PATERSON, NJ – Just as Paterson City Council candidates were gearing up for the final stretch of campaigning in advance of the May 12 election, they were stopped in their tracks by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

With New Jersey essentially shut down in an effort to curb the spread of the virus, candidates have been forced to rethink how to reach voters – safely. 

Instead of the more traditional strategies, like ringing doorbells, shaking hands and hosting meet-and-greets, council seat seekers have taken their campaigns digital, relying largely on social media to connect with residents in their respective wards. 

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But, with New Jersey in the thick of a crisis that has claimed nearly 6,500 lives and left tens of thousands unemployed across the state, local candidates seem to be more focused on giving the public up-to-date information on COVID-19-related resources, support, programs and safety reminders.

Paterson, a city hit hard by the pandemic, has lost 141 residents and at least 4,491 confirmed cases.

Alex Mendez, who is seeking election in the Third Ward, recently posted: “This pandemic has left us in a time of hardship and struggle. It has put many of us in hard positions, trying to secure resources while ensuring the welfare and safety of our families.” 

“After years of hard work within the community, I refuse to let the community falter, even in a time like this,” wrote Mendez, who has been handing out masks and gloves to help keep residents safe. 

Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman, a second ward candidate, used social media to announce that he had distributed thousands of masks, hand sanitizers, boxes of gloves, boxes of sanitizing wipes and bottles of hand soaps. “Although it was not much, I hope I was able to ease some of the tension that this virus has put upon our beloved 2nd Ward residents,” he wrote.

Shahin Khalique, the incumbent Second Ward councilman, has been regularly sharing updates on resources for unemployment assistance, SNAP benefits and other safety reminders. “The work we do in Paterson has never been about serving the special interest. It has always been about doing the most good for the public. Over the last four years, we have positioned the 2nd Ward towards progress.”

“Now, more than ever, we need your help to build the community we deserve,” Khalique said, urging voters to support him. 

In mid-March, Gov. Phil Murphy implemented numerous restrictions in the name of safety, including closures of non-essential businesses and schools, telling residents to stay at home and urging social distancing in public.

As part of statewide efforts to slow the spread of the virus, Murphy ordered all elections scheduled for May 12 to be conducted solely through vote-by-mail ballots. He also postponed 14 special and school board elections scheduled for various dates this spring until May. Following the governor’s announcement, some of the 18 candidates seeking city council seats expressed support for the change. But others said they have concerns, given Paterson’s history with voters casting ballots by mail. 

In 2014, former councilman Rigo Rodriguez and his wife were entered into a pre-trial intervention program after facing charges of election fraud, mail-in ballot fraud, conspiracy and witness tampering, according to reports. Rodriguez and his wife, who managed his 2010 election campaign, reportedly created a plan to take possession of absentee ballots and assist voters with filling them out or fill them out fraudulently.

During a 2016 special election, authorities investigated fraud, particularly with mail-in ballots, after then-Councilman Mohammed Akhtaruzzaman lost his seat to incumbent Shahin Khalique and sued, alleging voter fraud. 

With the ballots due in mailboxes by Friday, city council candidates have been reminding residents to keep an eye on their ballot and to remember to vote.

Besides urging participation in the election, some candidates, such as Justin Rucker, Frank Filippelli and William “Bill” McKoy, are posting information on the proper procedures to vote by mail.

McKoy, the incumbent Third Ward councilman, recently wrote, “Avoid being coerced by others or being paid for your vote. There are penalties for those who are caught. Complete YOUR OWN BALLOT.” 

“If you haven’t received your ballot by May 1st, please reach out to the Passaic County Clerk’s Office,” McKoy wrote. “Since mail is running slow, please fill out your vote-by-mail ballot and return right away.”

According to the Passaic County Clerk’s Office, registered voters will automatically receive a vote-by-mail ballot. Instructions, along with a postage paid envelope to return ballots, will also be included.

All ballots must be postmarked by May 12 and received by the Passaic County Board of Elections within 48 hours. Anyone who has not received a ballot by May 1 should contact the Passaic County Clerk’s Office at 973-881-4127.

Responding to TAPinto Paterson questions as to whether or not the mail carriers were prepared to handle the influx of ballots, George B. Flood, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service said that they are “are flexing our available resources to match the workload in Paterson and the surrounding communities.”

“The U.S. Mail serves as a secure, efficient and effective means for citizens and campaigns to participate in the electoral process, and the Postal Service is committed to delivering Election Mail in a timely manner,” Flood assured. “ We employ a robust and proven process to ensure proper handling of all Election Mail, including ballots. This includes close coordination and partnerships with election officials at the local, county, and state levels.” 

Sharrief Bugg, also seeking the Third Ward 3rd seat, told TAPinto Paterson, that the all mail in ballot election "has its advantages and disadvantages."

"Unfortunately, it has limited my campaign to utilize the traditional method of campaigning door to door or pulling the lever to vote as a first-time candidate. I don't believe it altered per se, but adjusted/taught me other options in running a campaign,” Bugg said. “In fact, this entire COVID19 experience has done the same. This particular strategy has made me become more personal, accessible, and open to effective ways of communicating with the community. It has also helped me be more aware and observant of the community's needs and concerns. I pray that everyone stays safe and considers my love for the community when casting their vote by mail."

Molesh Uddin, who is running to represent the First Ward, said the pandemic – and vote-by-mail election – has likely altered every candidate’s strategy. While Uddin has been using social media as his platform to reach voters, he said he misses a few aspects of traditional campaigning, such as going door-to-door.

“Me, personally, I like to interact with people. I don’t shy away from meeting residents and I enjoy each conversation,” he said.  Online, he said, “you can’t feel the warmth between the greetings, see the smile behind every door, or the appreciation they have for taking your time to speak to your neighbors.”

“The only impact in the final stretch is how you impacted residents during our most difficult times,” he said. “That’s where true leadership excels.”

Robyn Spencer, also a Third Ward candidate, told TAPInto Paterson campaigning amid the outbreak is a challenge because it’s hard to convey her platform via social media. A vote-by-mail election, she said, “is yet another component of opposition to this particular election, but it’s really just the icing on the cake,” Spencer said.

“Many have complained about the city, but out of habit, do what is comfortable. It is time to make a ripple, like a new sheet that is crisp and fresh; work on changing the culture by implementing more attraction to Paterson as well as encouraging the school district to implement community service and ethics into the curriculum; as that will at least plant seeds of change for our future in the city. Furthermore, Paterson is divided, and it is time to change the game by bridging the gap between the cultures; that is the only way Paterson will respect Paterson.”

Fifth Ward Councilman Luis Velez believes that his record speaks for itself, and is hopeful voters will cast their ballots for him no matter the method prescribed. "In my case, I have done my job since I got elected three years and 10 months ago, so people of the 5th ward know who I am - a 24/7 councilman and a boots-on-the-ground councilman. My ward has improved since I got elected. I urge voters to vote their conscience and send their VBM ASAP before May 12, and, of course, keep me in office to continue moving the 5th ward forward." 

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