these past decades, and salvage – amid all the upheaval and unraveling of civic discourse, at least the joy of having secured the infrastructure bill that enabled the funding of numerous critical transportation projects throughout the 8th district, among them the long-delayed Gateway Tunnel and Portal Bridge.
Nothing comes without a flip side in politics.
One bridge rises on the collapse of another.
A glorious tunnel appears, as a wad of volcanic excrement rumbles into the rearview mirror.
Sires was always a pragmatist.
So, he extracts the good and doesn’t allow himself to get derailed by the bad.
He spent 16 years rattling the cage of Congress to get that infrastructure money, and he got it, even as the country slides into the abyss.
Still, Sires labors on, convinced of the reanimating processes of local government, his name in circulation for a comeback to the executive job that propelled him in the first place.
“I’m disappointed at the way things have evolved in this country, as someone who came here admiring the change of power and the way people work together, to where I just couldn’t deal with it anymore,” Sires told InsiderNJ. “Listen, politics has reached a point where, as a person who has always been a human rights fighter, when I put up a resolution for Cuba, condemning the way the government treats the people of Cuba who were demonstrating, it took months and months for me to get any support. If it wasn’t for Steny Hoyer, it would never have gotten posted, and at that, we ended up with over 40 people in our party voting against it. That tells me something’s wrong. We’re supposed to be the big tent party, but you don’t fit in that big tent unless you think like they do. It’s wrong. If you don’t believe in abortion, you should not be kicked out of the party. If you’re firm against communism you shouldn’t be kicked out of the party.”
Ideology is more important than right and wrong.
He can’t get around it.
“The last few terms have been very difficult to watch,” Sires acknowledged. “On Jan. 6th I was on the floor. I went to the floor to hear what the speaker [Nancy Pelosi] had to say. Suddenly there was commotion. The doors on the left side where the speaker was speaking shot open, and six security guards practically carried her off. We learned that security has been breached. They got Steny Hoyer [probably Sires’ overall best contact in Congress and a model for how the job should be done, he said] out. They got the whip out. They told us to wear our masks. A security guard with a gun smashed the glass 15 ft away from me. It became obvious, this is very serious. They took us out the same way they took [Vice President Mike] Pence out; people with rifles escorting us. It was a very scary moment. This is like things I’ve read about South America – Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“It really broke my heart to see that happen in this country,” the congressman added. “We were the shining example for the rest of the world, and here you have people defecating and urinating throughout the capitol; and awful group of people defecating behind statues. It’s unreal. That’s how far the politics have devolved.”
Sires always believed it was different, better, civil.
“Tom Kean was probably one of the best examples of our country I saw,” Sires said of the former
Republican governor, the Democrat’s political mentor. “I worked for him and saw up close how inclusive he was. He wasn’t loud or demagogic. He was just Tom Kean. Very moderate and very straightforward. He was a Republican, but so what? One of the reasons I went to Congress is I thought I could do good things, but in truth it has only been in last the two terms where I have been able to bring money back. For years, Republicans fought what we used to call Christmas tree funds. For 16 years we’ve been fighting for infrastructure money, something so simple, basic and necessary.”
He guardedly celebrates the outcome.
Again, it’s great, but what good are physical bridges and tunnels really when the spiritual interior of the country is as hollowed out as a crater on the moon?
Sires nonetheless stands firm on the good.
That’s his nature.
“That is one of the best infrastructure bills; one of the best infra bills ever passed in the United States,” he said. “This bill contained the money we need, and we’re seeing the effects already with money to fix things, like the Portal Bridge in Secaucus. That’s a bridge you needed. It’s a hundred years old, out of date, you needed a sledgehammer to lock it up. Any chair I ever worked with, I always brought him to see the Gateway Tunnel. So, I really feel very good about these projects, but the way things are headed…”
His voice trailed off.
It’s a disaster.
His own party is intolerant and politically correct to the point of absurdity.
And the Republicans?
“I don’t know who’s going to be the next speaker,” he said, trying to make sense of the miasma on
the other side of the aisle. “[Speaker John] Boehner couldn’t control them. They drove him out. [Speaker Paul] Ryan, he was intelligent, but after two terms he bowed out. I don’t know what Kevin McCarthy is going to be able do with a margin of three or four people and all those Maga people there. Any one member can bring up a resolution to get rid of the speaker. I really don’t know where they’re going to do.”
