HE RUM FLOWS FREELY as the political chat-
ter rises above the booming mix of salsa, me-
rengue and jazz inside the Fiesta night club
deep in the Latino heart of Passaic. Suddenly
the lights dim, the deejay turns down the
music, and Byron Bustos, the Ecuadorian-born, Passaic-
raised president of the city’s board of education, steps
into the spotlight.
Microphone in hand, Bustos surveys the crowd. The full
range of Latino political power in Passaic is arrayed before
him. Immigration over the last two decades has made Passaic one of the most Latino cities in a state that increasingly
speaks with a Spanish accent. On this breezy Wednesday
night in early April, the Fiesta is jammed with several dozen
Latinos who shelled out $50 or more to support three incumbents—a Puerto Rican and two Mexicans—who are running
for reelection to the board.
At one table, Dominican entrepreneurs trade stories of
money and power. At another, Puerto Ricans sit with quiet
dignity, painfully aware of their dwindling influence. And in
a dark corner of the crowded room, huddled around a small
square table covered with mixed drinks, a group of Mexicans,
relative newcomers to the scene, warily watch the others.
Directly in front of Bustos stands Passaic’s most prominent Latino, Dr. Alex D. Blanco, a two-term member and past
president of the board of education now serving his second full
term as mayor. But Bustos does not start his introductions with
Blanco. Instead, he calls up a man everybody has been watching all evening—watching who he speaks with, whose shoulder
he touches, who he pulls close to share a confidence.
The man is not Dominican, Puerto Rican or Mexican.
His name is Gary Schaer, and he is an Orthodox Jew, an
odd figure in his black pinstripe suit, starched white shirt,
yellow tie and black yarmulke. Bustos introduces him as
“our great assemblyman and council president” and hands
him the microphone.
“I’m not going to speak in Spanish,” Schaer begins, “be-
cause that would be too painful—not for me, but for you.”
Drawing a few appreciative chuckles, he continues: “I’m very
flattered to be introduced first, although the first person in
this room is Mayor Blanco.”
Schaer’s discomfort at Bustos’s political faux pas is
unmistakable. Unwittingly, Bustos has drawn attention to
an open secret and deep wound in Passaic. For years, Schaer
has used the imposing electoral power of his Orthodox Jew-
ish community—a small but disciplined minority in Passaic—
to construct a power base that controls nearly every aspect
of municipal government in one of the poorest communities
in the state.
Mayor Blanco, Schaer tells the crowd, represents a bold
experiment unfolding in Passaic, an effort to bring together
“people of different backgrounds, beliefs, colors and styles.”
Blanco is Dominican—the first of his people elected mayor
of a New Jersey city. The nine-member board of education
includes five Latinos, an African-American, an Indian, a Jew
and an Italian-American who is half Latino. The city council
is just as diverse. Besides Schaer, the seven-member council
has two Jews, three Latinos and an African-American.
Schaer, 63, takes a moment at the microphone to rattle off
some of his team’s recent accomplishments, freely blending
BY ANTHONY DEPALMA
Meet the Orthodox Jew who pulls
the political strings in the predominantly
Latino city of Passaic.
OF THE GAME