Matthew Cheng and Joan Palermo, running on a combined ticket, were clear winners in the first round of Board of Education elections in West New York. Their victory is seen by opposition forces as a litmus test on Mayor Felix Roque and a rejection of the policies of his previously-appointed board.
Roque supporters, however, said it was the frigid weather that kept voters who supported Roque-backed candidates from going to the polls.
The Jan. 28 election was for two Board of Education seats – one for a one-year term, and another for a two year term – and was the result of a referendum passed overwhelmingly last November to switch from a board appointed by the mayor to one that is elected.
At the time, voters also approved the expansion of the board from seven to nine members.
In April, voters will return to the polls to vote on three seats to replace or retain those who currently occupy them. A fourth seat will also be disputed in April due to the resignation of Board President Adrianne Sires.
Cheng, one of nine candidates vying for a one-year term, is a successful businessman and founder/principal of eCoupons, Inc. of WNY. He received slightly more than 500 of the 1,740 votes cast.
Joan Palermo, one of eight candidates running for a two-year term, received nearly 570 of the 1,723 votes cast.
Palermo is a private practice attorney and former public school teacher of 16 years.
Both successful candidates were backed by Freeholder Chairman Jose Munoz, who is politically opposed to the Roque administration.
Munoz was also the owner of the anti-Roque website that the major and his son, Joseph, were accused of conspiring to hack into in early 2012. Roque was acquitted in federal federal court in October. Joseph was convicted of a misdemeanor and is awaiting sentencing.
“I would like to congratulate Joan Palermo and Mathew Cheng for becoming West New York’s newest Board of Education members and to those who worked tirelessly on their campaign and to all the voters who believed in their honesty and integrity by voting for them today,” Munoz said. “We did our part, now it’s up to Joan and Mathew to demonstrate to all the voters that they are indeed deserving of our continued trust and support.”
A litmus test for Roque?
Other candidates were supported by Commissioner Court Wiley, who attempted a recall against Roque, but had a number of signatures rejected as invalid. Former Mayor Sal Vega also supported candidates.
“I am very happy with the Board of Education election outcome,” Munoz said in an official release. “But we must remember, this is only the second of several important elections the citizens of West New York must win to rid our school system of governmental intervention.”
Roque’s opponents were fueled by a damaging report published late last year by the New Jersey Department of Education’s Office of Fiscal Accountability and Compliance (OFAC) stating that Roque has been using his political influence to influence personnel decisions in the school district.
“My candidates did better than I thought.” – Jose Munoz
A victory of anti-Roque candidates sets the tone for the next election, said Vega on Election Day. A victory by Roque-backed candidates would likely have taken the air out of a movement to wrestle control of the board away from Roque, and would have discouraged candidates from seeking to run against Roque in 2015.
“My candidates did better than I thought,” said Munoz. “We worked hard to get them elected, and this sends a message that nobody controls the board.”
Munoz said that Wiley and Vega candidates seemed to get their strength from senior citizen population, while Cheng and Palermo drew from a 30 to 40 year old working population,
Wiley backed Wayne Cook, who most observers claim has good name recognition in WNY, but it was the relentless campaigning of Munoz and the ticket he supported that got their voters out. Kids First WNY did more than six citywide mailers.
“Roque didn’t have a chance from the beginning,” Munoz said. “The opposition overwhelmed his candidates.”
Munoz said a lot of people have come up to him expressing their appreciation for his involvement.
“But it is not I that they need to thank; it is their neighbors and fellow residents of West New York that have stood up and shouted, ‘Enough is Enough.’ The appreciation must go out to each and every one of you,” Munoz said. “We must also recognize all the candidates that participated in this election.”
He said the Board of Education was about remembering to keep kids first.
Round two set for April
Although Roque-appointed board members still outnumber opponents, some political observers said the expanded nine-member board is actually split four to four with a relatively new and unpredictable board member as the deciding vote.
Those close to Roque, however, said the weather beat them in this election. While Roque had a lot of volunteers, most of these were kids, and did not translate into votes. The cold kept down the number of pro-Roque voters, they said.
“Our strongest district, Ward 1 District 2, has two senior buildings with 2,100 registered voters,” said one person inside the Roque camp (who wished not be named.) “Only 100 people came out. That was our problem. If you lose by 150 to 200 votes, and you only get 100 votes out in your strongest district, you’re going to lose.”
But the young volunteers could not get seniors to come out into the cold, this person said.
“If it wasn’t for the cold weather, we would have won,” he said. “They snuck one by us with the cold weather. This was a disaster. We couldn’t make headway.”
If there is anything positive to come out of this election, it is the belief by the Roque camp that this election makes Munoz the frontrunner in the 2015 mayoral campaign.
“This puts Vega and Wiley out of the picture,” he said.
Munoz, however, said he does not intend to run for mayor, but is seeking to get elected to his freeholder seat – a hefty chore in itself, since Roque forces will be backing an alternative candidate in the June Democratic primary.
“I remember a children’s story called ‘The Little Engine that Could.’ It was about a long train trying to get up a high mountain,” Munoz said. “All the bigger engines said they couldn’t pull this long train up the mountain. It wasn’t until a much smaller engine said it would try. It not only tried, it succeeded in pulling the long train up the mountain. It did it by having confidence in its self by saying over and over again, ‘I Think I Can, I Think I Can.’ The message I took from this story and how it relates to West New Yorkers is, ‘We no longer need to think of it as I think we can, because we have done it and we will continue to do it until West New York is finally given back to the people.’ ”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.