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New Jersey’s 32nd State Legislative District is no joke. The former political home of Democratic Party power-broker Vincent Prieto and – since 1993 – the current fiefdom of odious North Jersey machine fixer Nicholas Sacco, this district encompasses the northern and western cities of Hudson County (East Newark, Guttenberg, Harrison, Kearny, North Bergen, Secaucus, and West New York) and the southern cities of Bergen County (Edgewater & Fairview).
There is probably no more difficult district in which to mount a primary challenge to the hand-picked cronies of a notorious New Jersey party boss than the 32nd. As such, there is no better place for Force the Issue NJ to focus on for the first installment of a new series we are proud to call Run Against the Machine.
Our first contestants …err… candidates are dedicated Hudson County activists Roger Quesada and Mahmoud Mahmoud. Joining forces under the banner of PTA – People. Transparency. Action – Quesada and Mahmoud are running an energetic and passionate insurgent progressive campaign to win the Democratic Primary on June 4th. Polls will be open from 6am to 8pm on Primary Day!
We’d like to thank Roger Quesada and Mahmoud Mahmoud for taking some time out of their busy schedule for a quick Q&A with Force the Issue NJ about their district and campaign.
FTINJ: Can you explain the meaning of your “PTA” slogan?
Mahmoud Mahmoud: PTA stands for People, Transparency, and Action:
- People are not included in the electoral and political process. The system is geared towards keeping voter turnout low and catering towards large money donors – while the majority of this district is not extremely wealthy.
- Transparency because there is a lack of that in our government, and…
- Action because for far too long we have been sitting on the sidelines and we can no longer be complacent.
FTINJ: Roger, both you and Mahmoud have dedicated your lives to organizing and activism. What do you feel you can accomplish in elected office that you are not able to as an activist?
Roger Quesada: As an activist, I realized I can only do so much. Here in North Bergen I reached an impasse where – no matter how hard I pressed my local officials to address the climate crisis with respect to the proposed power plant – they just brushed it off as if the only thing that mattered was the money. After months of getting nowhere, finally realizing that their priorities were not where they needed to be – I determined that I could be most effective confronting the governor myself as a legislator.
Our civic duty is to participate in our political system so that we can fight for our rights. We have a right to adequate healthcare. We have a right to clean air and water. We have a right to decent housing that is reflective of our collective view on human dignity. These things are not negotiable – Roger Quesada
FTINJ: One thing I love about this part of New Jersey (and the region) is the diversity among our people and the amazing communities built on the blood, sweat and tears of immigrants from all over the world. I am the grandson of an undocumented Greek; Roger’s family is from Cuba and Mahmoud’s came here from Egypt. What would it mean to you to be able to represent these communities in the NJ Assembly?
RQ: As a first-generation child of hard-working Cuban immigrants, I feel a responsibility to fight for the democracy my family came here to experience. I am absolutely not comfortable with the air of fear that I feel in Hudson County when people discuss politics. We need to assert ourselves as citizens. Our civic duty is to participate in our political system so that we can fight for our rights. We have a right to adequate healthcare. We have a right to clean air and water. We have a right to decent housing that is reflective of our collective view on human dignity. These things are not negotiable.
MM: Being an immigrant myself has shaped a lot about the way I view the world. Coming from a family that left Egypt to build a better life in America, I understand why one would choose to pack up and leave their family, dreams and careers behind and venture into the world of the unknown. They do it for hope. Our hope is to provide support to minority owned businesses, de-fund private prisons that imprison immigrants and end the separation of families. We will continue to stand up and protest against injustice when others are being unfairly targeted.
It is imperative to take action on this issue because too many people of color are having their lives altered or ruined due to draconian drug laws – Mahmoud Mahmoud
FTINJ: A press release you issued on April 20th (nod, wink) took your current State Senator Nicholas Sacco and your two opponents, Angelica Jimenez and Pedro Mejia to task for staying neutral on the Democratic proposal to legalize marijuana in the state of NJ. Why do you believe that politicians in the urban areas of northern New Jersey are so timid on a bill that their constituencies overwhelmingly support?
