JERSEY CITY (NJ) — After waiting and pursuing a dream for more than three decades to have an elected Filipino American in the City Council of Jersey City, this finally turned into reality on Tuesday night. This event will be etched in history as a moment in time when Filipinos and Filipino Americans overcame barriers to succeed in mainstream politics in this town.
Rolando Lavarro, Jr., 41, who embarked on his first journey into politics in 2009 and nearly made it then, clinched the second spot of the two At-Large seats up for grabs. Seventeen candidates ran to fill these posts.
With 95 percent of votes in, Lavarro garnered 3,359 votes while his running mate, retired Jersey City policewoman and incumbent Ward F councilwoman Viola Richardson, 66, finished first place with 3,881 votes.
Immediately after unofficial results were known, amid chants of “Rolando, Rolando, Rolando!”, Lavarro acknowledged the hard work and dedication of those who worked wholeheartedly in the campaign and thanked his supporters.
“The people of Jersey City continue to inspire me. And as I’ve always said, this is not about me, it is about those who continue to have hope that we could be a better community, that this city could be better a place to live in, that this city could be more prosperous,” he said. “There are countless — many nameless — who I would like to thank. Thank you for believing. I will continue to work for you and with you.”
The special election was called to replace two interim At-Large council members who were appointed by Mayor Jerramiah Healy; namely, Kalimah Ahmad and Radames Ray Velasquez, Jr. The two landed fourth and fifth places, respectively, behind Board of Education member Suzanne Mack, who earlier in the campaign was highly favored by voters in a survey.
Ahmad and Valasquez were appointed after Councilman Mariano Vega resigned in September 2010 amidst corruption charges, and Willie Flood who stepped down in February due to health reasons.
The pairing of Richardson and Lavarro was considered a good political strategy and tactical edge by many of their supporters. Their names, which were bulleted in column C of the ballot — 11C and 12C — proved advantageous. In Ward A alone, considered a Filipino stronghold, Lavarro topped the Ward and Richardson came away with 50 percent of Lavarro’s Ward total.
By tradition, 20 to 25 percent of registered voters go the polls. However, since this was a non-presidential voting year, the expectation was less; a candidate who garners 3,000 votes is expected to have a good chance of succeeding. According to the Hudson County Clerk’s office unofficial results, a total of 28,288 votes were cast for At-Large candidates.
Early in the night, while Jamie Rudolph busied himself handling and recording some checks and contributions, he shared anecdotes of Jersey City politics as well as serious issues affecting the city. A Lavarro campaign volunteer since 2009, Rudolph said that Lavarro was campaigning for the same concerns which he [Lavarro] raised then such as rising crime, rising taxes, quality education and quality of life in the neighborhoods.
Lavarro’s wife, Veronica, Lenore Fair, Elizabeth Trinidad, Mila Mendez, Andre Richardson and two others manned phone banks. Each one held sheets of paper with a list of people to call before the polls closed.
It was a sight to see people hard at work, united in heart and mind to have Lavarro elected. “We just need to reach a little over 3,000 votes, and we’ll have a good chance…,” said Veronica, cutting herself off in mid-sentence as she answered a telephone call.
Veronica had been working tirelessly with her husband on logistics and strategies since the campaign began. As the election came closer, she worked doubly hard — sometimes with a lack of sleep — with the help of about 50 campaign volunteers a day that came by.
Shortly after 8 P.M., Lavarro’s supporters who were out in the field pounding the streets and working on their assigned precincts, arrived at the campaign headquarters on Kennedy Boulevard, gradually cramming two small rooms and the hallway. They carried with them brown envelopes which contained a report of poll results from their precincts.
“We’re making history here,” said Phil Peredo, who was born in Jersey City and a one-time Democratic candidate to the New Jersey Assembly, as he entered the room. “Tonight is the night.”
Then others came trickling in with faces beaming with a sense of accomplishment, each one reporting their experiences in the precincts they’ve been assigned to.
Bong Pineda, who was also active in Lavarro’s campaign in 2009, was confident Lavarro would make it this time. “I just have this strange but strong feeling, this is it,” he said. “I manned the telephones yesterday [Monday] and the responses I was getting were positive.”
As voting results were being recorded and tallied on a paper posted on the wall, there were cheers and jubilation when Lavarro’s votes were high. Lavarro took Ward A by a storm as he topped the votes from most of the precincts. But the night was still early; Lavarro was on third place trailing Mack with some 50 votes.
Meanwhile, Edwin Solano, another community leader who was once an Over-all Chair of the Philippine-American Friendship Committee (Pafcom), said that in one precinct he was in, Filipinos were being required to present their ID’s. “I asked that person if he was asking the same requirement from everyone that comes to vote. He replied vaguely but he didn’t ask again those that came in later. If I hadn’t asked he would have kept doing it.”
As the night wore on, by 9:30, with 83 percent of votes in, Lavarro’s position improved to second place, ahead by some 100 votes over Mack, his closest competitor. He held on to his lead, doubling it to 206 with 89 percent of votes in.
When asked to comment on Lavarro’s projected win, Ludy Corrales, a community leader who was one of the mainstays in Lavarro’s campaign said that for three straight week-ends, they went to churches, knocked on doors, distributed campaign materials, organized fund-raising events and whatever it was to keep the faith in Lavarro growing.
“It was pure hard work. We learned from our experience in the past and this time around, we were not relenting,” she said. “It was tiring but it was worth it after all.”
By 10:20 P.M., with 12 precincts remaining and with 93 percent of votes in, Lavarro led by over 300 votes. As soon as Lavarro and wife Veronica came out of the room, they were swarmed with people extending their hands to congratulate them. In turn, Lavarro thanked the volunteers, supporters and friends who were there to witness a historic night. While some were sending text messages on their cellular phones, others were calling friends to share the good news.
The celebration began.