JERSEY CITY – Two years after narrowly losing a ward seat on the City Council, Rolando Lavarro won a decisive victory Tuesday night over two incumbents in the special election for two at-large seats and becomes the first Filipino American to be elected to the council.
Current Ward F City Councilwoman Viola Richardson was the night’s other big winner. With 173 precincts reporting, Richardson received 3,881 votes to win the other at-large council seat.
Lavarro received 3,359 votes, with 173 precincts reporting.
Richardson and Lavarro, who ran bracketed together on the Nov. 8 ballot, were among 17 candidates who ran for two at-large Jersey City Council seats currently held by incumbents Radames “Ray” Velazquez and Kalimah Ahmad.
While Ahmad ultimately received ,2910 votes, and Velazquez received 2,687 votes, with 173 precincts reporting, the handwriting for the pair was on the wall shortly after the polls closed. Richardson and third place candidate Suzanne “Sue” Mack took early leads and looked as if they would be the victors.
As results came in, Velazquez and Ahmad supporters who had gathered at Puccini’s restaurant speculated that Richardson’s lead would evaporate as counts came in from the Journal Square and Jersey Heights neighborhoods and their candidates would pull ahead.
As more results came in, however, Richardson increased her lead and Lavarro pulled ahead of Mack, who garnered 3,049 votes, with 173 precincts reporting.
Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah Healy was not on the ballot, but many political observers saw the at-large race as a referendum on his administration and the city council majority, which is allied with him. Velazquez and Ahmad were appointed to the council by Healy to temporarily replace two council members who resigned and received the mayor’s backing ahead of the election. Many observers are likely to view their loss as a vote against the Healy administration.
“I can’t worry about that,” the mayor said Tuesday night after the election results were in. “My opponents have been beating that drum a long time. Those who have been singing that song will be trumpeting these results as ‘the change that we needed.’ We’re a little disappointed that the people we endorsed didn’t make it tonight. But I’m not disappointed with their effort. I have nothing but gratitude for what Kalimah did and what Ray did as City Council members over the last year.”
Healy credited Ahmad and Velazquez with working with the council to prevent layoffs in the police department and saving millions in taxpayer dollars for retiree health benefits.
The mayor vowed to work with Lavarro and Richardson, who has for years represented Ward F on the City Council, and who will now serve as an at-large council member. Once Richardson vacates her Ward F seat, Healy will appoint a temporary replacement.
Noting that she enjoyed her nine months on the City Council, Ahmad said Tuesday night, “No matter who is on the council, what’s most important is that they work together for the city.”
She said she does not plan to run for office again in the near future.
Across town, at Mojo’s Lounge on West Side Avenue, Lavarro got his first taste of being a councilman as residents complained to him about the city’s dirty streets and other problems.
He said he was ready to get to work.
“I intend to keep my promises and work for the things I campaigned for,” said Lavarro. “I want to work for an on-time, transparent budget. I want to make sure we prioritize the needs of the people of Jersey City. I’d like to see a performance audit done so we can assess what’s working and what isn’t. So, I’m going to advocate for that. I also campaigned on public safety and talked about the need to engage our communities with law enforcement to address crime in our neighborhoods. So, those will be my top priorities, in addition to increasing recreation opportunities for our young people.”
In other notable results from Tuesday’s election, Mack’s running mate, Omar Perez, received 1,507 votes, while former mayoral candidate and downtown favorite Dan Levin garnered 2,024 votes. With 173 precincts reporting, 2,429 votes were cast for Richard Boggiano. – E. Assata Wright