PATERSON, NJ- In the first of its kind during this campaign season, Paterson’s six mayoral candidates had a chance to ask each other questions at Monday’s Municipal Candidate’s Forum held in City Council Chambers. The event, moderated by Paterson City Clerk Sonia Gordon, was broadcast live locally on Cablevision channel 77 and on Verizon channel 32. The full forum, as well as the council candidate’s forums scheduled for Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, will be shown on the channels continuously until Election Day on May 8.

Giving opening statements that have matched their overall campaign themes throughout the contest, the gloves came off almost immediately with each candidate getting the chance to ask three questions to his fellow opponents. While At-Large Councilman Alex Mendez and 6th Ward Councilman Andre Sayegh, considered by many insiders to be the frontrunners, received most of the blasts, none of the candidates were fully immune to the shrapnel that flew.

Going in alphabetical order, PBA President Alex Cruz was first to take the seat designated for the candidate asking questions, and came out swinging at former Deputy Mayor Pedro Rodriguez, alleging that it was through “nepotism” that he received his job manning the camera system for the Paterson Police Department, and that he used the position to obtain contracts for additional camera sales throughout the city.

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Setting the tone for much of the rest of the proceedings, Rodriguez, after offering that he took a civil service exam to receive the job, as well as a reminder that he resigned from any positions Paterson’s previous chief executive appointed him to, turned the tables on Cruz by suggesting it was in fact the 24 year veteran of the Paterson Police Department’s relationship with now incarcerated former Mayor Joey Torres that voters should be wary of.

First Ward Councilman Michael Jackson, never shy to stake his claim as the “most consistent, most avid fighter for what’s right,” as the often lone dissenting vote on the body, used his time to question the men he’ll share ballot space with about their commitment to what he called “fair and equitable opportunities” for Paterson residents. 

As they have in past debates, Cruz and Third Ward Councilman William “Bill” McKoy both pointed to their more than two decades of serving the city with Cruz saying that as a police officer he has “been assigned to every ward, and advocated for every resident,” and McKoy said that his time on the council, as well as through the McKoy Foundation, has earned him a proven track record of “dealing with every segment of the community.”

Mendez and Rodriguez both talked about “empowering” residents with the first using his advocacy for the appointment of local activist Bernard Jones to the Paterson Housing Authority, and the second suggesting again that his plan to provide job and training opportunities to young offenders, regardless of their background, as the only viable plan to make a significant impact on the entire city.  

Diversity, Sayegh would say, “distinguishes (Paterson) from other cities,” and is something through his campaigning in every corner of the “only place he has ever lived” he has gained a “deeper appreciation for.”

Third up to ask questions, McKoy used his time to pit his “sound experience and proven leadership” against what he has suggested on numerous occasions is his opponent’s lack of readiness to take on the position on July 1. Tackling the city’s budget first, McKoy asked both Mendez and Sayegh if they’d reconsider their recent votes against the final FY18 budget given the recent credit upgrade. 

“Unlike you I am not a rubber stamp for tax increases” Sayegh would shoot back at McKoy who, seemingly exasperated by what he considered a non-response to the question, asked the moderator if it “is required for candidates to answer the question.”

With tensions mounting, Mendez, perhaps having waited long enough for his opportunity to pounce, immediately went after Sayegh accusing him of “taking credit for stuff (he) didn’t do.” Mendez and Sayegh both claim they led the effort to enact the Paterson School’s uniform policy and the former believes his opponent has overstated his role in shutting down several bars and nightclubs that Sayegh has referred to as “crime magnets” within his ward. 

“You don’t have a record of results so you have to poke holes in mine,” Sayegh responded before chastising Mendez for missing “more than half” of the city council workshops and therefore being unable to fully understand the role that Sayegh played in bringing some tranquility, and economic development, to the Sixth Ward.

For his part, Rodriguez set his sights on the frontrunners asking Sayegh whether he was committed to replacing currently Business Adminstrator Nellie Pou and Mendez how voters can trust him if he “can’t handle his finances, taxes, and water bills” and has failed to produce the required reports legally mandated by the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission. Neither of the men took the bait with Sayegh saying he won’t go on record in relation to any specific job candidate prior to the election, and Mendez taking “full responsibility” for the recently reported bounced checks that he claims now “have all been satisfied.”

With the candidate directed questions over it was time for each to give their closing remarks, which, if history of other debates and forums over the campaign season was to be a guide, would strike a more subtle tone. While Sayegh, Rodriguez, and Mendez mostly followed suit in their carefully delivered words, McKoy, once again showed his ability to cut himself a formidable figure by accusing the “elite of trying to determine the future of the city,” and Sayegh, through his oft-touted relationships beyond Paterson, of only being qualified to run the city “by the special interests.”

Sayegh rebuffed McKoy’s statement and accusation that he “had no interest in being the mayor” by telling TAPinto Paterson that while he has been maligned for claiming he would be Paterson’s “cheerleader” if elected he holds strong to that statement. “Nobody will beat the drum for Paterson louder than I will,” Sayegh claimed. 

As for the negativity surrounding the relationships, Sayegh said that he was “unashamed to say that (he) will seek any and all help in moving Paterson back onto the path of success and towards the city we all know it can be.”

Election Day is Tuesday, May 8.