PATERSON, NJ – Freeholder Theodore “TJ” Best convened a meeting of Paterson community leaders last week at the Masonic Lodge.
Best says the session was simply a gathering to discuss ways to improve Paterson. But prominent Paterson political figures say Best is testing the waters for a run for mayor.
Less than 18 months before the mayoral election, the field of potential candidates looms much larger than the three who ran in 2010, when Jeffrey Jones ousted Jose “Joey” Torres and Councilman Andre Sayegh finished third.
Already, at least eight possible candidates have expressed an interest in running for mayor, according to political insiders, a number that several of the hopefuls attributed to dissatisfaction with Jones’ performance. They include political veterans like Jones, Torres, Sayegh, Councilman Rigo Rodriguez, and former Councilman Aslon Goow and three city activists – Maria Teresa Feliciano, David Gilmore, and Lydia Robles.
Best’s possible emergence as a candidate certainly would alter the calculus of the race. Many of Best’s political allies had backed Jones in the 2010 election and he could siphon support from the mayor in the next election, particularly in the African-American community. Several of the meeting’s attendees also have ties to Sayegh, and Best’s candidacy would force them to choose sides.
For now, Best is playing it coy, saying he is focused on using his position as a freeholder to make Paterson “a better place to live and work.’’
But during an interview at the Kennedy-Eastside Thanksgiving football game, Best also was willing to offer a critique of the Jones administration. “We could do a lot better,’’ Best said. “I do feel the mayor has the capacity to do better.’’
Best said he backed Jones in the last election and said he still feels that was the best choice at the time. Would he do it all over again? “I’m a little disappointed in the way things have unfolded,’’ said Best, who served three years on the city school board before becoming freeholder. “I expected a lot more.’’
Jones said Best called him just before last week’s meeting to let him know what was going on. “He called to tell me he was thinking about running for mayor,’’ Jones said. “That’s fine. He can do whatever he wants. That’s the democratic process.’’
Jones said Best’s candidacy would have impact on his own plans for 2014: “I have no intention of not running.’’ Jones also dismissed the notion that Best was an important supporter of his in the 2010 race: “He came to one meeting and then disappeared.’’
When asked about his own performance as mayor, Jones described some of his goals, including reviving the Armory, getting at national park at the Great Falls and boosting Paterson’s tourism profile. “We are making good on them all,’’ said Jones.
The mayor attributed some of the public’s dissatisfaction with his administration to “bad press” and the problems he inherited, including a massive deficit. “People should run because they can do better, not because they think they can,’’ Jones said.
Torres said Best wouldn’t be considering running if Jones had performed well as mayor. “That’s an indication that Jeff is not doing a good job,’’ Torres said. “Jeff didn’t deliver what he thought he could deliver.’’
Rodriguez, who called Best “a great candidate,’’ said both Torres and Jones were to blame for Paterson’s struggles with crime and rising taxes.
Sayegh said Best’s candidacy would have the most impact on Jones in the 2014 mayoral race. “At first blush, he probably hurts Jeff the most,’’ said Sayegh.
Paterson’s two state Assembly members would loom large if both Jones and Best ran for mayor. Shavonda Sumter and Benjie Wimberly have been allies of Jones. In the 2010 mayoral race, Sumter was his campaign manager. During the first 18 months of the Jones administration, Wimberly was councilman with whom he had the most cooperation. But Sumter and Wimberly both have close ties to Best as well.
“I’m not certain,’’ Sumter said, when asked which of the two she would support for mayor. “I don’t think anything has been declared yet.’’
“I haven’t even thought about it,’’ said Wimberly. “Hopefully, we don’t do that after everybody has a chance to sit down and talk.’’