MM: I can’t speak on behalf of why someone else does or does not make decisions that are so crucial to the people they serve, but I can speak on behalf of myself: It is imperative to take action on this issue because too many people of color are having their lives altered or ruined due to draconian drug laws They struggle to find jobs because of their convictions, and they fall into a system that permanently labels and misjudges them.
RQ: When it comes down to it, I honestly don’t think that these are bad people. I just think they come from an old-fashioned, rank-and-file, “party boss” mentality where whatever the guy at the top says goes. They simply lack the political courage to make difficult decisions. They’re afraid of their own people, but it just shows how out of touch they are. If they had done more than just photo opportunities for Instagram with their constituents and actually TALKED to them, they would have realized that most of our district supports legalization. We know. We talked to them. Thousands of them.
This is a call to action to all the people that are tired of business-as-usual while the earth burns – Roger Quesada
FTINJ: Your campaign has also drawn attention to local environmental issues such as the Keegan Landfill in Kearny and the planned gas-fired power-plant in North Bergen, which in both cases you tie to the challenges of climate change. Environmental issues are not often seen as a major factor in urban campaigns – can you tell us why you are passionate about these issues in particular, and why voters should trust you to resist the lobbying strength of the industries that back these projects?
(Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted prior to the recent chlorine factory fire disaster in Kearny)
RQ: The science is 100% clear. There is a global consensus on climate change and other countries are already acting on this very urgent issue. It fascinates me that our country can so easily come together – as NY Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez said – for the moon shot, to get a man on the moon. And yet, we have a real crisis, an existential crisis, and we’re more concerned with lobbyists, industry and profit than we are the millions of people who can will die from runaway climate change.
What are we going to do with all of these climate refugees? What are we going to do with the trillions of dollars it will cost every year to recover from severe weather-related devastation? Like the child activist Greta Thunberg says – we have to treat the issue of climate change as if our house is literally on fire. Because it is.
MM: These issues are important because they directly correlate to every other issue in our district, especially the affect on the health of people breathing the air, as these projects are so often located in low income communities. If we don’t do anything about the future of our environment, our climate than no other issue matters because we won’t have a place to do them in. Hurricanes are more destructive and last longer, cities are sinking underwater, pipelines are being built in indigenous lands and even our most important resource – water – is no longer drinkable in the most affluent nation on earth. In our own district! We can resist the lobbyists because they did not fund our campaign. Everyday people did.
FTINJ: If you prevail in the primary, your colleague would be State Senator/Mayor Nick Sacco. Given his sketchy reputation as an allegedly creepy and corrupt NJ Democratic Machine politician – do you foresee working with him as an ally in the legislature? Or do you believe that progressives should run from the Nick Saccos of the world and not with them?
RQ: Going into this, I was fully aware of all the possible outcomes – including the risk to myself, my reputation and my home here in North Bergen. Whether or not we win – and we certainly plan to – this campaign is a great platform to reach as many people as possible with urgent issues that we are all facing. Nick Sacco is a tough adversary, but ultimately, I’m hoping that he feels the same way about democracy that we do. If we win – we hope to be able to sway the Senator and build consensus with all of our new colleagues in the legislature to act with the same sense of urgency that we brought to this campaign and our platform.
We can resist the lobbyists because they did not fund our campaign. Everyday people did – Mahmoud Mahmoud
FTINJ: Besides voting for Quesada-Mahmoud in the June 4th Democratic Primary election – how can readers – both in and out of your district – support your campaign in these last two critical weeks?
RQ: Like any other insurgent grassroots campaign – we need as much people-power as possible: canvassers, phone-bankers, fundraisers, coordinators and excellent organizers! This is a call to action to all the people that are tired of business-as-usual while the earth burns. We need action, right now. We need people to join us:
Force the Issue NJ is a 501(c)4 New Jersey Not-For-Profit Corporation. Our mission is to develop and host Platforms for Progress: data-driven online tools and web-based media dedicated to connecting engaged citizens with opportunities to make a difference in the Garden State. Force the Issue NJ does not endorse any specific candidate for elected office.