“Do you know what day today is?” West New York Commissioner Caridad Rodriguez asked on Feb. 7 at the official announcement of her candidacy for District 1 freeholder on the board of county freeholders.
The West New York Democratic headquarters was not only filled with men; Commissioner FiorD’Aliza Frias and a few other women had come to support Rodriguez. But many more men were in the room; some who were among the most powerful political figures in the Hudson County.
Rodriguez then answered her own question. Although not as tall as many of the men around her, she stood out with her red dress and her defiant stance. “It’s International Women’s Day,” she said. “This is why I am running for freeholder – to bring more women’s voices to that board.”
Rodriguez was the first female and Hispanic to represent the 33rd District in the state Assembly when she was elected to that office in 2007. This made her the first female and Hispanic Assemblyperson for the 33rd District and the first Cuban‐American assemblywoman in the state of New Jersey. Then in 2011 she got elected to the five-member West New York Board of Commissioners.
Now she wants to represent her region on the nine member county freeholders’ board. If elected she will represent West New York, Guttenberg, and two thirds of Weehawken.
“I have been a public servant most of my life.” -- Caridad Rodriguez
She told the Hudson Reporter in past interviews that filling the needs of another person brings the greatest fulfillment as a human being. But she also said that her ability to help locally as an Assembly person is somewhat limited, one reason she gave running as a commissioner on the Roque ticket in 2011.
A public servant from the start
Rodriguez worked for many years as a paralegal, dealing with divorce and family law, often with immigration and landlord-tenant conflicts. She helped seniors with applications for housing, Medicare, Medicaid and other issues. This experience, she said, helped later when she began to work in the public sector. She started in public life working for then-West New York Mayor Albio Sires in 1996, and later became a legislative aide when he became a congressman. When she got elected to the state Assembly in 2007, she had to resign her post with Sires. She became a patient advocate working at Palisades Medical Center.
In mid-2012, Rodriguez was reassigned to become Commissioner of Public Safety. Under West New York’s form of government, each commissioner is assigned a particular part of government to oversee. Faced with cuts in state spending and reduction of staff as well as a change in police director, West New York still managed to see a significant reduction in crime under Rodriguez’s tenure. She was the first woman Latino in the town’s history to run the department and the first Hispanic Cuban woman to hold such a position in the state.
A big turnout in a small place
Although a relatively small storefront headquarters, the Democratic Headquarters drew the attention of the passing public as police officers directed traffic outside, and bigwigs from across northern Hudson County crowded into the room to help celebrate Rodriguez’s nomination and to endorse her.
Mayor Felix Roque was joined by State Sen. and North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, State Assembly Speaker and Hudson County Democratic Organization Chairman Vincent Prieto, Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner, and others to endorse Rodriquez.
Rodriguez will run for a seat against incumbent Freeholder Jose Munoz. Munoz is a political opponent of Roque and served as a witness against the mayor in Roque’s federal hacking trial last year.
“Since she was first elected to the West New York Board of Commissioners 12 years ago and throughout her tenure as public safety commissioner, Caridad Rodriguez has been a dedicated public servant. She’s an energetic and consistent individual who always advocates for initiatives to move our town forward and make it a better place to live,” said Roque.
Rodriguez said that until this point, she thought her political career was coming to an end, but said she was proud and honored to be supported by these public officials for District 1 freeholder seat.
A warm welcome
Mayor Roque offered “a warm welcome on a cold day.”
“We need someone like her who has great experience, who has worked with prior mayor Albio Sires as a commissioner, also assemblywoman. She has done pretty much everything in government,” Roque said. “That’s what we need, someone with vision who can help bring more dollars into from the county into West New York. We know that she is hardworking and very ethical. She will be the second woman on the freeholder board. I’m endorsing her; we’re all endorsing her because she is the best candidate.”
Sacco also praised Rodriguez.
“You get to know someone through their record,” Sacco said. “When she was working at the hospital, she was always a friendly face when someone had to work through the red tape. She was there to help me and my family and constituents and others who needed help. I got to know her that way.”
Sacco said he worked with Rodriguez when she served as state assemblywoman, and he said she is a strong member of the Hudson County team who will be an asset on the county level.
“We had a very strong Hudson County team,” Sacco said. “The key was always to stick together to make sure that we got when Hudson County deserved. When Caridad was there, she was a secure Hudson County vote. We were all in the same direction. I got to respect her a great deal.”
Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner also indorsed Rodriguez.
“She’s someone who had experience in every level of government, someone who had done everything, and will do her best to bring in more county money into West New York,” Turner said. “She is hard-working.”
She will on the Democratic line, said Prieto.
“I couldn’t think of a better person to hold this district’s freeholder seat, someone I have worked closely with in the general Assembly, who has been a great ally to Senator Sacco and myself,” said Prieto. “She’s worked state government and municipal government, county government is the right fit.”
Prieto announced the endorsement of the Hudson County Democratic Organization on her behalf.
Turner said Rep. Albio Sires, who could not attend the event, also endorsed Rodriguez as did Guttenberg Mayor Gerald Drasheff.
Craig Guy, representing Hudson County Executive Tom DeGise, said DeGise is also supporting Rodriguez for freeholder.
The Democratic ticket will be headed by U.S. Senator Cory Booker, Rep. Albio Sires, Surrogate Judge Don DeLeo, and Rodriguez.
“I’m very proud,” Rodriguez said. “I am a public servant. I have been a public servant most of my life. I began to understand this when I was in the trenches, working in the mayor’s office for 12 years.”
She said she learned from working with Sires that “regardless of what you have, you gave to the community to help people who need it.
Until this opportunity came along, she thought her life was starting to wind down and her political career was coming to an end.
Munoz, who will be her opponent in the June Democratic primary, said he was not surprised that Mayor Roque would back another candidate against him.
“What is a surprise is the person that accepted Roque’s invitation,” Munoz said.
He said he likes Rodriquez and thought she would have declined the offer from Roque. But in the end, Munoz said, the election will be settled by the people, not a political machine.
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.