The Master of the Game

Meet the Orthodox Jew who pulls the political strings in the predominantly Latino city of Passaic.

Street Talk: State Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who also serves as council president of Passaic, says he holds all of the city’s varied ethnic groups in high regard. “None of us is large enough to control everything,” he says. “We need to work together to achieve our common goals.”
Photo by Peter Murphy

The rum flows freely as the political chatter rises above the booming mix of salsa, merengue and jazz inside the Fiesta night club deep in the Latino heart of Passaic. Suddenly the lights dim, the deejay turns down the music, and Byron Bustos, the Ecuadorian-born, Passaic-raised president of the city’s board of education, steps into the spotlight.

Microphone in hand, Bustos surveys the crowd. The full range of Latino political power in Passaic is arrayed before him. Immigration over the last two decades has made Passaic one of the most Latino cities in a state that increasingly speaks with a Spanish accent. On this breezy Wednesday night in early April, the Fiesta is jammed with several dozen Latinos who shelled out $50 or more to support three incumbents—a Puerto Rican and two Mexicans—who are running for reelection to the board.

At one table, Dominican entrepreneurs trade stories of money and power. At another, Puerto Ricans sit with quiet dignity, painfully aware of their dwindling influence. And in a dark corner of the crowded room, huddled around a small square table covered with mixed drinks, a group of Mexicans, relative newcomers to the scene, warily watch the others.

Directly in front of Bustos stands Passaic’s most prominent Latino, Dr. Alex D. Blanco, a two-term member and past president of the board of education now serving his second full term as mayor. But Bustos does not start his introductions with Blanco. Instead, he calls up a man everybody has been watching all evening—watching who he speaks with, whose shoulder he touches, who he pulls close to share a confidence.

The man is not Dominican, Puerto Rican or Mexican. His name is Gary Schaer, and he is an Orthodox Jew, an odd figure in his black pinstripe suit, starched white shirt, yellow tie and black yarmulke. Bustos introduces him as “our great assemblyman and council president” and hands him the microphone.

“I’m not going to speak in Spanish,” Schaer begins, “because that would be too painful­—not for me, but for you.” Drawing a few appreciative chuckles, he continues: “I’m very flattered to be introduced first, although the first person in this room is Mayor Blanco.”

Schaer’s discomfort at Bustos’s political faux pas is unmistakable. Unwittingly, Bustos has drawn attention to an open secret and deep wound in Passaic. For years, Schaer has used the imposing electoral power of his Orthodox Jewish community—a small but disciplined minority in Passaic—to construct a power base that controls nearly every aspect of municipal government in one of the poorest communities in the state.

Mayor Blanco, Schaer tells the crowd, represents a bold experiment unfolding in Passaic, an effort to bring together “people of different backgrounds, beliefs, colors and styles.” Blanco is Dominican—the first of his people elected mayor of a New Jersey city. The nine-member board of education includes five Latinos, an African-American, an Indian, a Jew and an Italian-American who is half Latino. The city council is just as diverse. Besides Schaer, the seven-member council has two Jews, three Latinos and an African-American.

Schaer, 63, takes a moment at the microphone to rattle off some of his team’s recent accomplishments, freely blending city council actions with those of the board of education. He starts with the wholesale revitalization of the city’s recreation fields, including construction of a $2 million soccer field that Passaic’s Mexicans consider a political victory. He then cites the hiring of a new schools superintendent (Pablo Muñoz, whose parents came to New Jersey from Puerto Rico), and the flattening of property taxes.

“Together, we can achieve,” Schaer declares. “Divided, we cannot.”

It is a sound bite Schaer uses frequently—and with conviction. But the sentiment is not universally accepted. While the faithful inside the Fiesta applauded Schaer’s talk of unity, many in Passaic consider him a divisive figure who uses the Latino majority to mask his efforts on behalf of the Orthodox community, derisively referred to in parts of Passaic as “the men in black.”

“He is the Kabuki master who pulls the strings to benefit the privileged few,” says Jaroslaw Jackiw, mixing metaphors to describe Schaer before the start of a recent city council meeting. Jackiw, a retired janitorial-company manager and longtime city resident, jousts with Schaer whenever the council convenes. “If you live in one of the other wards, try to get the same kind of services as they get,” he complains. “You can’t.”

Schaer’s rosy view aside, it’s easy to conclude that Passaic is a city divided. In the leafy Passaic Park section adjacent to the train line to midtown Manhattan, the houses are large and well maintained. The streets are clean and quiet, especially on Saturdays, when the Orthodox community observes the Sabbath. There is no official count, but in 2006, when the Jewish Press called Passaic “the new Jewish boom town,” the city had 1,300 Jewish families—big families—with more arriving every year.