Going back to the comparative simplicity of West New York sounds like a blessing.
“I am comfortable with the leadership team the Democrats have put together. Hakeem [Jeffries] and Pete Aguilar and Katherine Clark are going to be good. I’m very high on Hakeem. He listens. He presents the issues well. We’ve worked together. The biggest thing is he listens.”
But what’s he going to have to listen to – hell on wheels?
Originally elected to the congressional seat vacated by Bob Menendez, Sires entered the federal bloodstream during tempestuous times, in 2006, as America fragmented under the burden of U.S. intervention in Iraq. It was already a divided nightmare, the fractures of those years widening over time.
But Sires got along with then-President George Bush.
“I can say a lot of good things about him, actually,” the congressman reflected. “He was very affable, and very accommodating to meeting our Hispanic caucus. He took us to the White House and told us, ‘I’m all for immigration reform but my political capital every year is less and less.’ He made you feel welcome. [Barack] Obama was more professorial and stiff-lipped. I didn’t have a lot of good moments with him, in part because, look, he won with 72% of the Hispanic vote. He ran on immigration reform, and we never even touched it. That didn’t sit well with me. We went out and pushed and pushed and we had the majority then, but he struck me as scared of the process.”
What about President Donald Trump?
“Trump was just crazy,” said Sires. “He called us into his office for a meeting at the White House and said he wanted to do a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill. But what amazed me was how he kept jumping from one topic to another and never talked about what we were there for with any detail. [Cory] Booker, [Chris] Christie and Don Norcross were all there; a good contingent of people. And he was just talking – ‘we’re going to do this, we’re going to do that.’ And it was clear at the time, because of the scattered way he spoke, that he was lying and had no intention of doing any infrastructure. He had what I can only describe as attention deficit disorder.”
Sires had better relations with the Biden Administration these past two years.
“I chair the western hemisphere subcommittee and his people picked my brain and really listened,” said Sires.
Routinely irritated by his own party, he nonetheless still considers himself a proud Democrat, on the strength of those priorities connected to healthcare, fair wages and labor.
“I like Biden. I think, given the successes he’s had, a good record to run on, that he can win reelection if he runs again, and he most absolutely would beat Trump again.”
But the country still isn’t doing enough to condemn the government of Nicaragua, for example, which Sires says steals money from the United States and world organizations in order to oppress its own people.
It’s wrong, and again, the straitjacket of American politics makes it especially agonizing.
Sires also laments the sneak-up of Russia on much of the rest of the world and America’s lack of sustained fitness in response. “I always attacked Russia on the committees on which I’ve served, and said that while we sleep, Russia is plotting against us. I’ve always said, we’d better wake up to the fact that they’re plotting and yes, they built up and invaded Ukraine. We see what he’s doing now – blowing up that country and killing people indiscriminately. People are waking up to the threat.”
Is it too late?
Does America’s own destabilized politics prevent the country from leading the world with any real and vital moral capital?
“I think we have to strengthen our courts and resolve that this [Jan. 6th] shouldn’t happen again,” said the congressman. “We have to make sure people have the ability to vote and stop trying to stop them from voting. Thank God we had some strong people who said no to Trump. I think Pence deserves a lot of credit for saying no to Trump. We must strengthen our laws and apply them to the letter of the law. If you and I get a subpoena and don’t show up, they come all over you. But these people just blow them off. We can’t allow people to say, ‘I’m not going,’ if they receive a congressional subpoena.”
Because of our American adoration of individuality, we perhaps find it extra hard to build institutions and maintain institutions, and yet, Sires said, we have to strike that balance.
People before us built them.
We must sustain and improve them.
“The institutions during this crisis held up,” he pointed out. “Some judges appointed by Trump rendered decisions against Trump in those cases where they determined false charges of voter fraud, for example.”
We need to study those decisions, he said. We need to deepen and strengthen those institutions that withstood – and still must withstand – the howls of anarchy.
His final days in Congress come nearly two years after that fateful day when he exited the floor accompanied by armed guards.
“I accomplished as much as I could in a horrible atmosphere, said Sires.
Again, as much as the Republicans rankle him, so do the Democrats.
