PATERSON, NJ – Many of Paterson’s African-American political leaders met at the Masonic Lodge Wednesday night to try to avoid a split of the black vote in the upcoming City Council elections, according to people who attended the session.

As a result of a straw poll taken among current and former elected officials, Paterson Schools Commissioner Christopher Irving has decided to drop his plans to run for the city council at-large seat being vacated by Benjie Wimberly, said political leaders and residents who attended the meeting. In the straw poll, Kenneth McDaniel overwhelmingly prevailed as the choice of the African-American officials to run for the at-large seat.

The agenda for meeting showed that its organizers also hoped to narrow the field in the 4th Ward, where one Latin candidate and three African-Americans have picked up nominating petitions. But unlike the at-large candidates who agreed to comply with the results of the straw poll, the 4th Ward hopefuls did not, and so no vote was taken, political leaders said.

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“I think they’re trying to keep the City Council African-American by forcing people not to run,’’ said Wilkin Santana, the lone Hispanic candidate in the 4th Ward. “That’s a very shameful thing they’re doing.’’

“I’m not running just to represent the Latin community, I’m running to represent everybody,’’ Santana added. “I think I’m going to get a lot of black votes.’’

 “I didn’t participate because I think it’s something the people should decide,’’ said Mark Fischer, one of the other 4th Ward candidates, about Wednesday’s meeting. “I think the people are going to vote for who they think is the best candidate.’’

In public, Paterson leaders frequently tout their city’s diversity, routinely boasting of its 52 nationalities the same way Howard Johnson’s used to advertise its 28 ice cream flavors.  But that diversity becomes a factor in closed-door political strategy sessions, especially because some leaders say they believe that some Patersonians vote along racial lines.

The latest census numbers show that Latinos make up slightly more than 55 percent of Paterson’s population, blacks about 30 percent, whites about 10 percent and Asians about three percent. But that breakdown is not reflected in the racial makeup of the city council or board of education.

On the council, there are five African-Americans, two Hispanics and two members with Middle Eastern roots. Also, Mayor Jeffrey Jones is black. On the school board, there are six blacks and three Hispanics. During the past year, some city Latino leaders have said their goal would be to get more Hispanics elected to public office in Paterson. In fact, a national Dominican group is trying to get Paterson’s ward map redrawn to create a Latin majority in the 4th Ward.

“I don’t think any one ethnic group should feel entitled to run the city,’’ said City Council President Anthony Davis. “I think we need the most qualified people to move the city ahead. We need the people who are going to do what’s in the best interests of Paterson, not just one ethnic group.’’

Davis said he did not participate in the straw poll conducted Wednesday night. 

Passaic County Democratic Chairman John Currie was listed on the meeting’s agenda as among the officials who would be allowed to vote in the straw poll, but he said he was not there. “I don’t know anything about that meeting whatsoever,’’ Currie said. “This is the first I’m hearing about it,’’ he added during an interview with Currie said he does endorse candidates in nonpartisan elections.

Neither McDaniel nor 4th Ward candidate Ruby Cotton returned a phone message seeking their comments for the story. Irving said he would issue a statement about his candidacy on Thursday afternoon, but has not done so yet.

Paterson Schools Commissioner Errol Kerr, who also serves as chairman of the city’s Democratic organization, acknowledged attending the “black community” meeting.  “The idea was to try to put the best candidates out there,’’ Kerr said. The city’s Latin communities have their own “caucus” to discuss political strategies, Kerr said.

One of the places where political strategists have been discussing the possibility that a split black vote could benefit a Latin candidate is the 3rd Ward. The field there includes two blacks - incumbent William McKoy and school board member Kenneth Simmons – and one Latino – school board member Alex Mendez.

But the agenda for Wednesday night’s meeting of African-American political leaders did not cover the 3rd Ward race. Kerr said there was no need for that because “we already have an incumbent there who’s a productive councilman and doing his job well.’’

Since mid-December, the city clerk’s office has been handing out nominating petitions to candidates running for the six ward seats. The petitions must be returned withy the requisite signatures by 4 pm on March 5. The city council still has to decide what it will do with the seat being vacated by Wimberly, who gets sworn in as a state Assemblyman on January 10.

The council could appoint someone to fill Wimberly’s term, but members have said they would prefer to leave that choice up to the voters. The council has to decide soon whether the at-large seat will be added to the ward races in the May 8 election.

Here’s a list of the people who have picked up nominated petitions at the city clerk’s office so far:

·         1st Ward: Davis, Malory Earle, and Pedro Rivas.

·         2nd Ward: Mohammed Akhtaruvzaman, Councilman Aslon Goow, and Edwin Lozada.

·         3rd Ward: McKoy, Mendez and Simmons.

·         4th Ward: Cotton, Fischer, Nancy Grier and Santana.

·         5th Ward: Richardo Cuebas, Councilman Julio Tavarez and Luis Velez.

·         6th Ward: Councilman Andre Sayegh.

Under the current district map, the 1st Ward has the most registered voters at 12,970 and candidates there must get 130 signatures to be on the ballot. The 2nd Ward has 12,026 voters, requiring 120 signatures; the 3rd Ward has 12,634 voters, requiring 126 signatures; the 4th Ward has 10,919 voters, requiring 109 signatures; the 5th Ward has 9,507 voters, requiring 95 signatures and the 6th Ward has 10,938 voters, requiring 109 signatures.