Now head east, toward downtown and the tired old Passaic River, past the crowded bus stops, past the Bargain Man stores on Lexington Avenue, down the streets named for American presidents. Here, in the city’s decaying core, most of the store signs are in Spanish, debris clutters the streets, and house fires leave dozens homeless because living quarters are overcrowded.

“We are a living, breathing manifestation of apartheid, with a minority ruling a distinct majority,” says a city employee who declines to give his name for fear of retribution.

Schaer bears little resemblance to the kind of despot such a statement evokes. The first Orthodox Jew elected to the state Legislature, Schaer was born in the Camden suburb of Pennsauken. He rarely talks about his upbringing, but in 2007 he told a reporter for the Record that, although his parents were Conservative Jews, he had started to transition toward a more Orthodox form of faith when just a boy. “By the time I was 10 or 11, I would no longer eat some of the things my parents kept in their house,” he said.

After completing high school in Pennsauken, Schaer attended American University in Washington, D.C, where he majored in political science. By the 1980s, Schaer and wife, Donna, joined the Orthodox families that were moving into, and remaking, Passaic Park. The couple settled in and raised two daughters and a son in their new community. (The son, Jonathan, is a police officer.)

To gain entry into the municipal hierarchy, Schaer became active in Passaic politics, and in 1992 was appointed a commissioner on the Passaic housing authority, an unpaid job. Such humble beginnings often lead to bigger things in a city like Passaic, depending on who’s backing whom. Schaer won a seat on the city council in 1994 and has remained on the council ever since, serving as president for the last 17 years.

A Democrat, Schaer was elected to the state Assembly in 2005; a decade later, he wields considerable statewide power as deputy speaker and chairman of the budget committee. In addition to the city of Passaic, his densely populated 36th district includes the southeast corner of Bergen County.

Schaer’s political strength is most evident in the old city of Passaic, with its rich past and uncertain future. Settled by the Dutch in 1678, Passaic became an industrial powerhouse in the early 20th century. Botany Mills put thousands to work at its worsted-wool factories. Thousands more worked in grim, multistory brick factories that turned out mountains of automobile tires, cables, wires, handkerchiefs, even liquid stove polish.

The jobs were filled by succeeding waves of immigrants—Irish, Italian, Jewish and Polish—and African-Americans who migrated from the South. The new arrivals created a rich ethnic stew that gave rise to the pop group the Shirelles, comedian Joe Piscopo, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and film producer Saul Zaentz, who gave a shout-out to the boys on Myrtle and Monroe every time he received an Academy Award.

Latinos started arriving after World War II. First came Puerto Ricans, then Cubans (escaping Castro) and later Dominicans, Colombians, Peruvians and others. In time, each group claimed a place at the table of Passaic political power—just as the European ethnic groups had before them. The past 10 years have brought a huge wave of Mexicans, many of them undocumented and therefore unable to vote—a factor that has slowed their ascent up Passaic’s political ladder.

Combined, Latinos now make up more than 71 percent of Passaic, one of the highest percentages in the state. Mexicans alone now number more than 21,000 of Passaic’s 70,000 residents.

Many of Passaic’s Latinos are poor, their housing decrepit. The factories that drew them to the city have been boarded up, tracts of housing have been razed and downtown’s long-vacant signature office building, 663 Main Avenue, stands as a crumbling 11-story art-deco testament to the decline. Passaic’s schools are the most overcrowded in the state, the high school graduation rate among the lowest. State police crime statistics make it clear that walking the streets of Passaic at night is not a good idea.

Not even Schaer’s severest critics blame him for Passaic’s most intractable problems. The issues predate Schaer’s two decades on the council. But critics don’t hesitate to pin the city’s current ills on Schaer while describing him as a Rasputin-like political kingmaker who backed Alex Blanco for mayor only because of a 2008 state law prohibiting people from holding more than one elective office.

For a time after that law took effect, Schaer actually held three offices at once. He was already serving as state assemblyman and council president when Sammy Rivera, the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor, resigned in May 2008 after pleading guilty to accepting bribes. Schaer—as council president—automatically stepped in as acting mayor. For a few months he was openly and unquestionably in charge of the city. Schaer basked in the experience. “Did I enjoy serving as acting mayor? Frankly, I enjoyed it a whole lot,” he says. “I got to make decisions. Council members don’t get to make decisions. They work by consensus.”