“The last straw for me came when my own members – 40 of them – voted against Cuba resolution,” he said. “Some have a selective sense of human rights. It is very hard to build trust. Very hard in this environment, for me, who has fought for human rights all my life.
“I think I’ve hit a wall, quite frankly,” he added.
He wants more American condemnation of governmental abuses in Guatemala, Nicaragua (yes!), El Salvador, Ecuador, Brazil; and more reward for countries like the Dominican Republic, which do a good job promoting human rights, in his judgement.
America’s interaction never ends.
“When I look back on 16 years in Congress I think of those meaningful occasions overseas,” Sires said. “Israel was really interesting, to say the least. We got there – it’s a very small country. We met with the leadership, and then we went over to the Palestinian side and while we were on the Palestinian side we met with the leadership and they gave us our word that they absolutely would not cut a deal with Hamas. Then we went back to the Israeli side and had dinner with Netanyahu.”
The headline in the paper by then was that the Palestinian leadership had cut a deal with Hamas.
“Welcome to the Middle East,” the Israeli Prime Minister told Sires.
Maybe America isn’t that bad, after all.
“I’ll never forget that,” Sires said with a laugh.
He won’t ever forget seeing drones the size of planes in hangers in the middle of the desert.
He won’t forget seeing the biggest tarantula he ever saw on a tree stump in Columbia when the military helicopter escort dropped the U.S. delegation into the jungle, or the vast, canyon-sized walls of the Amazon.
He holds it all.
“I come from a little town in Cuba, where everybody knew each other, and I ran around like a crazy maniac and I remember the military coming into my house and accusing my father of hoarding merchandise. One afternoon he started digging a hole in the backyard to bury soap and a few other products that were very hard to get at that time. A friend of ours who worked at police headquarters overheard that they were going to our house to search the house that my father built. He buried it in time. If they found something they would have taken him away. I found out after we left the country that a member of the communist party had moved into the house my father built.”
The Sires’ came to West New York, and he never left.
Congress never delighted him like local government in his American hometown, least of all now.
“First of all, post COVID you don’t see anybody anymore because people are working more from their houses, and if you do get in there you’re going to go to the floor through a metal detector, which we never had before,” he said.
He looks forward to running for local office again, and hopes the people reelect him mayor, the job he loved more than congress.
He admitted the Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) has gone somewhat flabby and needs some time in the gym. He sees Republican Jack Ciattarelli campaigning everywhere and says Democrats need to attention. For the record, if Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop runs for governor in 2025, Sires says he will support him.
In the meantime, “they [the HCDO] have to get stronger,” he said. “The mayors are basically the HCDO and they have to commit themselves to producing more. Traditionally, Essex County put up the big numbers and Hudson put up the largest percentages. We need to build up the numbers. That’s what I see.”
Of his own run, he added, “I gave it a lot of thought before I decided. I left a lot of things undone, and one of the things I committed to is a new library. The one we have now is not ADA compliant; it is a hundred years old. If I win, this is one of the things I want to accomplish. We can hook up to the Library of Congress. I would also like to build an overpass on the waterfront. As it is, people have to cross the street in that area, and it’s dangerous. We need an overpass there. One more thing. We have a pier on the waterfront. Every other town has built parks on piers. I want to build a nice park for the people on the waterfront, one they can just enjoy.
“I’m going to run on my record,” Sires added. “When I was mayor, I was the only mayor who built multiple site affordable housing through tax credits and a senior center. We still need more affordable housing, and we don’t have affordable housing for veterans. I would like to change that.
“These are very challenging times, but you get things accomplished at the local level,” said the congressman. “It took me 16 years to finally get an infrastructure bill. It would have never taken that kind of time at the local level, where you guide your own destiny. I love West New York. West New York has been very good to me, going back to when I came to this country.”
He came in the fourth grade.
At the time, he and his brother and another child were the only Hispanics in the school.
They gave the two brothers from Cuba an IQ test in English and the stigma of the culturally biased, language barricaded test stuck until Sires went to college, where his athletic prowess carried him, where he proved, through diligence and discipline and the exercise of intellect, and the with the support of family and community, the unfairness and backwardness of those public school testing procedures, injustice never sufficiently restrictive to hold a will big enough for the country, and lovable enough, all these years later, to go back home, truly, to Hudson County.