In One New Jersey Town, Latinos Dominate Council, Bucking National Trend

Jimenez. Acosta. Penabad. Suarez.

They are the four Hispanics who are mayor and council members of a New Jersey town where whites make up the single largest group, followed by Korean-Americans.

With Latinos making up no more than 21 percent of Ridgefield’s 11,200 residents, but accounting for more than half of the council’s seven elected officials, this town is bucking a historical national trend of Latino underrepresentation at all levels of government.

The three Latino council members, all children of Cuban immigrants, say that their ethnicity was never a factor in the way they framed their campaigns, and that they ran simply as members of the community whose message resonated with voters.

“We didn’t go to everyone and say ‘We’re Hispanic’ or ‘We’re Cuban, vote for us,’” said council member Hugo Jimenez, 50, who was elected in 2010 and is seeking re-election in November. “We tried to put out a positive message, show our ideas for making the town better.”

We didn’t go to everyone and say ‘We’re Hispanic’ or ‘We’re Cuban, vote for us.' We tried to put out a positive message, show our ideas for making the town better.

— Hugo Jimenez, council member

The key to their success, which involved defeating Republican incumbents who are seeking to get their seats back in November, was to be ubiquitous in town, they say. All three long have been involved in community organizations that cover everything from recreational youth sports to public safety and civic activities.

“People in town know us,” said council member Javier Acosta, who has lived in Ridgefield for some 20 years and volunteers with the borough Fire Department. “We all have kids who have grown up here, we’ve been involved in everything because of our kids.”

His kids are now adults, but Acosta said he continued to be deeply involved in Ridgefield – a 2.8-square-mile town that is less than a half-hour drive from Manhattan – because he felt it was his obligation to contribute and, where he could, make improvements.

“I do it because I care about this town, it’s my community,” said Acosta, who is 51.

The strong Hispanic presence on the council has happened at a time when, in a nation of 53 million Latinos, only slightly more than 6,000 serve in elected offices at all levels of government.

Rosalind Gold of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) said the Latino political milestone in Ridgefield, where elections are at-large, is a standout.

“This really is a situation where Latino elected officials have been able to win votes from non-Latinos and these constituents show that they support and want to be represented by a Latino,” she said.

Nationwide, however, “there is still widespread under-representation of Latinos at local levels,” Gold said.

“Latinos are still trying to make progress in being able to achieve full participation and representation on elected bodies. Elected officials don’t fully reflect the influence and voice of Latinos.”

What's more, the proportion of Hispanics on the Ridgefield Borough Council is particularly remarkable given the borough’s history.

Ridgefield was a town steeped in its ways, and nowhere was that more true than in its politics.

The working-class town of European immigrants -- many from Ireland and Germany -- and their descendants was so iron-clad Republican, and so adverse to change, that elections were practically scripted for more than a century.

It was not until 1970, in fact, that the borough of Ridgefield did something extremely adventurous, politically – it put its first Democrat on the council.

“Ridgefield was very WASPish,” said Stephen Pellino, the chairman of the Ridgefield Democratic Party. “Democrats almost didn’t exist. When I was a kid there were no blacks in town, and I can’t remember Hispanics, either.”

“They couldn’t get Democrats to run for office,” said Pellino. “They were afraid to, they were shunned in town.”

He recalled how his father, a Democrat, felt scorned in town.

“He said he felt that he was looked at funny because he was Italian,” he said.

Now, Democrats are five of the six members on the council. The mayor, Anthony Suarez, is also a Democrat. (Suarez got caught in a 2009 federal corruption dragnet that was the largest such bust in New Jersey history, but he was among several politicians who eventually was cleared.)

Ray Penabad, who is Acosta’s cousin, and Dennis Shim last year defeated Republican incumbents Warren Vincentz and Angus Todd. Shim is the council’s first Korean-American member.

Acosta said that what he and his fellow Latinos have accomplished in Ridgefield is no mystery.

“I went to every single house, I knocked on every single door,” he said. “A lot of Republicans even put our signs on their lawns.”

If Hispanics are underrepresented in politics, Acosta said flatly: “It’s their fault.”

Sitting in the living room of his single-family home, listening to Acosta’s unsympathetic reaction to Latino concerns about underrepresentation, Jimenez nodded knowingly.

“You have to get involved,” he said. “I got involved with the Democratic organization.”

Chimed in Acosta: "Look, it's normal that people get very comfortable, and don't get involved in their communities or go to town meetings. Most people work, come home, are with families. Everybody is like that -- Latinos, Italians, Asians -- everybody."

Jimenez, who is a veteran of the U.S. Navy, noted that he did not always harbor deep desires to become involved in politics.

He made an appointment to see the mayor one year to discuss some concerns he had about the town.

The mayor asked him if he wanted to serve on the Planning Board, and so began his involvement with town governance.

Penabad, 50, drew inspiration from Acosta in his decision to run for office.

The men claim that during elections, their opponents tried to make ethnicity an issue.

They said that former council member Todd tried to imply to voters that having Latinos on the council would bring an influx of people into Ridgefield from neighboring Hudson County, a largely urban area with high concentrations of Latinos.

“These guys said we were going to bring in [Hispanics],” Acosta said.

Todd, who is 70, vehemently denied that he resorted to such tactics when seeking re-election.

“They’ve said that before,” he said, “I’ve heard them say that before. Acosta has pulled that in the past. That’s false. I would never say anything like that.”

He said Ridgefield long has drawn people from Hudson County.

“I don’t see it as a negative,” Todd said. “A generation ago, a lot of people came from Hudson County, too.”

People who move from Hudson County, Todd said, tend to vote Democrat, which he conceded makes elections more difficult for him and other Republicans.

“They’re here because this is a nice town,” he said, adding that “we’re trying to make inroads” to win their support.

“We should have a two-party system,” he said, “I would never say anything negative about Hispanics, nor would Warren. Maybe Acosta thinks it gets him votes to say these things, that it keeps Hispanics loyal to him.”

Around town, residents said the Latinos on the council amounted to a non-issue for them, that they didn’t see them in ethnic terms.

“It’s who they are,” said Dominick Trentacusti, 25, during a break from his job at Sarge’s Deli. “They’re active in the town. They’re seen around town. No one looks at them as being ‘Hispanics.’”