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The Record

New Latino Success; Politicians Show Winning Ways In The Suburbs


6 February 2005
Copyright © 2005 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

When Tomas Padilla took his seat on the Bergen County Freeholder Board's dais at its reorganization meeting last month, he became only the second Hispanic elected to the board, and the first in more than a decade.

The same week, Saddle Brook named a Peruvian-born finance officer as its council president. Rutherford welcomed its second Hispanic council member, Paterson police Lt. Richard Reyes, to its council.

And in Ridgefield, the first Hispanic mayor ever elected in Bergen County, attorney Anthony Suarez, began his second year in office.

"It's a sign that Bergen County is becoming much more accepting of Latinos as part of the Bergen County mainstream," said Cid Wilson, a Dominican-American who was appointed in 2003 to the Bergen County Improvement Authority.

Of course, Hispanics have been winning elected offices in New Jersey for well over a decade in urban centers such as Passaic, Paterson, West New York, Union City and Jersey City, where they have become a majority or a large portion of the electorate.

But for the relatively young and politically inexperienced Hispanic leaders in Bergen, their success came in places where Latinos remain a relatively small percentage of the population.

Although Bergen County's Hispanic population has risen steadily during the past decade, it still made up just 13.3 percent of the county's nearly 1 million residents in the 2000 U.S. Census.

In Saddle Brook, a town where Hispanics made up less than 13 percent of the population in the 2000 Census, Democratic candidate Omar Rodriguez edged two Republicans for a seat on the Township Council after two failed tries.

"I was totally new in politics," said Rodriguez, 41, a financial controller for a tour company who emigrated from Peru in his 20s and had moved his family to Saddle Brook in the late 1990s. But, he said, "I needed to know how my taxes were being spent."

"People recognize that when you have good intentions and good ideas, regardless of what origin you might have, people will follow you," he said.

What's happening with Hispanics in Bergen County happened with other immigrant groups decades ago, said Emilio Fandino, who heads the Paramus-based Hispanic Institute for Research and Development, which helps prepare immigrants for citizenship.

"The grassroots movement is very difficult in a county where Hispanics aren't an overwhelming majority as they are in, say, Passaic, or Paterson or Hudson County," Fandino said.

But as Hispanics born in the United States - or those who came here when they were children - became part of Bergen's suburban fabric, Fandino said, they have naturally become part of the political scene as well.

"That's why it took a while, because it took a while for these people to grow up, basically," Fandino said.

"It's like any other immigrant group," he said. Decades ago, "it would have been inconceivable for anyone Italian or Jewish to run for public office in Bergen County."

Yet with their cultural roots, Padilla, Rodgriguez and others have found that they can tap into both the Latino community and other groups.

Padilla, for example, has tasted both the humble life of a new immigrant and the middle-class success of a suburbanite. Padilla came to the United States in 1968 after his father immigrated to America from Colombia. Padilla was 5. His father worked at a paint factory during the day and collected shopping carts at a Hackensack retailer during the night to pay for their rented basement on Hackensack's Washington Avenue - where Padilla slept next to a water heater.

Now, the 40-year-old Padilla - who joined the Hackensack police force 17 years ago and was promoted to captain last week - lives in Park Ridge in a house that his father frequently reminds him has a basement larger than the one they first rented in Hackensack.

So Padilla may tell his story to a Spanish-speaking audience of recently naturalized citizens on one given morning. And then later in the afternoon he could win over a crowd of seniors with Irish and Italian surnames by touting his experience as a Hackensack cop.

"We're just very comfortable in both," Padilla said of himself and other Latino politicians who have had cross-cultural success.

That has been the key for the recent success, say officials of the Latino American Democratic Association - an organization through which Padilla, Rodriguez and others have risen.

"You need the support of the black and Asian communities, as well as the white Caucasian community to show you can best represent them," said the Improvement Authority's Wilson, a Wall Street financial analyst from Leonia and a past president of the Latino Democratic group. "I think that if you come with an agenda that's a strict Latino community agenda, it may work in other counties, but it doesn't work in Bergen County."

The recent success by Latinos in Bergen County politics has been almost exclusively in the Democratic Party. Bogota elected a Hispanic councilman, Republican Juan Dominguez, in the 1990s. But Dominguez came up short in a 1998 bid for county freeholder. And the GOP has not had a countywide Hispanic candidate since.

"The first thing the Republican Party has to do is to place Hispanics in high places within the party itself," said Jose Manuel Alvarez, a Republican political consultant from Middlesex County who had worked with Democratic Rep. Robert Menendez, who climbed the political ladder in Union City, before switching to the GOP.

"We don't only want to sit at the table. We want to know what's cooking in the kitchen, and we want to add a little rice and beans to it," he said.

Clara Nibot, president of the Bergen County Hispanic Republican Organization, said that with the growth of Bergen County's Hispanic population, it will be only a matter of time before another Hispanic Republican candidate emerges.

"I believe that the political forces, Republican as well as Democratic - they have to deal with the reality that there are 1,650,000 Hispanics in the state of New Jersey," she said.

LADA officials have been quick to credit much of their success to Bergen County's powerful Democratic organization and Democratic Chairman Joseph Ferriero.

Ferriero has said that diversity in the party is a high priority for him, and it has shown not only with the Latino candidates who have been placed on Democratic tickets, but with Latinos and African- Americans who have been given high-ranking positions in Democratic administrations.

When new Democratic Sheriff Leo McGuire took office last month, he named a Latino, former state police Maj. Ralph Rivera Jr., as his top undersheriff.

"They see that we bring something to the table," said current LADA President Albert Alvarez. "They've allowed a group like LADA to blossom."

But a few have complained that the nurturing by the county Democratic organization - which has been criticized for putting fund- raising over policies - has led LADA to become too focused on raising money and signing up voters and not enough on the issues facing Bergen County Hispanics.

"If we have people up there who are not doing anything for the community, we might as well have nobody," said Bermari Roig- Eichler, a paralegal from Cliffside Park and a native of Puerto Rico who ran unsuccessfully for a Democratic state Assembly nomination in 2001.

Roig-Eichler said LADA has been successful in raising money and registering voters for Latino candidates, but she wants to see the success bear fruit for Hispanics in Bergen.

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