As part of our NBC Latino Political Profiles series we are featuring Hispanics who are in elected office or are running or actively involved in local, state or national races.
PERTH AMBOY, N.J. – To spend a morning with Mayor Wilda Diaz in this “City by the Bay” is to understand the meaning of local celebrity. Everywhere she goes, a familiar face or admirer turns up, saying hello or proffering a friendly handshake. Along a path near the windswept marina, an older gentleman walking his dogs inquires after her family. In front of the Marmolejos Grocery on Penn Street, a young woman excitedly waves at her. Visitors to City Hall do double-takes and stare at her, or yell out, “Como estás? How are you?”
It wasn’t so long ago that Diaz, 51, was an ordinary citizen, working in a local bank. Then in 2008 she ran for mayor of Perth Amboy and won, becoming the city’s first-ever female mayor. She is also the city’s only Latina mayor and currently the only elected Latina mayor in New Jersey. Her victory was so unexpected – she had zero previous political experience – that one national magazine dubbed her “The Accidental Politician.”
Located thirty miles southeast of New York City, Perth Amboy is one of the nation’s most historic cities. Perth Amboy’s Royal Charter dates back to 1718, and its City Hall is the country’s oldest city hall still in continual use. Perth Amboy’s other claims to fame include being the site of the first African-American man to vote in the U.S., and the birthplace of musician Jon Bon Jovi. The city is home to about 50,000 residents, who are 78 percent Latino.
It was Diaz’ Puerto Rican heritage that led her to taking on a leadership rule in her community. In 2006, the city’s previous mayor (now in prison on corruption charges) issued a controversial ordinance putting limits on the city’s growing Puerto Rican Day festival. A married mother of two grown children, Diaz was so angered by what she saw as abuse of the public trust that she successfully ran against the incumbent mayor. “And years later, a federal judge declared that the ordinance was unconstitutional,” she said. “And they caused all that pain and waste of money and it validated what we were saying. You cannot impose an unconstitutional ordinance on anyone because, you know what, if they did it to the Puerto Ricans, what’s to stop them from doing it to any other community?”
According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), Latino candidates are reshaping the country’s political scene. In 2015, there were over 6,000 Latinos serving in elected office, from governors to school board officials. But while there are 1,800 Hispanic municipal officials, less than one-third (570) are Latina.
Ali A. Valenzuela, Assistant Professor of Politics and Latino Studies at Princeton University, said that these numbers do not surprise him. “Latinos and women in general are very under-represented in politics, from the highest level all the way down,” he noted. “While the numbers are better at the state and local level, this (winning office) is a perennial challenge for members of historically underrepresented groups.” He stated that political parties and organizations need to become more proactive about recruiting potential candidates. In the case of a political newcomer like Diaz, he explained, the community will often respond positively because they want someone who is a fresh face and not part of the establishment.
Valenzuela pointed out several potential benefits of having Latinos in the political pipeline at all levels of government. “Unless you have Latinos starting from the grassroots and learning how to run campaigns, learning how to win campaigns, getting into office and getting experience, then we will not see more national leaders emerge,” he said. “All of all of that experience, networking, and coalition-building is necessary before any Latino can become a national figure.” And when Latinos see people like themselves in office, he adds, it becomes empowering for them – meaning they are more likely to vote, and to feel that they can make a difference in their government.
After her election, Diaz cut her own salary in an effort to get Perth Amboy back on track. She hired more police and expanded programs for seniors and children.
She admits that nothing prepared her for what she found when she first assumed office. “I came in when the country was in such a recession, I guess the worst of depression, and then at the same time we had a debt of the city, which was astronomical – over $250 million in debt,” she said. “And then I knew at the time that I was going to make some very difficult, hard decisions that was going to affect the community. And it did. People didn’t understand at the time; years later they understand, because we are in a better place than we were in, in 2008.”
Diaz was solidly re-elected in 2012, only to face her next test: cleaning up after Hurricane Sandy. “Coming into office, I never knew I would be faced with that kind of hurricane, that would change so many lives in our city and cause such damage.” Although Perth Amboy prepared for the “Superstorm,” some areas were evacuated, and others were left without power for ten days.
Even during such a challenging time, Diaz was struck by the resiliency of her community. “The greatest testimony (to Perth Amboy) is that afterwards about 1000 residents, a lot of them young people, came to help us clean up the waterfront… It would have taken our public works two months to do some of that cleanup and businesses and young people came out (to help). That sent a great message.” In 2014, two years after Sandy, the town’s marina held a grand re-opening.
Diaz credits her parents, who raised six daughters, for inspiring her interest in public service. She accepts her local renown as a by-product of her job. “A lot of these people I do know, a lot of them are residents and hey, you’re the mayor, you become known,” she said. “And I think that they see me everywhere in the city. They see me during the tough times and during the good times. Either way they see me, I am always there.”
Diaz has had her own controversies – but insists that going into politics, for her, has been worth the scrutiny. “(It’s worth it) because there are so many good things you can do for your community. You can make such a change and impact on the lives of people you represent.”
Despite her political star being on the rise, Diaz, who is a Democrat, said that she is focused on her current job. “If you’re sitting on a seat, your responsibility is to that office, making sure the everyday work is done,” she said. “There is a lot of detail, a lot of planning, and that’s what our residents deserve.”
A lifelong resident of Perth Amboy, Diaz is an enthusiastic booster of her hometown. “I say Perth Amboy is a great community, it is a welcoming city, and what’s so great about us is the diversity of our city, the fact that you can shop and dine Perth Amboy… no matter where you go you will find cuisine that you’re going to enjoy,” she said. “We have over 900 businesses in our city in total between small mom-and-pops to medical to attorneys,… and the good thing is, you don’t even need a car in Perth Amboy, we have mass transit here, you can go all the way into the city (Manhattan), everything is walking distance.”
Pressed by NBC News to offer any potential drawback of Perth Amboy, Diaz laughed. “If you are on a diet, don’t come to Perth Amboy, because they give you so much food!”
These days, Diaz is excited about Perth Amboy’s capital improvement plans, economic redevelopment projects, and a plan to issue municipal ID cards for all residents (a program that will begin in January). “The ID cards will be for everyone who lives here, that includes the undocumented,” she said. “What’s so important about that is… that people feel like they are part of our community. We want everyone to have the ID card because we really want people to feel part of Perth Amboy. You live here, you should be part of this town, regardless of your status.” She estimates that a couple thousand undocumented residents live in her city. “We know that they are here, these are family people that are coming here to work and build a better life for their families – and they are part of us, and I welcome them. So I think this is a way of helping them.”
More than anything, Diaz wants to leave a positive, lasting mark on her hometown.
“I hear a lot of the history of this city, and you always hear about 300 years ago or 250 years ago, or 100, but it never includes the Hispanics that live here,” she said. “So I want to make sure that 200 years from now, they say ‘Hey, one time in Perth Amboy they had all these Latinos that were doing these great things – and Perth Amboy is the city that it is today because of them’.”