JERSEY CITY (June 12) — After succeeding in the May 12 elections and managing to force his 66-year-old opponent to a run-off, Rolando Lavarro Jr.’s journey to become the first elected Filipino American in Jersey City was cut short Tuesday evening, June 9, shortly after polling places closed.
The mood of an enthusiastic crowd that crammed Lavarro’s campaign headquarters on Cator Avenue turned to a restrained emotion on election night while votes were being canvassed. As poll results were reported and posted on a tally-sheet by the wall, reality hit home. At a count of 1,736 votes for Michael Sottolano against Lavarro’s 1,306, supporters became visibly disappointed and heart-broken.
With the lead of Sottolano widening to 400 votes even while District 31 votes remained unreported, the inevitable dreaded moment came.
Together with his wife Veronica, his tireless campaign manager, Lavarro got on a make-shift elevated platform, and readied himself to speak to his supporters. Amid chants from the crowd of his name, Lavarro quieted them down and began his “concession” speech.
“You’ve given so much, not just time,” he spoke softly with his voice cracking, while his misty-eyed wife directed her eyes to a sea of people surrounding them – fighting her own emotions to show.
“You also showed your hearts. I know a whole community came forward to this effort. I know in my heart the message was resonating out there…people are still feeling desperately in their hearts that there’s a need for change in Jersey City,” Lavarro said.
“Tonight the results are clear and while there are still provisional, absentee ballots and things like that to count, Mike Sottolano will now be our Councilman for Ward A for the next four years.”
The crowd reacted with a chuckle but Lavarro pressed on. “I want you to know I am not looking to antagonize our Councilman over the next four years but the message that we brought [out] will continue and resonate.”
He said the message will always be about building the community, building relationships and renewing a sense of community so that the citizens of Jersey City can truly resolve the challenges of their community – from rising crime, rising taxes, to quality of education and quality of life in their neighbourhood.
“We will continue that message and we ask you all to stay engage in that fight, in that struggle because I know so many of you — Jersey City is your own — it has been our home, my home for all my life and will continue to be my home.”
He also said that although the election may have not turned out the way they wanted the results to be, it was still a time to celebrate.
“The sense of community we spoke about is right here in this room. I want you all to celebrate this victory for all of us – this is a true victory. We ran up against a [political] machine with four million dollars and all the city workers working against us. We didn’t have all these resources, yet we shook them up…we ran an excellent campaign,” he said, as if reminding his supporters that his journey was not over yet.
Henry Racelis commended Lavarro’s determination to win. “He really got the community involved. Just look around in this room – you see not just one ethnic group in here; each ethnic group is represented and that’s what Jersey City is all about. How do you harness that…no other Filipino American candidate has done that before.”
Linda Arellano of the Filipino American Political Action Coalition of New Jersey and a community leader from Passaic County credited the organizational skills of Lavarro’s wife who she said worked hard and got the campaign together up to the very end.
“Now Jersey City sees Rolando Lavarro as a very viable candidate, a very viable person and I’m sure he’ll be back,” she said.
Linda Mayo shared the same views as Arellano’s but lamented the lack of financial resources that Lavarro’s campaign had, adding that the incumbent had a lot of advantages foremost among which were money and the city workers. “It’s really tough to beat the odds that we had; however, with this run-off election, I believe we were able to show that Filipinos can be united to pull together a great campaign. I told Rolando — this is not the end, this is just the beginning of Filipinos having a political clout.”
Sean Connelly, one of the early volunteers of Lavarro’s campaign, said “we had a great fight and we will fight again.” On the other hand, Darryl Laval, who also has been with Lavarro’s campaign from the very start said:
“It is a sad day for Jersey City residents of Ward A. Rolando is a genuine candidate who cares about the community. You saw that when he was campaigning, he connected with the voters more so than his opponent. And it is sad that when you have an opponent that is supported by the organization but cannot come out and defend the record and still win…it is sad. It is not about his record it is about his being supported by the political machine. Rolando is a trooper…he has true grit. If he runs again, I will stand by him again because he is a genuine person.”
Andre Richardson who placed third among five candidates that ran in Ward A said Lavarro had a great, solid organization and passionate supporters. “He gave it his all but he just fell a little short. He has a bright future ahead of him; he’s a great guy.”
Lavarro’s campaign had previously sought Richardson’s backing. But reports say he joined Councilman Peter Brennan including Tom DeGise to knock on doors for Sottolano.
When asked if he was going to run again for public office after four years, he said he was “running again without a doubt” but declined to say whether he’ll run as an independent candidate. “That’s four years of thinking, man, and it’s a lot of time,” he added.
Bill O’Dea, a former Jersey City Councilman who served for two consecutive terms, in 1985 and 1989, and currently a Hudson County Freeholder, was asked what he thought about this election for the Filipino American community.
He said: “Filipino Americans demonstrate that they are a growing political force in the city, which I believe they have been in a number of years. I think they’ll continue to grow and we’ll see more Filipinos running for office and soon, we’ll see them being elected into office.”
For Filipinos to get elected into office, O’Dea suggests “they need to reach out to other ethnic communities – Hispanic, African Americans in a much more cohesive way. I saw in some of Rolando’s ads attempt to do that and they’ll just have to continue to do that.”
O’Dea also said Lavarro’s performance in the election is not a total loss. “It is a defeat but his numbers [votes] were very impressive and there’s a lot to build from there. It’s now a matter of staying active and getting involved.”
The former Councilman also commented that “the guy who ran with him for mayor disappeared in the run-off. If you run with the team, you have an obligation to fight for whoever is left in your team. I didn’t see him taking any ads, I didn’t see him campaigning at all.”
For many Filipinos, they consider Lavarro’s journey to politics as a rallying call for them to get involved and to start the planning process for another run in the next four years. For them, it is like believing in an old Chinese adage, which says: “A journey to a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
And for Lavarro, he considers his journey and that of the Filipinos, as that first step.