PATERSON, NJ – Six months ago, the stunning outcome in Paterson’s 2nd Ward election heralded the political emergence of the city’s Bengali community. Political pundits saw Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman’s success in beating candidates with more governmental experience and wider name recognition as an expression of a unified Bengali bloc.
But in this Tuesday’s do-over special election there will be three Bengali candidates vying in the field of five that includes Akhtaruzzaman, former councilman Aslon Goow, Maidal Islam, Sonia Torres and Zalal Uddin.
[Editor's note: This story now includes input from Sonia Torres.]
The election could hinge on whether the Bengali community galvanizes behind one of those three, or if its votes get split among various candidates. Akhtaruzzaman says he is confident that he remains the candidate of choice for his countrymen. But one of his Bengali competitors, Uddin, said the political dynamic within the community changed after Akhtaruzzaman was ousted from office in September when a judge ruled his voter registration had been invalid in the previous election.
“He has a handful of community leaders and they’re trying to tell the people how to vote,’’ said Uddin of Akhtaruzzaman. “The people aren’t buying that. They don’t want a puppet in there.’’
“He can say what he wants to say,’’ Akhtaruzzaman responded, when asked about Uddin’s comments. “We’ll find out the truth on Tuesday.’’
Meanwhile, the third Bengali in the race, Islam, says the election should not hinge on the candidates’ heritage. “I’m not Bengali, I’m Bengali-American,’’ Islam said. “I’m running in the 2nd Ward and the 2nd Ward is the most diverse ward in the City of Paterson. I’m running for everybody.’’
Akhtaruzzaman finished with more than 1,100 votes in May, about 500 more than Goow and 600 more than Torres, who finished third.
"It's sad that after Mohammed was taken out of office for whatever reason that it's a dividing a community,'' said Torres. "We should be bringing the community together, not dividing it.''
When asked for was responsible for the division, Torres responded, "It's not really for me to say. I just know that the community is being divided and now we have two more people running who didn't run before. I don't know what their reasons are.''
Some Bengali community members have said that new candidates emerged because people became disillusioned with Akhtaruzzaman after the trial over his residency exposed numberous flaws in his public records, such as the fact that he applied for emergency relief using a Totowa address and that his daughter continued attending Totowa schools for more than six months after his family reportedly moved into Paterson.
Goow said there had been a surge in voter registration among the ward’s Bengali community for the last election. He said the number jumped from about 900 to 1,300.
Some political insiders have suggested that the two new Bengali candidates were encouraged to run by Goow as a way of dividing Akhtaruzzaman’s base of support. But that hardly seems true considering the video ad produced by Islam’s campaign attacking Goow.
“It’s really a four-way split, because I get support in that community as well,’’ Goow said. The man who had represented the 2nd Ward for 12 years said May’s result reflected his own loss of “momentum” in that race, which he said stemmed from overconfidence by some of his supporters and his own difficulties after his mother’s death earlier in the year.
“This time, I’m staying focused, I’m committed,’’ Goow said. “It’s been full speed ahead.’’
Anyone looking for evidence of the difference in Goow’s campaign effort need only look at the election finance reports. For the May contest, Goow reported $7,600 in contributions. He already has surpassed that figure by more than double, having raised more than $16,500.
In the spring, the campaign finance reports provided early evidence of Akhtaruzzaman’s strength. He had raised more money than any of the other 20 candidates in the city’s seven races, with almost $35,000.
Akhtaruzzaman has not yet filed his campaign finance reports for Tuesday’s race, according to the website of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission (ELEC). But one thing seems likely. The cost of legal fees for his unsuccessful defense in the Goow lawsuit that resulted in his ouster may have eroded Akhtaruzzaman’s political fund-raising strength. At least some of those legal fees were paid through personal contributions from his supporters.
Besides Goow, Islam is the only other candidate who has reported campaign contributions in the 2nd Ward race, according to ELEC website. Islam’s initial report showed he has $9,500. All of that money came from his own pocket, the report said. Moreover, Islam, who is a Passaic County sheriff’s officer, said his brothers had shut down their businesses in New Jersey and the Baltimore area to help work his campaign.