Latinos fail to seize chance at representation on Paterson school board

PATERSON — On the morning of Election Day, some Hispanic civic leaders were talking about Paterson’s school board race as a possible turning point for the city’s Latino community.

Latinos — who make up more than 60% of Paterson’s population — have fallen far short of that percentage in their representation in local elected offices.

There were three strong Hispanic candidates in Tuesday’s school election, political insiders said earlier in the week. If they all won, two-thirds of the school board members would be Latino.

But instead of a watershed moment, last week’s election became the latest in a series of political disappointments for Latinos in Paterson.

All the votes haven’t been counted yet, but the Hispanic candidates currently stand fifth, seventh, and eighth in a nine-person field. It seems likely, political insiders said, that the number of Latinos on the Board of Education will drop to three, amounting to one-third of the slots.

“This election was an embarrassment to the Latino community,” said Omar Rodriguez, a political operative who served as former mayor Joey Torres’ chief of staff nine years ago. “It’s a big problem.”

Others shared Rodriguez’ opinion.

“Our struggle is voter apathy in the Latino community,” said Manny Martinez, a member of the Paterson school board. “I’m disappointed that we failed to come out to the polls. This should be a wakeup call to all Latinos in the city.”

Manny Martinez

Miguel Garcia, a well-connected Democrat who has played a prominent role in gubernatorial campaigns in Paterson in the past, attributed the Latino apathy toward local elections to cultural factors. Garcia, who is Dominican, said many of Paterson’s Latinos come from the Dominican Republic and Peru, countries where he said voters mainly focus on nationwide elections for president.

“The local politics doesn’t matter” in those places, Garcia said. It’s too common for Paterson’s Hispanic immigrants to ignore a school board election, he said.

“The Latino people do not understand how much that election affects us,” Garcia said. “This is about how we educate our children. We have to be a part of that.”

Garcia said he planned to convene a meeting of Paterson’s Dominican community leaders to analyze what happened in the school election.

The three Latino candidates in the school race Dania Martinez, Joel Ramirez, and Flavio Rivera – all had assistance from powerful and influential political leaders. Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly was supporting Martinez. Meanwhile, five members of the City Council endorsed Ramirez and Rivera, who also had stealth support from Mayor Andre Sayegh and six campaign mailers touting them paid for by a Washington-based super PAC.

Assemblyman Benjie E. Wimberly speaks during the Eva's Village 40th Anniversary Celebration in Paterson, NJ on Sunday, April 24, 2022.

Martinez currently is in eighth place, Ramirez fifth and Rivera seventh. The top four positions in the voting currently are held by three African Americans and one Bangladeshi candidate.

Manny Martinez said he hoped the Latino community would one day match the political engagement of Paterson’s Black and Bengali residents. He noted that the populations of those two groups would not match Paterson’s Latino numbers even if they were added together.

Manny Martinez said he has noticed that people in those other communities take suffrage seriously.

“The African American and Bengali communities hold the right to vote in much higher esteem than the Latino community does,” he said.

Campaign workers for Ramirez and Rivera had formed an alliance with Bangladeshi candidate, Mohammed Rashid. The three of them all were endorsed in the waves of political mailers put out by the America’s Future First super PAC.

Some campaign insiders wondered whether the alliance between the two Latino candidates and Rashid’s supporters was truly reciprocal. They pointed out that vote totals in the city’s 2nd Ward, where much of Paterson’s Bengali community is concentrated, showed Rashid getting far more support in those districts than did Ramirez and Rivera. Operatives said the numbers suggested “bullet voting” on Rashid’s behalf in the 2nd Ward.

Rashid has not responded to multiple messages seeking his comment on the election. Nor have the two Bengali American members of the City Council – Shahin Khalique and Md Forid Uddin, both of whom backed Rashid.

Meanwhile, in the city’s 5th Ward, Paterson’s most heavily Latino section, Rashid seemed to benefit from his alliance with the Rivera and Ramirez group, the campaign strategists said.

The school election pitted candidates backed by Wimberly — particularly Arrington and Kenneth Simmons — against candidates backed by Sayegh, Democratic Party leaders, and the mayor’s city council allies — the Ramirez-Rivera-Rashid coalition.

The emergence of the coalition came about after the school board last June changed insurance brokers. The super PAC that put out the campaign literature for the coalition is connected to the insurance company.

So far, political insiders said, each side seems like it will win one seat — Simmons and Rashid are neck-and-neck in first and second place. Arrington has a precarious hold on third, with Ramirez in fifth, 105 votes behind Arrington.

Paterson Press asked Simmons about the two camps of county political leaders backing different sides in the school board election.

“What it says to me is that the Democratic Party may be imploding in Passaic County,” Simmons responded.

Simmons said the dispute over the broker’s contract should have been resolved though conversations, rather than by an election.

“This wouldn’t be happening if we were in Essex County,” Simmons said. “I think it’s safe to say you wouldn’t see this happening in any other county in the state.”

Election officials are planning to complete their counting of the Paterson school board ballots on Nov. 17. Some candidates already are talking about the likelihood of a recount.

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