Ah, Paterson. Its distinction may prove to be that place that inspired the most literary and cinematic reference points and allusions, which also didn’t really adequately convey the depth and drama of the place itself, leaving open the possibility of an imminent great work on the subject, one that resolves the promise – even if only on the strength of the name alone – of the likes of Paterson by William Carlos Williams and Paterson, directed by Jim Jarmusch.
In any event, the elusive zeigeist of New Jersey’s third biggest city, 8.4 square miles, pop. 160K, certainly won’t get codified for posterity in the 2022 mayor’s election, scheduled for May 10th, which offers another somewhat incomplete, haphazard and less than dramatically satisfying peek into the political soul of Silk City.
That said, to be fair, it may provide at least a page-turning chapter.
Mayor Andre Sayegh (pictured, top) is pursuing a second consecutive term in office, which in and of
itself holds some significance, as no mayor of Paterson has won a second term since Jose “Joey” Torres in 2006.
Oh, yeah. Torres. More on him in a minute.
For the moment, the sitting mayor represents two qualities, according to former Passaic County Commissioner Assad Akhter, who donated to Sayegh’s reelection campaign this week. “Competency and honesty,” he told InsiderNJ. “Two things we haven’t seen in the mayor’s office in a long time – not since [U.S. Rep. Bill] Pascrell (D-9) was mayor. He has restored that to City Hall.”
Jammed up on corruption charges and jailed, Torres, for his part, tried to mount a political comeback this year, prompting the state attorney general to get involved and overrule his aspiration to “run for,” even if he couldn’t legally “sit in”, the mayor’s seat. That ruling kayoed the absurdity of a hard fought campaign inevitably dead-ending with Torres getting told he can’t occupy the office again.
Irritated, Torres is said to be poised to announce his support for Sayegh’s rival, Third Ward Councilman
Alex Mendez, as the former Paterson mayor engages in a kind of headline mano-a-mano with former Newark Mayor Sharpe James, also jammed up and jailed, who also wanted to hold public office again this cycle but can’t, because he was jammed up and jailed, but who nonetheless, remains scandalized, and like Torres, not by his own history of scandal.
No one presumably has looked at the possibility of Torres versus James, in a virtual matchup as the mayor of a nonexistent North Jersey city.
But back to Mendez.
He’s had his own trouble with the law.
Defeated in 2018, by sitting Mayor Andre Sayegh, Mendez subsequently absorbed an indictment by a state grand jury on charges of election fraud and other offenses related to the May 12, 2020 special election in the City of Paterson. His case is now pending.
“An indictment last February charged Mendez with seven crimes — election fraud, fraud in casting a mail-in vote, unauthorized possession of ballots, tampering with public records, falsifying or tampering with records, false registration and attempted false registration.
“The most serious charge — election fraud — is a second degree offense that would come with a maximum 10-year prison sentence if Mendez were convicted. That charge is based on the allegation that Mendez registered someone to vote in the 3rd Ward even though he knew the person did not live in the election district.”
Mendez routinely dismisses the charges as politically motivated, the kind of stuff cooked up by his political rivals; and his run this year is part obdurate crow’s nest defiance, and part statement of innocence along the lines of “I’m so confident I’m not going to jail, that I’m even running to be the mayor of Paterson,” an argument that might hold weight if not for Torres.
Lumped in somewhat the same category is First Ward Councilman Mike Jackson, another candidate for mayor laboring under his own cloud related to the same kind of case lassoed around Mendez.
- Election fraud (2nd Degree)
- Fraud in casting mail-in vote (3rd Degree)
- Unauthorized possession of ballots (3rd Degree)
- Tampering with public records or information (3rd Degree)
- Falsifying or Tampering with Records (4th Degree)
He’s fighting it, while he runs for mayor.
All politically motivated, he says, in campaign rhetoric that sounds strangely reminiscent of Mendez.
In addition to Sayegh, Mendez, and Jackson, Fifth Ward Councilman Luis Velez is taking a crack at the
mayor’s seat, as is former Second Ward Councilman Aslon Goow. Whatever the individual merits of each man, insiders say Velez will drain votes from Mendez, and Goow will drain votes from Sayegh, making their presence in the contest a wash.
That’s not saying they would agree with that.
Each believes he will win.
In the meantime, people, even his detractors, can’t get over Mendez’s charisma. When he walks into a room, he lights it up like a jack-o’-lantern. Whatever their frustrations with him over any number of things – the fraud case, for example – they can’t be angry with him. They solemnly pronounce his talents as probably the person in New Jersey politics best suited to be a game show host, question the depth of his policy positions, and acknowledge his natural gift, almost Bill Clinton-like, of making people feel good about themselves.
The irony is that Sayegh has some of that, too: an undeniably electric personality whose worn-out allies say “He’s good, and substantive.”
To date, two of the most energetic politicians in Paterson haven’t generated a ton of energy around the race.
Sayegh’s allies say the mayor doesn’t have to do much. He just has to highlight some of the positive things he’s done, like put shovels in the ground at the long closed iconic Hinchcliffe Stadium, and brought economic development to Paterson, including a logistical warehouse on the old Continental Can site.
“Most people are interested in the at-large race because there is one open seat,” a source shrugged.
That said, Sayegh this week did rename Main Street Palestine Way.
“I’m 120 % behind the mayor,” said Sixth Ward Councilman Al Abdelaziz. “I’ve worked hand in hand with him on quality of life issues and we will work hard to make sure we deliver the 6th Ward to Mayor Sayegh.”
Mendez’s allies say their candidate won’t just run around shaking hands.
He’ll be out there talking about the unacceptability of violent crime and shootings.
Will it be enough?
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35) has backed Sayegh for mayor twice; once when he lost to Torres in 2014, and then in 2018, when Sayegh beat Mendez.
“He’s clearly the frontrunner,” Wimberly said of the sitting mayor. “He’s done a great job with the media. He’s been very visible, and any publicity is good for name recognition. He’s put himself out there and from what I hear, financially he’s way ahead of the pack. People forget, these campaigns are costly. Volunteers only take you so far.”
Gun violence, unclean streets, and lack of job opportunities haunt Paterson. The mayor doesn’t have a solid, unflinching majority of support on the city council, like Union City Mayor Brian Stack, for example; nor has he assembled a May 10th team of candidates, like Newark Mayor Ras Baraka.
In Newark, it’s “The Baraka Team,” as the sitting mayor seeks a third term.
In Paterson, it’s Sayegh for Mayor.
If he has to run hard, it’s because it’s Paterson, which is always a little more volatile than most places, even without the pandemic, even if a lot of insiders don’t see it as too challenging a race. Torres at the height of his powers in 2010 didn’t think he needed to break a sweat, and got shocked by Councilman Jeff Jones.
If he can get Hinchcliffe finished – and, of course, it won’t happen before Election Day – that could prove Sayegh’s legacy. The frame is up in the restaurant area of the legendary old ballpark, the work ongoing, and Sayegh’s allies are telling him to ride the hell out of that, even if it is only a work in progress, albeit several steps closer to completion with this mayor, even as Paterson itself, unfinished, embodies something never quite realized in many a noble striving artist’s work.