PASSAIC – The city stood at City Hall, or so it seemed, as a large crowd gathered to give its blessing to Mayor Alex Blanco, who tonight announced his intentions to run for mayor again, with the backing of U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-Hoboken), State Democratic Party Chairman Joe Cryan and Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie all present to augment the voices of the people.
Trumpeted as a long time coming crumbling of wink and nod politics in Passaic, the mayor’s “Honesty in Action” campaign kick-off flew in the face of a ragtag assortment of Vincent Capuana allies, who heckled the speakers from their campaign HQ on the other side of Passaic Avenue, but were mostly drowned out by the merengue-salsa-soul rhythm spectacle of Blanco and his base.
“Let no one, not even an opponent we defeated in November, stop our forward progress,” cried Blanco. “When people ask you, ‘Why are you so confident you can make change?’ You tell them, ‘The doctor is in!’”
Running on the heels of a mayor indicted - and later jailed - on corruption charges by then-U.S. Attorney Chris Christie, podiatrist Blanco defeated city super/School Board President Capuana last year, 3,859 to 3,656, after he secured the powerful 3rd Ward backing of Assemblyman/Council President Gary Schaer (D-Passaic).
The fusion of Schaer’s Orthodox Jewish community, the Ken Lucianin non-Jewish Anglo base, and Blanco’s Dominican, Latino and young Obama voting bloc catapulted him into history as the country’s first Dominican mayor.
Tonight, Menendez embraced him as the young comer as Blanco prepares to again face Capuana, now formally allied with Councilman Joe Garcia, who finished fourth in last year's mayoral race.
“I am proud of what I have seen Dr. Blanco do in four months,” said Menendez, who came through the crowd and danced on the steps of City Hall with Blanco laughing at his side.
“I have seen him bringing all of Passaic together – Jew and Gentile, rich and poor – I’m proud to be here from Washington, D.C. to endorse your mayor and your continuing mayor,” Menendez cried.
Schaer had considered running for the mayor’s job himself after the feds toppled Sammy Rivera and Passaic gazed numbly inward at itself and came up almost empty as nearly everyone around City Hall seemed connected to the crisis.
Instead of launching his own bid finally, he gambled with the largely unknown, 36-year old Blanco, an immigrant who came here as a 14-year old, and grew up to become a doctor and move back to his hometown to practice, and tonight, with his own 36th District Assembly seat on the line in November, Schaer reveled in his role as Blanco’s chief ally and fellow interpreter of America.
“We faced the arrest of our mayor and two councilmen and we needed change in this city and then as now we ran a man who reflects and embodies change,” said Schaer. “As we had the first African American president last year, in Passaic we had the first Dominican mayor in the United States.”
The crowd started screaming: “Blanco! Blanco! Blanco!”
The others came in on Blanco’s behalf with their own high note huzzahs: Cryan and Currie and Passaic County Sheriff Jerry Speziale. Cryan read a statement of support from Gov. Jon Corzine.
Sources close to Cryan say he doesn’t think Schaer and his running mate, Assemblyman Fred Scalera (D-Nutley), are in imminent danger in the 2-1 Democrat 36th District, but the state chairman’s presence here tonight signaled that he’s serious about building on their good starting point as they head toward the November general election.
It all dominoes – or so they hope.
Next week’s school board election will be a decent indicator of where Blanco stands in the community. Moving in the crowd, his supporters distributed glossies of the mayor posing with his Board candidates: Ronald Van Rensalier, Byron Bustos and Salim Patel.
They stood onstage and took a bow at Schaer’s prompting.
If those three win on April 21, the Blanco forces will be well positioned for their encounter with Capuana on May 12.
Capuana’s the School Board president, and if he’s downplaying the School Board election it’s because Blanco cornered the name candidates, stands to win a majority on a governing body Capuana has long controlled, and can hit a trifecta that would hobble his aging opponent with less than a month in front of their own showdown.
A Blanco victory in the mayor's contest would in turn solidify Schaer in his hometown as he lines up with Scalera to try to turn back a challenge from Carlstadt School Board member Donald Diorio and Nutley businessman Carmen Pio Costa.
Those larger implications inevitably at work, Blanco for the moment shouldered the Passaic storyline - "la causa," or the cause, as he called it, for better schools and lower taxes.
As he waded through the ranks to reach the steps of City Hall, Menendez basked in local love. For all the “change time” hoopla, Latino pride, multiculturalism and even a “let’s throw the moneychangers out of City Hall” soundbite that set the crowd off into another frenzy of emotion, the U.S. Senator who bare-knuckled his way up out of Union City politics knows a constant here in Passaic has been the more than bite-sized legal contract of his longtime political ally Donald Scarinci.
But this crowd loved him tonight as a kind of bigger brother Blanco here to validate the upward trajectory of the young mayor, who like Menendez began his political career as a member of the local school board.
Blanco v. Capuana II is ugly already, with the jeers coming from the other side of the street just one more emblem to add to Capuana camp circulations of Internet photos featuring a city worker leaving Blanco’s house after an alleged, mid-day political meeting and ongoing, infuriated back chatter from Capuana's people about the statewide Schaer bossing political neophyte Blanco.
Blanco allies – and by the looks of the crowd tonight, they are many, impassioned, and increasing in number – say those attacks from the Capuana side represent the desperate lunges of a last-gasp machine, which can’t hope to revive itself on retreads like Garcia and three-time loser Jose Sandoval. Garcia’s running on a ticket with Capuana. The latter remains a political question mark after his allies leaked it out there that he would back Capuana, just before the longtime stalwart Republican became a Democrat in a solemn ceremony with Currie - and then went dark.
A fifth mayoral candidate from last year, bail bondsman Carl Ellen – who came in fifth, incidentally, officially stands with Blanco, and he looked up at Schaer from under his trademark Panama hat tonight and nodded when the Assemblyman acknowledged him and thanked him.
The city squares off.
Now in his seventies, Capuana has some old-time contacts and remains a beloved figure in certain circles who has his own immigrant story and a survivor's pathos that connects when he tells about how his own parents died in his arms, and his sons, who went to college.
He's proud of Blanco, too, the younger man who went through Passaic schools, whose three boys now attend the local school system.
Still - and this was the argument with all that party muscle on the steps of City Hall tonight - Menendez's help in Washington, and Schaer's in Trenton, enabled the city with Blanco in charge to secure money for eight additional firefighters and five more police officers.
Most won't care who wins in what both sides anticipate will be a low turnout election come May 12th with no presidential candidate at the top of the ticket the way there was last time.
A brace of tough guy dogs – two pit bulls and a couple of boxers – strained at their leashes as they waded into traffic on Main Avenue and when someone asked their owner who he likes for mayor, the reply was a hard stare only, and yet with the music and Menendez and Schaer and the crowd chanting his name repeatedly and his wife at his side and the story unfolding and so many feeling part of it streetside, the smiling Blanco talking about "la causa" tonight projected the power of alliance in the city. Done with his speech, he walked into the crowd.
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