COVID-19 Forces City’s Mayor Sayegh to “Call an Audible at the Line of Scrimmage’
Paterson Mayor André Sayegh and attorney, Vaughn McKoy
By D. Kevin McNeir
Executive Editor, New Jersey Urban News
Like many of America’s urban communities, Paterson, the third-largest city in New Jersey, continues to search for ways to reclaim its more glorious past after decades of recent decline fueled by unstable property taxes, inadequate economic development, surging crime rates, an underfunded public education system and the upheaval of proud, well-established generations of native-born, African-American citizens – victims of gentrification.
But despite the negative labels and unfavorable assessments, not everyone has given up hope. Such remains the case for André Sayegh, born and raised in the city and elected Mayor of Paterson on July 1, 2018 after a 10-year stint on the City Council – determined, as he suggests on the city’s website, to inspire a renaissance in his hometown – the only city in which he’s ever lived and where he and his wife have chosen to raise their children.
Since the election, he says he’s looked to the 2020 Census as a primary means of garnering a larger percentage of federal dollars that would help Sayegh and other city leaders achieve sorely-needed improvements including: addressing overcrowded schools, building one or more new hospitals, resurfacing roads and thoroughfares and regaining political representation in Congress after Paterson, the county center in Passaic County, lost a trio of seats in three consecutive census counts.
“The pandemic really undermined our efforts as we were targeting schools after the previous census revealed that those five years old and under were the hardest to reach,” Sayegh said. “We had sponsored pep rallies, had more scheduled and were looking forward to April 1 as the day for our official flag raising. We raised the flag but with little fanfare. We had also filmed four commercials for cablevision to be aired daily, also being shown on local channels like News 12, ESPN, CNN, Disney and other major networks.”
“And with the accurate counting of children so important to our success, we created a series of books for kids, ‘We Count,’ to help them with numbers and reading so as to hammer home the significance of the census,” the mayor said adding that one new selling point for getting a more complete count is his city receiving a needed-increase in funds that would be earmarked for emergency relief efforts that might be needed in the future.
Census Operations Adjustments Now in Place Due to COVID-19
Sayegh said that at the most recent count last Friday, Paterson had reached 35.1 percent participation – significantly less than the state’s response rate of 49 percent.
Most households, according to census.gov, received their invitation to respond to the 2020 Census between March 12 – 20. For the first time, households can choose to complete the census online, by phone or by mail. The website indicates that over 70 million households have responded as of April 13, representing over 48 percent of all those in the U.S.
The Census Bureau temporarily suspended 2020 Census field data collection activities in March with steps being taken, at least for now, to reactivate field offices beginning June 1. However, operatives who will be responsible for leading in-person activities will incorporate revised procedures including the use of recommended personal protective equipment and continuing social distancing practices.
Once 2020 Census data is complete, the Bureau will begin a rigorous process to produce the apportionment counts, redistricting information and other statistical data products that help guide hundreds of billions of dollars in public and private sector spending per year.
In order to ensure the complete thoroughness and accuracy of the 2020 Census, the Bureau is seeking statutory relief from Congress of 120 additional calendar days to deliver final apportionment counts. Under this plan, the Bureau would extend the window for field data collection and self-response to Oct. 31, 2020, which would allow for apportionment counts to be delivered to the President by April 30, and redistricting data to be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021.
Blacks Still Lead City’s Voting Bloc, Despite Surging Hispanic Population
Another Paterson native, a highly-regarded attorney with over 30 years of leadership for New Jersey’s corporations, local communities and others, stepped down eight months ago after having served as the city’s business administrator, tapped by the then-newly-elected mayor to help lead transformation efforts for Paterson.
He points to the differences in political activism between African Americans and Hispanics as a leading cause for each ethnic group’s different degrees to willingly participate in the census.
“Demographics in Paterson have really shifted within the last 20 to 30 years with thousands of Black families being forced to move out of the city after the five most-heavily populated housing projects in the city were demolished,” said Vaughn McKoy, 51, hailed as one of the state’s top prosecutors after a stint as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and currently affiliated with Inglesino Webster Wyciskala and Taylor, LLC.
“Some spread out to other parts of the city – others just moved out with their Section 8 vouchers. But Blacks still dominate the voting bloc as the Latino population, despite significantly higher in terms of population, remains reluctant to get involved in politics. Some are here illegally, we know. Others just don’t feel comfortable getting involved, even with their having the proper immigration status.”