The 2008 law exempts elected officials, such as Schaer, who held more than one position when it took effect. But he would have lost that privilege if he had run for mayor.

Instead of sacrificing his Assembly seat to run for mayor, critics say, Schaer hand-picked Blanco, then a financially strapped young podiatrist with little political experience, to run in a 2008 special election to fill the remainder of Rivera’s term. With Schaer’s support, Blanco, now 42, won that race. He subsequently won a full four-year term and was reelected last year for a second full term. In each election, Blanco garnered strong support from Passaic Park’s Jewish voters.

At a mayoral candidates’ debate in May 2013, Jeffrey Dye, a black activist running against Blanco, expressed the frustration of many in Passaic when he turned to Blanco, sitting on stage a few feet away, and accused him of an unholy alliance with Schaer. “You can’t be a nice guy when somebody else controls you,” he said. Some in the audience cheered.

Margie Semler, Passaic’s 91-year-old former mayor, has also openly accused Schaer of behind-the-scenes manipulation. “It is common knowledge that the man who really runs the city is…Gary Schaer,” she said at a campaign rally in 2013 for another Blanco opponent, José Sandoval. At the rally, Semler—who has been feuding with Schaer at least since she defeated him in a 1997 mayoral race—said, “a vote for Blanco is a vote for Schaer.”

Semler says it is not uncommon during Passaic elections for Schaer and the local Orthodox rabbis to convey their electoral preferences in mailings and other messages to the community. With voter turnout abysmally low in most of the city, the solid block of 2,000 or more Orthodox votes from the Third Ward, which includes Passaic Park, often determines who wins.

Schaer doesn’t flinch from the charge that he influences the vote. “I know I’m an influential person,” he says. “I know people listen to what I have to say. That’s why I’m always so circumspect and careful of the language I use.”

But Schaer denies favoring the Orthodox over the rest of Passaic. What his critics see as favoritism, Schaer says, is simply demographic reality. “The Jewish community is in a different position economically overall than much of the rest of Passaic,” he says. “I think there is that normal clash of economies, if you will, for lack of a better term.”

While he’s at it, he also “categorically denies”—his words—that he controls Mayor Blanco, for whom he expresses great admiration. “Mayor Blanco ran originally on a platform of developing recreation for children in the city as a way of getting kids out of the cycle of poverty and drugs,” Schaer says. “That was something he campaigned on and something that reached fulfillment beyond anyone’s thinking. If he was only my figurehead, if I were the guy in charge, I would take other directions on certain projects, but he’s the mayor and I’m not.”

Schaer declined to specify on what projects he and Blanco might differ.

Schaer praises Blanco for his honesty, integrity and hard work. Despite their differences in age, heritage and religion, the two men have become close friends. Three years ago, after the birth of one of their four sons (Sebastian), Blanco and his wife, Aurora, asked Schaer to be godfather to the boy. Schaer recalls his reaction to Blanco’s surprising request. “I said to him at the time, ‘If God forbid anything happens to you or your wife, my wife and I would welcome Sebastian living with us. We’d take him to church every Sunday and raise him in his Catholic faith, but he will be eating kosher.”

Having navigated the waters of Passaic politics for the last 29 years, Schaer is generally unflappable, whether in a room of Spanish speakers or silencing hecklers at city council meetings, over which he presides with a firm hand. His clipped, precise manner of speaking, each word carefully enunciated, broken only by a bout of smoker’s cough, can wither even the most agitated gadfly.

Schaer knows what his critics say about him, but he steadfastly defends his actions as benefiting the entire city—even though his own community often seems a privileged and separate enclave. Few Orthodox children attend the public schools, and the Orthodox community rarely shops at Passaic’s retail businesses, with a few exceptions, such as the Jin Glatt Kosher Chinese restaurant on Main Avenue.

Schaer praises the city’s diversity with an evangelist’s fervor, often citing his own experiences as proof of Passaic’s tolerance. When a statue of Juan Pablo Duarte, a founding father of the Dominican Republic, was dedicated in 2013, the organizers moved the ceremony from Saturday to Sunday so he could attend. When the city council holds pre-meeting work sessions, food is ordered from a kosher deli so Schaer can partake.

“My high regard for the Dominican Republic’s culture and community does not in any way denigrate my high regard and respect for Peruvian culture, African-American culture, Colombian culture, Jewish culture—you name it,” he says. His view of politics is clear-cut and practical. “None of us is large enough to control everything. We need to work together to achieve our common goals.”

Three days after the Duarte statue was dedicated, vandals defaced it with spray paint, raising concerns that some members of the community objected to honoring a foreigner. Schaer dismissed any notion that Passaic might not be as tolerant as he insists it is.

