By David Cruz
In the 1800s, Paterson was the center of the Industrial Revolution. The power of the Great Falls propelled a textile and manufacturing industry that created thousands of jobs and earned Paterson the nickname “Silk City.” Today, those industries and those jobs are long gone. Today, Paterson is a city perpetually on the brink. With a week to go before election day, the future of the state’s third largest city remains cloudy.
“You know Paterson is at a crossroads. We’ve had 12 years of poor service in this city, you know, and I think the city of Paterson needs a fresh face,” said Passaic County Democratic Chair John Currie.
And crime is right up there, along with budget deficits, a lack of jobs and an embattled school system still under state control. On top of that: public corruption, stretching back years. Even several candidates for mayor this year have ethical clouds hanging over them. Incumbent Jeffery Jones, forced to return money he received for unused sick and vacation days. The man he succeeded, former Mayor Jose Torres, criticized for taking tens of thousands of dollars in unused sick and vacation time after he left office in 2010.
With eight candidates for mayor, the ballot next week will be crowded, but in a city with so many choices, it is ironic that to many Patersonians we talked to, the first choice is none of the above.
“I really don’t have too much faith in them because of the BS that they’re saying all the time,” said Keith Davis. “They’re too consistent with it and if you’re gonna continue to do that, then we’re definitely in a world of trouble.”
Outside City Hall, Malcolm Ali Muhammad says his fellow residents are angry and unsatisfied. “Politicians can get paid in Paterson,” he said. “You know, you can come and dump your garbage in Paterson. So it’s not the masses of the people that live here, the population, the residents that’s benefiting; not at all.”
Maria Teresa Feliciano is an activist and long shot candidate for mayor. She’s not as well funded as some of the other candidates, but she says her insurgent campaign has a message for the disaffected.
“Stick around,” she said. “Let’s take our city back. Let’s elect the right leadership, leadership with the ability, the skills, more than anything else with character and integrity.”
That’s a not too subtle swipe at the perceived frontrunners in this race, among them former two-term Mayor Jose Torres, who says he’s not deaf to the electorate’s displeasure.
“I think it’s voter apathy,” he said, “and when you have a town with the challenges of Paterson, we depend on state aid to balance our budget and two-thirds of our residents fall below the federal poverty level, so that makes it even harder to govern.”
Incumbent Jeffery Jones learned that lesson the hard way, he says, coming into office in the depths of the economic downturn. He says he’s ready to do it again, but admits the job he signed up for four years ago is not the job he ended up doing.
“The Marine in me says you can’t quit. This is the job you’re assigned; this is the job you applied for, so you have a bad day? Get over it,” he said. “Expect that people can rise but be willing to get into the muck and the mire and help them. That’s the Marine in me.”
The political establishment’s choice for mayor is Council President Andre Sayegh. Neither Latino nor black — the city’s dominant voting blocs — he says uniting more than 50 ethnic groups is a challenge the city’s next mayor must meet.
“We need to embrace that; we need to leverage it,” he said outside his campaign headquarters on Trenton Avenue. “Think about the business opportunities we have. On Main Street in South Paterson, it’s an ethnic enclave; we have Arabs and Turks there. Columbians on 21st Avenue; Dominicans on Park Avenue, Jamaicans on 10th Avenue; Union Avenue has a Bengali presence. Let’s leverage that.”
Paterson has no runoff election, so the candidate with the most votes wins the election. Winning a mandate in a field of eight? That will prove to be much more difficult.