10. A decade is how long Rolando Lavarro had been on the Jersey City Council.
Over those ten years, many things changed. Presidencies, mayors, city council members, and other events that rocked around the city. Lavarro was there, watching what had changed.
But his time on the council came to an end, having lost reelection for a third full term last year. While the ending for him is bittersweet, there’s some relief to the outcome.
“It’s a challenging position,” said Lavarro in an interview at City Hall in the last few weeks of his tenure. “I’m kind of relieved to be able to refocus there and turn my attention to other priorities.”
For better or worse, he had a reputation for being one of Mayor Steve Fulop’s most persistent critics in his later years. But Lavarro was more than just that. He broke through racial barriers, helped pass legislation in the city, and became an advocate for a number of issues.
It was the decade of Lavarro, and it was a standout career for one of the most well known political figures in the city.
In other words, “Thanks, Obama”
2009. The year Lavarro got involved in politics.
Lavarro got started after being inspired by President Barack Obama’s first inauguration speech in his message for change. Or as he jokingly puts it, “I like to blame Obama for the misery he put me through.”
After Obama’s speech, a friend of his urged him to consider running for the city council, which he did. He first ran for election in 2009 for the Ward A council seat, but lost in a runoff election to Michael Sottolano.
However, he later got an opportunity following the aftermath of the corruption sting known as Operation Bid Rig, where multiple council members resigned and left a few seats open.
He gave it another go in a special election in 2011 by teaming up with the late Viola Richardson, and they ultimately both won two at-large seats. Lavarro later won a full term for the city council in 2013 alongside then-Councilman Steve Fulop, who won the mayor’s office that year.
That same year, Lavarro became council president, a position that he would hold until 2019.
Legislative accomplishments and challenges
Reflecting on his ten years in the City Council, Lavarro touted a number of accomplishments, but also lamented on the challenges that still remain.
Lavarro also credits his and many others’ advocacy for the newest inclusionary zoning ordinance. After criticisms over the previously loophole filled one, a new one without loopholes was eventually adopted in the City Council at the end of last year (although he ultimately voted against it in its final adoption).
One of the challenges he faced was creating a new brand of politics in the city, different from “the patronage, the nepotism, putting profits and developer interests over the city’s residents,” as he describes it.
But he regrets that too much of the city’s politics hasn’t changed. “There have been some changes on the surface,” he said. “But the root conditions of that remain, and so I think there’s a need to address that fundamentally.”
The other challenges Lavarro faced throughout the rest of his tenure were the effects of the Trump presidency, then the COVID-19 pandemic. He was hospitalized for COVID and recalled being terrified at the time, and mourning over the loss of Councilman Michael Yun, who died from complications of COVID in 2020.
Representing the Filipino community
1. Lavarro was the first ever Asian American and Filipino American to serve in the council’s history.
“With chants of ‘Mabuhay (long live) the Philippines! Mabuhay Jersey City,’ members of Jersey City’s Filipino community cheered as Rolando Lavarro was sworn in as the City Council’s newest at-large representative,” wrote the Hudson Reporter in 2011.
“Lavarro noted that in the Philippines, when a member of the community has to move, members of the community come together in what is called the ‘Bayanihan spirit’,” the article continued. “Working together, he said, community members literally lift up the home that has to be moved.”
“This example,” he said, “shows how an entire community must come together to solve its problems and address its challenges.”
“It’s something that I took very seriously, in being that first,” said Lavarro. “Knowing that my service and how I comported and conducted myself on the city council would serve as a model for other future generations.”
Lavarro said that most Filipino Americans are looking for the same thing every other voter is looking for, particularly in local government. Having their tax dollars spent well, good quality public services, good education and quality of life.
Last year, he had been vocal in speaking out against anti-Asian racism after the Atlanta killings, and brought people together to speak out. Near the end of 2021, he advocated for a bill in the State Legislature that would require teaching history about Asian American Pacific Islanders in New Jersey (the bill was passed and is awaiting Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature).
For Lavarro, his belief is to ensure that minority communities have representation and a voice.
“There’s the old saying that if you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu. I think from what I’ve seen in politics and government, I believe that to be true.”
Nearing the end
83. The amount of days before Election Day on Nov. 3.
Around that time, Lavarro had been contemplating his decision for the 2021 municipal elections, where he would run as an independent against the establishment. He had considered running for mayor, but when he was figuring out a potential pathway to victory, he was pessimistic about it.
The moment that spurred him to give it a go, however, was when housing advocates won their lawsuit against the city over the loophole-ridden IZO, of which he’d been a major critic.
The biggest thing for him was whether or not his family would be supportive. This time around, he said, they weren’t as inclined. But after having a personal conversation, he had the full support of his wife and daughter to run for another term as a councilman.
But in the end, despite his efforts, the voters decided to choose otherwise on Nov. 3.
58. The number of days Lavarro had left in the City Council after losing reelection.
Lavarro ultimately lost his at-large seat to Amy DeGise, the Hudson County Democratic Chairwoman and daughter of County Executive Tom DeGise.
“It was disappointing, but I’m not incredibly surprised,” he said. He lamented over the low turnout in the municipal elections last year, but he wasn’t going to make any excuses. “The results are very definitive.”
As he pored over his long career in the city council, he’s looking at what the next chapter in his life will be.
And while he had his accomplishments and misgivings about the political atmosphere in a place like Jersey City, he had noted that a number of good things have changed over the past decade, such as the growth in the city and the arts community being more stabilized.
In his final days in the heart of Jersey City, he gave thanks to all the people, groups, and organizations that he worked with throughout the years, and noted that there’s a need for people to have a voice in the government.
“I’m glad that I could work for you,” he said to the constituents. “That’s what motivated me over my 10 years in office. I’m just happy to be of service.”