In case the canvassers and mobile billboard trucks motoring down the streets didn’t give it away, West New York held a municipal election on May 14.
The “New Beginnings West New York” slate, which included Commissioners Gabriel Rodriguez, Cosmo Cirillo, Margarita Guzman, as well as political newcomers Yoleisy Yanez and Victor Barrera, pulled off a decisive clean sweep, which was made apparent shortly after polls closed. The team secured 50 percent of the votes, out of a pool of 16 candidates.
West New York is indeed poised for a new beginning as Rodriguez was scheduled to be named the next mayor of West New York at a reorganization meeting on May 21.
Here are the final results for each candidate:
Gabriel Rodriguez: 3,602
Cosmo A. Cirillo: 3,616
Margarita A. Guzman: 3,502
Victor M. Barrera: 3,424
Yoleisy Yanez: 3,373
Felix E. Roque: 2,717
Susan Colacurcio: 2,606
Maite Fernandez: 2,510
Ana D. Luna: 2,496
Richard Acosta: 2,502
Adil S. Ahmed: 631
Anthony Valdes: 247
Manuel Andujar Jr.: 206
Claudia Calderon: 204
Armando Galis-Menendez: 167
Ronald Scheurle: 207
Ahmed, Valdes, Andujar, Calderon, and Galis-Menendez, all political newcomers, couldn’t muster more than 2,000 votes among the six of them, demonstrating that all eyes were on a fight between West New York incumbents.
The winning team announced victory alongside Hudson County politicos who were on its side since the beginning of the year. County Executive Tom DeGise, Hudson County Democratic Organization (HCDO) Chairwoman Amy DeGise, and Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner were among the elected officials celebrating with the team.
Two former mayors, Rep. Albio Sires and Sal Vega, also celebrated with Rodriguez’s team. Hundreds took to town hall for a brief after-party, where the newly elected officials symbolically passed a broom around.
Despite losing by a large margin, Roque went out beaming with confidence. During the rainy afternoon on election day, he told The Hudson Reporter that he anticipated winning by a bold margin of 3-1 in a clean sweep. Rodriguez didn’t make such confident predictions that afternoon, but said he was feeling good a few hours before the polls closed.
What lit the fuse?
All five incumbents this year were running mates in the 2015 election.
The tensions that divided the governing body were mostly kept under the radar until mid-2018, when a brief insurrection rocked the Democratic Party in Hudson County. Roque endorsed Union City Mayor Brian Stack to chair the HCDO, while most establishment Democrats in the county voted successfully for Chairwoman Amy DeGise.
While Roque couldn’t shed the cold shoulder from the HCDO as other Stack supporters had, it was one small part of what fueled the efforts to oust him.
In this year’s campaign season, town meetings became electoral sparring grounds early on. Elected officials locked horns until government functions devolved into political blood sport. Many felt that the feud brought town hall into a state of dysfunction.
Conflict truly kicked off in November, when Roque’s opponents used their 3-2 majority to adopt a series of add-on resolutions over a few months which reassigned Roque and Colacurcio to different departments, awarding their positions to their opponents.
Roque alleged in a lawsuit that all three of his opponents carried this out in an act of political retaliation, to reduce Roque’s jurisdiction, as well as that of Susan Colacurcio.
Rodriguez dubbed the suit “frivolous,” and said it was “a long time coming” after Roque stopped cooperating with him and his allies. Further, Rodriguez and his allies claimed that Roque was relatively absent in his role, and did not make himself available to residents to address their needs.
Roque countered that his track record displayed the ability to keep property taxes relatively stable, reduce the crime rate, and create a stronger police department than what his predecessor, Sal Vega, left the town with eight years ago.
Hundreds of residents and dozens of municipal employees began packing town hall at the monthly meetings, with a wide array of axes to grind, not only with Roque, but with other sitting officials as well.
Meanwhile, officials on both sides of the power struggle frequently introduced add-on resolutions at the last minute, which often called for major decisions to be voted on.
Roque kicked this off with a resolution to allocate $500,000 to be spent on surveillance system upgrades, which was voted down by his opponents. He also hastily introduced a resolution to establish a municipal ID card program, and another to announce support for an assembly bill that supports driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
Rodriguez also caught everyone off-guard at the last meeting prior to the election, when he introduced a vote that would have dissolved the town’s parking authority, which is currently run by a private contractor rather than through the town. That vote was tabled.
Caught in the crosshairs
Unlike in 2011, Roque was unable to win in a battle with the county’s Democratic establishment.
Sires, a former West New York mayor, vowed to oust Roque very early in the race. The HCDO also gave the “New Beginnings” team an early endorsement, along with many of the local officials who are favored by the HCDO.
Roque was routinely targeted by the Communication Workers of America (CWA), a union which represents hundreds of municipal employees in all of West New York’s departments. CWA representatives made broad, public accusations that Roque engaged in alleged corruption and political retaliation against numerous union members.
Rodriguez corroborated those claims and more, and called Roque’s conduct “dictatorial,” an adjective that rankles Roque, who is one of many West New Yorkers who emigrated to the United States from Cuba at a young age to escape the Fidel Castro regime.
Though “New Beginnings” was endorsed by national CWA representatives from Trenton, municipal employees claimed that the local post voted against endorsing any political candidates in the election.
Infighting wasn’t confined to town hall premises.
Widespread accusations were made that teachers were being pressured to take part in the town’s electioneering process, or to vote for particular political candidates. Roque made headlines when, based on these allegations, he wrote a letter to New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal requesting officers from Grewal’s office monitor the polls on Election Day.
State law protects teachers from becoming subject to political intimidation or retaliation based on how or if they participate in elections. At the Board of Education meeting slated for Teacher of the Year awards, trustees passed a resolution to affirm the board’s reinforcement of those laws.