Trouble in Teaneck

Trouble in Teaneck

Deputy mayor argues with town Democratic leader and Assembly candidate 

Alexandra Soriano-Taveras, left, and Elie Katz
Alexandra Soriano-Taveras, left, and Elie Katz

The messy battles among Bergen County Democrats in the wake of State Senator Loretta Weinberg’s decision to retire after representing New Jersey’s 37th district in Trenton for 28 years got messier and nastier this week, with a Teaneck deputy mayor accusing the head of the town’s Democratic committee of potential anti-Semitism.

At issue were remarks made last summer by Alexandra Soriano-Taveras, who filed with the Democratic Party last month to run for the state General Assembly on the party line. She was one of two candidates to apply to the party for the two Assembly positions; Assemblyman Gordon Johnson has filed to fill Ms. Weinberg’s Senate position.

The three were expected to be approved by Bergen County’s Democratic Convention on March 15. That will enable them to run on the party line in the June primary, where they will face off against a rival slate led by the other 37th District Assembly representative, Valerie Vainieri Huttle, who chose not to seek the support of party officials but rather to appeal directly to Democratic voters.

Now, however, questions have been raised as to whether the convention will vote to approve Soriano-Taveras’ candidacy, with some Democratic officials looking into whether she could be rejected by a party credential committee that must approve all candidates.

On Sunday, Elie Katz, one of Teaneck’s two deputy mayors, released a video clip in which Ms. Soriano-Taveras called for a boycott of businesses on Cedar Lane, Teaneck’s central business district. This call came as part of a protest gathering in June, after the newly sworn-in council chose Mr. Katz and two others for the ceremonial posts of mayor and deputy mayor, rejecting calls that Gervonn Romney Rice, the only Black member of council, be given one of the deputy mayor slots. While Teaneck’s municipal offices are non-partisan, there are clear factions; Ms. Romney Rice is not a member of Mr. Katz’s faction, which holds the majority of the council votes.

Mr. Katz owns several local businesses, but they are on West Englewood Avenue, not Cedar Lane.

Ironically, Ms. Romney Rice also is running for one the open Assembly seats, on the slate headed by Ms. Vainieri Huttle.

Ms. Romney Rice and longtime community leader Dr. Henry J. Pruitt led the informal June protest against the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police office in May.

“Whether her comments were merely anti-small business during a pandemic or worse, potentially anti-Semitic… we need not try to figure out which one it is,” Mr. Katz wrote, in a mass email about Ms. Soriano Taveras that he sent out to his mailing list on Monday. It contained a link to a petition and a call to “Please join with me in categorically rejecting Soriano Taveras and her hate speech and say NO to her candidacy for Assembly.”

On Monday, Ms. Soriano-Taveras issued a statement condemning the attack on her and disavowing anti-Semitism.

“The edited video clip has been taken out of context and weaponized against me in the darkest, most destructive of ways,” she wrote. “I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the Jewish community in Teaneck, District 37 and all of New Jersey. There was a call to action in Teaneck this past summer and I attended to speak up and speak out against our town leadership who once again was not listening to the voices of our community. In a moment of passion I urged those in attendance not to shop in the businesses owned by town leadership, but after more thought and careful consideration of the impact on our small businesses I took no such action and led no such effort.

“It was not my intention to offend anyone by my statement or to single out any community and for that, I am sincerely sorry. Let me be clear: I love our Jewish community, I treasure the contributions my Jewish neighbors make to Teaneck and to the world, and I have always and will always stand up against anti-Semitism. I am sorry for any pain or offense this video may have caused, and I renew my commitment to stand against hate and bigotry in all forms and at all times.”

Two Jewish women who were at the protest said they didn’t feel that Ms. Soriano-Taveras’ remarks were anti-Semitic.

“There was no mention of the word Jewish there,” one of them, Hillary Zaer-Goldberg, said. “I don’t think this was an anti-Semitic remark at all. Alexandra wasn’t leading the crowd or speaking on a podium.”

Ms. Zaer-Goldberg is a third generation Teanecker — her grandparents moved there in 1952 — and recently founded Teaneck Voices, a weekly email newsletter covering municipal politics and government.

“This is ugly Teaneck politics and it’s really a shame,” Ms. Zaer-Goldberg said.

Ms. Soriano-Taveras’s anger at the council, and Mr. Katz’s outrage toward Ms. Soriano-Taveras, reflects broader tensions between parts of the town’s disparate Black and Orthodox Jewish communities.

Gerald Reiner, a member of the Teaneck school board and a Katz ally who moved to the town in 2016 — and who is not Jewish — said that Ms. Soriano-Taveras reached out to him because of his background in local Democratic Party politics.

“I still remember clear as day, she said, ‘Don’t you think something is wrong with that everything is closed on Friday nights and on Saturdays on Cedar Lane?’ Mr. Reiner recalled.

“My response was, ‘Who am I to tell someone how to run their business?’ That was the last time we talked directly,” he said.

At the same time, Mr. Katz has not been reluctant to offend members of the Black community. As the council discussed the question of supporting a Black Lives Matter mural on township property last fall, Mr. Katz drew the line at memorializing Phillip Pannell, the 16-year-old Black Teaneck resident who was shot in the back and killed while fleeing a police officer in 1990.

“I will not support a mural that has Phillip Pannell’s name on it,” Mr. Katz said, in response to a question posed on video by Mr. Pannell’s mother.

Teaneck’s Mayor James Dunleavy, a Katz ally, opposed Soriano-Taveras in the race for the assembly seat even before the video of her outburst was released. In a letter to Assemblyman Johnson last month, he objected to Ms. Soriano-Taveras’s place on the slate and said he had warned Mr. Johnson not to support her.

“I made it explicitly clear that I could not endorse a ticket that included Ms. Soriano-Tavares as she has improperly used her position as chair of the Teaneck Democratic Municipal Committee to disrupt our non-partisan Council,” Mr. Dunleavy wrote, in a letter he shared on Facebook.

“Ms. Soriano-Taveras has a history of making inappropriate, impolitic and unprofessional comments. Those comments have been hurtful to different communities in Teaneck and have helped to sow division and distrust among one of the most diverse towns in New Jersey. To think that a person with such a track record would be considered to serve in the Assembly in 2021 is mind boggling,” he wrote.

Mr. Katz said he was not impressed by Ms. Soriano-Taveras’ apology.

“It’s clear to most people what she was saying. You don’t need to connect the dots,” he said. “Either it’s anti-Semitism or it’s anti-small-business during a pandemic. You pick your poison. I don’t think this is the best we can do to represent us in a time where we’re trying to come together and heal.”

Assemblyman Johnson issued a statement which accepted the apology.

“I understand the anger this comment has stirred and I want to make clear that I have zero tolerance for anti-Semitism or bigotry of any kind,” the statement said. “In recent years the Jewish community has suffered a terrifying rise in anti-Semitic violence and they are right to insist on answers and accountability. I’m glad Alexandra has apologized for any pain her words caused and I appreciate the context she gave to the rally. I don’t believe she is a hateful, bigoted person, but I recognize the impact her statement has had on the Jewish community.”

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