“We counted about 140,000 people in the last census but we know there were a lot more than that who we missed. We understood then and now that with the census and accurate population counts flow dollars. We realize how important it is to get our fair share so we can do the kinds of things necessary to improve our quality of life.”
“We were just shy of breaking the next threshold in terms of what we could qualify for as a city through its population. It’s about empowering our federal legislators with what they need to make the arguments for the communities they serve in order to get more resources. That was the push we understood. When you don’t do that, you have more people in your city than you have resources. It’s a numbers game that you can ill-afford to lose.”
“If we’re going to really impact participation, and I mean among Blacks, it’s going to require collaborative efforts – something for which the mayor has advocated since first being elected – so you can raise the level of trust within our community. And we have a lot of reasons in our history for not trusting the government. That means joining forces within those whose words Blacks can agree: The Black Press, the Black Church and other religious organizations, leading community groups, educators and counselors – they’re among those who can help tip the scales and get more people to respond to the census.”
“We’ve obviously lost a lot of ground with the current coronavirus pandemic. But if we can show people what they could gain by participating or lose by not doing so, maybe we can still come close to the numbers we had hoped for – the kinds of participation percentages that we need,” McKoy said.
More Black Perspectives on Census 2020
But does the Black community really understand the importance of the census and why their adherence to participating matters as McKoy seems to believe?
One Black attorney, a 26-year resident of Fort Lee currently employed by Peyrouton Law based in Hackensack, says he has his doubts.
“I’ve participated in the census since I was 20 when the controversy was whether we should refer to ourselves as Negro, Black or African American,” said Kevin M. Brown, 60. “It all boils down to whether you’re the kind of person who has a certain level of belief in the system and understand how participating in the census can benefit you and the community in which you live. Some will get on board if they see a prominent Black leader like Rev. Al Sharpton saying we should participate. That’s all they’ll need.”
“But as a former criminal defense attorney in Jersey City for over 10 years where I routinely dealt with poorly-educated and economically-challenged Blacks and Latinos, mostly young adults, it was clear that the majority had few reasons to trust anyone, especially the government. For them, and so many like them, it’s almost impossible to see any direct benefit in being counted and recognized. They just can’t believe that they matter enough. I hate to admit it but I really believe that more Blacks will ignore the whole thing which means things won’t change for us – at least not for the better,” Brown said.
Career postal worker Jake Pipkin, 60, recalls being raised in Paterson in a close-knit, working-class family – two parents and six siblings. For him, voting and participating in the census remained the two required actions for every member in his home and among his rather large number of relatives.
“I guess what’s surprised me most is the large number of people who seem to be just throwing away the census forms after I deliver them to their homes, especially those in white communities – even whites who live in the suburbs,” Pipkin said. “That has been shocking to me. In previous census years, we’d become used to Hispanics ignoring the census completely. As for Blacks, it seemed that the willingness to participate increased based on one’s level of education.”
“I think participating in the census is akin to voter participation. Blacks came out to vote for Barack Obama in numbers the country had never seen before or since because they truly believed that there was something in it for them. That’s the kind of belief that’s going to be essential again if we’re going to see Blacks, and Hispanics, answer the survey in numbers that will really make a difference,” he said.
Penda C. Howell, COO of AM NEWS Corp, a newspaper publisher in New York, and Part Owner of AM Newspaper Media Marketing Services, moved away from Paterson after turning 18. And while returning to live there has never been something he seriously considered, he says he still has fond memories of his hometown and hopes the mayor can pull off his plan for achieving a successful renaissance in Paterson – a resurgence that its citizens have long deserved.
“We’ve had some success but it’s still a rough city, much rougher than when I was growing up,” he said. “It’s changed, unfortunately, from being a suburban enclave where people wanted to raise a family – a city with true neighborhoods where everyone knew everyone else – to a place better known for its prevalence of drugs and gangs.”
“But the city, its people that is, hasn’t given up on remaking itself for the better. And there remain people who live there today who, like the folks I remember from my youth, are both hopeful and resilient. If my principal at Eastside High, Joe Clark, could achieve the impossible decades ago, then there’s a chance that the impossible, or at least the improbable, can happen again. That’s the power that being counted in the census has,” Howell said.