“I’d be hard pressed to use the aberrant behavior of one, or two, or three people to indict an entire community,” he says.

The school board election that was held on April 23 was hardly a banner day for democracy in Passaic. Across the state, most school board elections have poor turnouts, but this was exceptionally bad, with just over 2,000 ballots cast out of the city’s more than 26,000 registered voters. The turnout might have been slightly better but for an unusual schedule change. The election had been moved from the third Tuesday in April—which coincided with the first day of Passover—to the following Wednesday. Many saw the hand of Gary Schaer at work, attempting to manipulate the election date to ensure that the Orthodox faithful in Passaic Park would be able to vote.

In fact, the decision to postpone the election had been made by the state Department of Education, and it applied to all districts with April elections, not just Passaic.

Among the incumbents seeking reelection that day was Horacio “Ray” Carrera. Carrera’s parents were among the earliest Mexican immigrants in the area, settling in Lodi, where he was born in 1968. Carrera moved to Passaic in 2006 and now operates a loan origination company there. He has been involved in community affairs since he and his father started a soccer league for Mexican youths about 15 years ago.
Carrera took his first shot at elective office in 2008, running for a seat on the board of education against the nonpartisan Schaer slate. Thinking he needed to safeguard his independence, he teamed up with René L. Griggs, an African-American public-housing organizer who wanted to represent Passaic’s dwindling black population.

Both lost—but Carrera came within a tantalizing 40 votes of victory. What’s more, he showed he could raise money from the Mexican community, which is willing to support him financially even if most are ineligible to vote. Carrera ran again in 2009. Though he lost, he caught the attention of the Schaer faction.

“I was approached by the group after the second try and told, ‘We want you to be part of the team,’” Carrera recalls, speaking with uncommon candor for Passaic. (He switches effortlessly from unaccented English to Mexican Spanish, and almost always with an easygoing smile.) The offer from the Schaer camp was tempting, but Carrera felt there was so much ill will against Schaer that he preferred to remain independent. He ran a third time and lost again. That opened his eyes.

“You can’t be stubborn in politics,” Carrera says. He realized that if he was going to have any influence in Passaic, he had to have a seat at the table. He started to see Schaer in a different light. “I’m not saying he’s a saint,” Carrera says. “He’s a politician.” Carrera joined the Schaer team, which means publicly supporting Schaer.

Griggs has a similar history of electoral defeats, but crossing over to Schaer’s side is more than she is willing to do. “I would never be a part of anyone’s team that did not believe in full disclosure,” Griggs says. She has continued to run as an independent. In the April election, she went head-to-head with Carrera, her former teammate, knowing she faced another uphill battle.

“I’m not one to compromise my morals or beliefs,” Griggs says. “I would never be on a ticket that asked me to vote in a particular way that is not in the best interest of the people of this city.”

When the votes were counted on April 23, Carrera and his fellow Latinos on the ballot, Kenia Flores and Richard Diaz, all were reelected to the board of education. Griggs came in about 100 votes behind Carrera. “There’s a general perception that you can’t beat the machine,” Griggs says, “but with a little more support, I could have.”

Each of the incumbents had Schaer’s support—and each received nearly twice as many votes from Passaic Park as from any other ward. “The alliance worked,” says Carrera. Now he says he’s gearing up to fight for better educational opportunities for all of the city’s kids, no matter where their parents came from or where they go to pray.

And he knows now that to accomplish any of that, he needs to be on Gary Schaer’s side.

Schaer’s power plays may rub some in Passaic the wrong way, but he doesn’t seem to be bothered by his reputation. If anything, he is a pragmatic Rasputin, a complex man who sees himself not as a dictator, but as the conductor of a multiethnic chorus, a rapidly growing assemblage of voices that, without the proper direction, would revert to the discordant ensemble that vexed Passaic in the past.

“In Passaic, as in so many other communities, the way to political power used to be through division rather than unity,” he says. “What we’ve been able to achieve specifically in the past six years is a greater understanding of our diversity and a respect for that diversity, which has yielded results unknown anywhere in New Jersey, and perhaps not even in the country.”

For someone whose religious beliefs dictate every aspect of his life, the Passaic he extols is itself an irrefutable article of faith, a tolerant and multi-textured truth, regardless of what others might say or believe.
“The fact that we look upon our diversity as a blessing rather than as a curse,” Schaer says, “makes all the difference.”

Anthony DePalma is the writer in residence at Seton Hall University and author of Here: A Biography of the New American Continent (Kindle e-book, 2014).

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