Two Dominicans Compete For Paterson City Council Seat

Charismatic civil servant Wendy Guzmán will face activist Luis Vélez in Paterson’s 5th Ward. (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

Charismatic civil servant Wendy Guzmán will face activist Luis Vélez in Paterson’s 5th Ward. (Photo via Reporte Hispano)

In Paterson’s 5th Ward, you can breathe, wear and dance Dominican flavor at all hours of the day. The neighborhood is also ground zero for the entrenched war candidates Luis Vélez and Wendy Guzmán are waging for the ward’s City Council seat.

“He does not work,” say Vélez’s critics.

“She works for the municipality. How could she confront her bosses?” say those who oppose Guzmán. The battle has gotten intense.

The candidates are vying for the seat that Council member Julio Tavárez will vacate. The elected official was reelected in 2012 with 950 votes out of 1,565 registered voters.

The neighborhood has a population of more than 20,000, with a Dominican majority. Still, it is a diverse community that includes Puerto Rican, Peruvian, Mexican and Middle Eastern residents.

The 5th Ward suffers from countless issues, including open prostitution, gangs, robberies, shootings, dirty streets, neglected sidewalks and abandoned houses.

Wendy Guzmán jumps off her seat when I point out that her rivals say that she has no political experience.

“What do they mean I have little experience? I have been elected to the school board twice and served for seven full years! All the problems my neighborhood and all Paterson go through are reflected there,” said Guzmán.

The candidate added that only 40 percent of all students graduated when she first joined the board and that the number had increased to 81 percent by the end of her second term. “It wasn’t just me; we were a nine-person board. We all collaborated. I think that the Paterson municipality should operate in the same manner.”

Guzmán said that getting the community involved in public safety measures and increasing street vigilance can help reduce crime and attract new investors to the city.

“It is a matter of visibility. If gang members see the police on the streets, they will think twice before committing a crime and, eventually, they will leave,” said Guzmán.

The candidate added that one of the reasons so few customers visit the Center City Mall ‒ built at a cost of $300 million ‒ is the bad reputation surrounding Paterson.

“The [city’s] reputation and the high property taxes scare people away. Buyers are afraid to come to Paterson and investors run away from our taxes and the city’s bad name,” said the candidate. “We cannot make taxes any higher. We must establish a system in which each owner pays the appropriate amount.”

For his part, Luis Vélez ‒ who obtained 612 votes against Tavárez in the last election ‒ is proposing to impose tougher penalties on people who solicit the services of prostitutes in order to end this practice. The measures would include taking away the “john’s” cars ‒ which is not being done at the moment ‒ sentencing them with more tougher community work and publicly exposing their identity.

“In reality, this is a mental ‒ as well as a social ‒ problem. Why do they resort to prostitutes? I also propose creating a program to help these people repair their mental health,” said Vélez.

Another topic that he deems important is noise. “We need to enforce the ordinances forbidding noise. I want a quiet neighborhood. There are many noise complaints, and we need to get tough on that,” said the candidate.

Vélez congratulated young entrepreneurs who have opened new businesses in the area, and said that he wants to encourage them to grow by lowering their taxes through a revision of the Urban Enterprise Zone, where sales tax is a mere 3.5 percent, half of what is paid elsewhere in the state.

Finally, Vélez is advocating legalizing the rental of basements and attics that comply with safety codes. “I have been studying this topic for the last four years, and I believe that we can do it legally by choosing the part of the building that meets the requirements.” This would be a relief for many homeowners.

All differences aside, both candidates are encouraging neighbors to help clean their streets and calling for more unity between the City Council and the municipality to help Paterson move forward. The election will be held on May 10.

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