Challenging the political machine

Progressive Democrat candidates run in 32nd District primary

In announcing their candidacy for the Democratic primary in the 32nd Assembly District, Roger Quesada and Mahmoud Mahmoud say they are doing more than just sending a message to mainstream Democrats. The two men want to change the nature of Hudson County’s political mainstream to better reflect local concerns.

“This is about individuals and leadership and not the party,” Quesada said, just prior to the kickoff of their campaign on April 16.

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Both men talked about social responsibility and justice, and a determination to redirect the Democratic Party on a local issue away from maintaining its own power to addressing some of the concerns of the people who elected them.

The candidates

Quesada grew up in North Bergen, went to local schools before attending High Tech High School and later NJIT where he studied architecture.

But after a downturn in the economy, he changed careers. He said he got involved with e-commerce, digital marketing and eventually qualified as an expert, serving as a consultant before landing a job with New Avon.

A resident of Guttenberg, Mahmoud has a bachelor’s degree in sociology from William Paterson University and his master’s degree in public policy and public service from the University of Arkansas.

He worked as the regional director of services to the armed forces for the American Red Cross from 2017 to 2018. He also worked at New Jersey Together from 2016 to 2017, as the director of Church World Service for New Jersey from 2015 to 2016, and at the United Nations from 2011 to 2014.

Quesada said he was very inspired by the presidential candidacy of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and claims politics can also include integrity.

Both candidates want to change the way leaders are selected in Hudson County, away from people who are appointed by the political organization to representatives that actually are accountable to the people who elect them.

“We’re people-powered,” Quesada said. “This is a grass roots movement, and one that better understands the needs of the people.”

Both men also want to redirect Democratic attention from the national agenda to local and state issues, such as New Jersey’s economic problems.

They are both fully invested in green technology, and see the power plant proposed for North Bergen as a huge local issue which could negatively affect people who live nearby as well as the region.

Both candidates support Gov. Phil Murphy’s initiative for the state to adopt green energy sources by 2050.

“I feel a real need of urgency,” said Quesada, who previously worked as a volunteer for the reelection of State Senator and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco in the past. “I believe it is now or never.”

The candidacy puts both men at odds with Sacco on several levels. In one case, they oppose the power plant which Sacco seems to support. In another, they are running against Assemblywoman Angelica M. Jimenez and Assemblyman Pedro Mejia for the assembly nomination, two people who are backed by Sacco.

Quesada went out of his way to meet Mahmoud last year when Mahmoud ran in the Democratic primary for the House of Representatives against Rep. Albio Sires.

Immigrant backgrounds

Quesada, 34, said both men had similar backgrounds. “Mahmoud is 32 and his family is from Egypt,” he said. “My family came from Cuba. I’m the first generation born in the United States.”

Quesada said his mother and the rest of his family are supporters of President Donald Trump, which gives him insight into the fear people sometimes feel, and the need for leaders to find a consensus that will address everybody’s needs. He said real leaders have to represent everybody.

“The system is flawed,” Quesada said.

But if they can succeed in this, building their own grassroots organization, they expect to keep going, seeking to bring candidates with similar beliefs to local council election, school boards, and whatever other elected positions they can.

Quesada and Mahmoud, while bringing different assets and experiences to the campaign, found they had a lot in common, including their passion to bring government back to the people.

For Mahmoud, who ran against the political machine last year, the new effort for the Assembly is stronger. Instead of doing everything himself, he has a running mate, but more importantly a full campaign staff and several hundred volunteers, helping them canvas a district that stretches across Hudson County and into sections of Bergen County as well.

The 32nd district includes West New York, North Bergen, Guttenberg, Secaucus as well as Kearny, Harrison, and East Newark – and a handful of towns in southern Bergen County.

“We are very organized,” Mahmoud said.

Mahmoud received about 3,600 votes in his bid to unseat Sires in last year’s primary. He estimates he will need about 5,000 to win the Democratic nomination for the state assembly in June.

Both men are well aware that they are going against a strong political machine and that their opponents have the backing of the powerful Hudson County Democratic Organization.

As a grass roots campaign, the two men are doing a lot of footwork, going door to door, where they have been surprised by the reaction.

Many of those they talked did not know who currently represents them in the state Assembly, and apparently never met any of them. But these potential voters raised a lot of issues, such as the need for affordable housing in Hudson County.

Many of the towns have their own environmental issues, such as water resources in Edgewater, the power plant in North Bergen, and landfills in Kearny.

Reform from the inside

Quesada said their campaign will be a mixture of tried and true political work and the emerging power of social media. Both have also reached out to local and statewide environmental organizations since their campaign is partly about environmental issues.

While they do not expect the organizations to come out and help them in the election, they do anticipate a number of endorsements. Quesada is also involved with a number of LGBTQ groups locally and statewide.

While both candidates said they could fight the system as advocates, they decided they would be more effective as insiders, getting themselves elected and reforming the Democratic Party from inside it.

Quesada said both Democrats and Republicans seem not to be responding to people’s needs, which including issues like healthcare, criminal justice reform, and even immigration.

Mahmoud said he recently met with a school board member from Fairview, who said federal immigration authorities relocated immigrants to the community, forcing the increase in class sizes, but without providing federal resources to help them.

“They have 35 kids per classroom and they may have to build a new school,” he said.

Both men believe in regionalizing resources such as combining the school districts and police departments in small towns in order to provide better efficiency.

For updates on this and other stories check and follow us on Twitter @hudson_reporter. Al Sullivan can be reached at


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