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Candidates focus on Latino voters
Tuesday, October 31, 2006


On the night of the League of Women Voters' forum for 8th District congressional candidates, Republican Jose Sandoval was miles away from his opponents.

While five-term incumbent Bill Pascrell Jr., D-Paterson, and Libertarian challenger Louis Jasikoff appeared before registered voters at the Wayne municipal building, Sandoval was with 50 of his supporters in Passaic.

There were very few English speakers among those gathered who sat quietly in chairs arranged neatly on a dance floor beneath an idle mirrored ball at the Polish-American Cultural Center's basement nightclub. The gentlemanly 53-year-old Sandoval, who is Dominican and Puerto Rican, spoke to them softly in Spanish.

After Sandoval finished, many called him "El Puente," a bridge for their community to Congress.

It was a moniker that Pascrell took issue with days later.

"I'm the bridge," asserted Pascrell on Sunday morning, before he addressed nearly 300 Hispanic people at a Mujeres Latinas de Accion de New Jersey event at a Haledon catering hall.

"I treat everybody the same. The Dominicans know my door has always been open," Pascrell said.

The 8th District, which encompasses 21 towns in Passaic and Essex counties, has the major-party candidates jockeying for Latino support as if they were the only registered voters.

Pascrell has the political advantages of incumbency, nearly $1.2 millionin campaign finances, being a lifelong Paterson resident, and a long history as an elected official – which may be why Sandoval has taken his campaign to where Pascrell literally doesn't translate.

Rather than participating in recent candidate forums held by the AARP, Sandoval has opted to hold breakfast meetings with senior citizens at places such as the Mi Casa Es Su Casa adult day care center in Paterson.

Instead of appearing at a GOP fundraiser in Hawthorne with Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr., Sandoval worked to register 5,000 new voters in Latino communities.

It's an interesting approach for a candidate who unsuccessfully challenged state Assemblyman Gary Schaer, D-Passaic, last year.

But ask Sandoval why he decided to challenge Pascrell this year, and his face illuminates with a broad smile.

"I'm just an immigrant that came to this country with 13 dollars in my pocket," said Sandoval, who runs his a small real estate developing business. "I want to give something back to this country."

Cites need for housing

As he campaigns, Sandoval speaks more about dwindling Head Start programs, increasing high school dropout rates among Hispanics, and the need to develop affordable housing than about national issues.

The Passaic resident is married to an attorney and is the father of fourchildren.

The youngest are 3-year-old twins named after his two favorite presidents: a son, Lincoln, and a daughter, Reagan.

Sandoval only divulges such biographical details when asked.

"It's fair to say that it's an ethnic-based campaign," said Rafael Bejar, the Republican National Committee's Hispanic Coalition director who joined the Sandoval campaign on Oct. 1.

"The party and the Hispanic community share common values," he said.

Whether Sandoval's campaign style – and his self-funded $189,000 war chest – will reap the votes he needs for an election upset remains to be seen. Pascrell, however, isn't taking his sixth challenger for granted.

On Sunday, Pascrell used the Mujeres Latinas de Accion event to affirm his ties with Latino voters.

"I worked in the community, played in the community, cried with the community long before I ran for office," said Pascrell, who did not speak Spanish. "You must remember who has been supporting immigrants in the 20th century.

"You must remember which party has been fighting for Social Security and an increase in the minimum wage," he added.

Concerned about change

During this election cycle, Pascrell has been just as concerned about Democrats gaining majorities in the House and Senate, as he has been about winning re-election.

That has made the congressman and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-Hoboken, virtual running mates this year.

When Alicia Menendez, the senator's daughter, spoke to the Mujeres Latinas on Sunday she flexed the Democrats' ethnic appeal by promoting her father's bid to be New Jersey's first elected Latino senator.

"It will be our victory as a community," she said. "We have an opportunity to make history."

Sandoval would also make a bit of history if he unseated Pascrell, whose margins of victory have grown with each re-election.

And there is much devotion to Pascrell in the Latino community for Sandoval to overcome.

"He has opened his door to the Latino community, and we want to be loyal to him," said Miguel Diaz, a Dominican political leader.

Elsa Mantilla, president of Mujeres Latina de Accion, said that she was "with Pascrell 100 percent."

"He has been with us for more than 20 years," she said.

Sandoval has also lacked a cohesive local Republican Party to support his congressional bid.

When Michael Mecca was still Passaic County Republican chairman, he didn't give Sandoval the party's endorsement for the GOP primary in June.

"When you get a guy who is basically unknown, you don't want to wake a sleeping giant like Bill Pascrell," Mecca said. "All Bill is going to do is get the vote out and that's going to hurt your freeholder candidates."

Assemblyman Kevin J. O'Toole, R-Wayne, who is also Essex County Republican chairman, said Sandoval got his committee's nomination after their original candidate bowed out in April due to illness.

Wayne Mayor Scott Rumana, who was elected Passaic County GOP chairman in June, said the county committee was not in a position to monetarily help Sandoval's congressional campaign.

"We've got our own job to do with the freeholders," Rumana said. "From January to August we had no ability to do anything because we weren't in power. The late start certainly has not aided us."

Meanwhile, Sandoval's person to person campaign has garnered the support of people such as Felicia Martinez of Passaic, who was struck by the Republican challenger's "leadership and great reputation" when he spoke at the Polish-American Cultural Center.

Also among the candidate's strengths was his ability to speak to Hispanics in their own language.

"Spanish-speaking people don't have the guidance," Martinez said. "You have to be able to talk to someone that you can understand."

Reach Paul Brubaker at 973-569-7155 or

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