Lavarro nets Jersey City Council Presidency

by Ricky Rillera

JERSEY CITY – Never mind below freezing temperature in the Northeast on a Monday afternoon.  For Fil-Ams in this town, the new year came with a loud bang and with a deep sense of pride that called for a big celebration.

With a vote of 7-2, their candidate, Rolando Lavarro, Jr., was elected to the office of Council President. This is Lavarro’s third consecutive, two-year term. He won against his fellow councilman-at-large Joyce Watterman, who earlier was thought to have secured enough votes for her to become the first black council president in the city’s history.

Although Lavarro was confident and hopeful to be reappointed, he said he was uncertain of the outcome of the votes. His supporters had the same feeling, but they said they were ready to accept the eventual result of the re-organization meeting held after the inauguration event on January 1. They were skeptical of who among the three “independents” – Rich Boggiano, James Solomon, and Michael Yun – would be voting for.

When Robert Byrne, the City Clerk, convened the meeting and called for a motion to appoint a council president, Solomon, unexpectedly, did the honors of nominating Lavarro, which was seconded by Yun. Their votes including that of Boggiano, newcomers Denise Ridley and Mira Prinz-Arey, and Jermaine Robinson sealed Lavarro’s re-appointment. Watterman and Daniel Rivera voted against the motion.

Both Boggiano and Yun who ran for their second term were contentious with the mayor, and first-term councilman Solomon was a critic of Fulop. Solomon represents Ward E, previously held by Fulop. Yun often disagreed with Lavarro.

“I was surprised myself,” said Lavarro. “I am humbled and appreciative that my colleagues have given me the opportunity to serve as Council President for two more years.”

Jennifer Watterman Moore, Watterman’s daughter, who was in a front-row seat in the chambers, was terribly upset following the vote. She screamed at the council officials and said that her mother should have been the president. She accused them of not keeping their word.

When asked how he pitched himself to gain the support of his colleagues, Lavarro told the Philippine Daily Mirror: “I worked hard in the campaign. I asked them what they needed, what are their priorities. I told them I would be fair and open-minded.”

“I made the case as to why I would be the best partner as Council President in advancing a shared agenda. I always addressed the merits of having me return as Council President and never disparaged or spoke ill of others. I was pretty honest and transparent, which I think ultimately won the day so to speak.”

Prior to the reorganization meeting, Mayor Steven Fulop was sworn-in for a second term. Newark Mayor Ras Baraka administered his oath of office at the City Hall Chambers which was filled with more than 400 guests including about 30 Fil-Ams in attendance. The nine members of the City Council were likewise sworn-in.

In his address, Fulop promised to continue the policies his administration has implemented since he was first elected four years ago. “We’ve certainly made our share of mistakes, but as we start the next four years together, I am a better individual, a better mayor, and we are a better city with an even brighter future as we start this new term,” he said.

“In a city full of diverse residents, with differing viewpoints and ever-changing needs, this result clearly proves that the vast majority of residents believe in our progress during the past four years, and are committed to working together to move Jersey City forward during the next four, too.”

He said he was beyond grateful to “have earned your confidence during my first term, and I promise that I will never let you down.”

Fil-Am community leader Lita Pena said that most of the guests were cheering for their Ward’s elected councilman. “At that moment, I was happy and a proud Filipino,” she said.

“There was excitement in the air. After the inauguration, I remained in the room and waited for who would be the next Council President.”

For his part, Victor G. Sison, former Jersey City judge, said that the atmosphere was joyful and festive and compared Lavarro’s inauguration with the first one. “The first one was more historic since Rolando was elected against all odds. The Fil-Ams of Jersey City (who) worked for his election then stood tall,” he said.

“This time the perception of his re-election was a given, and that he would surely win. Accordingly, his swearing-in by a Filipino Judge did not have the same impact, oompah, and enthusiasm among the Fil-Am spectators.”

Lavarro’s oath of office was administered by Chief Judge Carlo Abad, also a Fil-Am, with his daughter Gabby holding the Bible, and wife Veronica and his parents witnessing.

This second time around, Lavarro considered the experience different. As a top vote-getter – receiving more than 20,000 votes, he thinks “most politicos and voters would acknowledge that I worked hard, which I’m very proud of.”

While votes in the general election is not a determining factor in naming the Council President, Lavarro thinks that his work on the campaign to be in that position earned him respect from members of the Council who wanted to support him after “he strongly supported them in their elections.”

He also mentioned his track record as a factor. “I have worked hard as Council President over the past four-and-a-half years and have delivered results even if you don’t agree with the results themselves,” he said.

Lavarro acknowledged that there is always room for improvement, for developing shared goals and priorities. “I think the Council President vote reflects all of it – my work and support of Council during the election, my track record and the opportunity to accomplish some big things in the future,” he said.

He told the Philippine Daily Mirror why it was important for him to run again as Council President. “The Council Presidency is one vote on the Council so in that sense it is neither more or less important. Yet, there is the authority in holding the position. The role puts me in a place to negotiate the agenda that comes before the Council,” Lavarro said.

“It’s a leadership role and there is a real power, albeit limited, to advance shared priorities via legislation and the power of the purse (i.e. the budget). I ran to move those priorities forward, and I owe it to the voters to do everything possible to accomplish that.”

On improvements they want to see happen in this new administration, Pena, who resides in Ward B, hopes to see more of senior services and housing, and stability of property tax. Sison said he wants more recognition to be given by the administration to the talents of the “emerging tax-paying Fil-Ams of Jersey City.”

Lavarro’s rise to politics in Jersey City is considered a positive accomplishment of the Filipino American community. From when it was fractious in the past, Fil-Ams today are more involved and supportive and united in having their voice heard.

“The Fil-Ams have been galvanized into one voice since the election of Rolando Lavarro who was put forth by the Fil-Am community leaders of Jersey City as the political standard-bearer,” said Sison.

“His re-election as the President of the City Council showed his political savvy. We might have a rising future mayor. With him, the door is being opened for upcoming Filipino politicians following his trail.”

Pena added that the Filipino community has finally gained ground in politics because of Lavarro’s strong political interest and support of Fil-Ams. However, she said that “we still need participation in the election.”

She suggests having leadership programs developed for Fil-Am young professionals who show potential and interest in politics to get more traction in public service just as Lavarro did.

The Council will begin doing the business of the people of Jersey City on January 10.

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