I don’t usually write about politics in this space and I don’t intend to make a habit of it, but I feel compelled to write about what happened at the Teaneck Town Council’s reorganization meeting two Tuesday evenings ago. I write this because I am fairly sure most of our Teaneck readers are not aware of what happened that night, and we also have a letter to the editor in this week’s paper co-written by Mark (Mendy) Schwartz’s children along with Councilwoman Karen Orgen’s children, and I feel we should provide some context for everyone to understand what happened and why they felt they needed to speak out.
I attended the crowded January 3rd council meeting at Teaneck’s Rodda Center because my Jewish Link co-publisher, friend and Teaneck Town Councilman Mendy had let me know, as well as his family and a few other friends, that he was going to be selected at the meeting by his fellow council members as the next mayor of Teaneck. (In Teaneck, council members are elected by public vote; Teaneck’s mayor is elected from within by its seven council members.)
I was genuinely happy for Mendy, who has been serving on the council since 2012. Even though he has always kept his head down, focusing on the work of helping township residents and promoting smart development and has never been one to run towards honor or seek the spotlight, I realized that he was actually quite gratified and enthusiastic about having been chosen as Teaneck’s mayor. After sitting through a decade of countless meetings that went late into the night, and responding to literally thousands of citizen concerns, serving as mayor of the town was a beautiful validation of his work that he planned to celebrate.
Our readers may also be interested to know that Mendy had also written an emotion-filled publisher’s piece article for last week’s edition about his love for the town of Teaneck and what serving the town and its diverse community means to him. Another reason I was at the meeting was to make sure that we had a good picture of Mendy with his family after being sworn in, to place prominently in our paper last week.
Well…none of that happened.
In a display of brutal, petty and personal politics, Mendy was deeply and publicly embarrassed when the vote—which had been agreed upon in earlier meetings and commitments—ended up with four votes in favor of Michael Pagan, with Pagan voting for himself instead of Mendy as mayor, as he had stated he would. Pagan essentially stabbed in the back his formerly close friend, slate partner, and 2020 running mate. While no physical crime was committed, it was an extraordinarily ugly thing to watch. The hope is always that local politics is free of the baser elements and outright hypocrisy that we sometimes see with politicians who speak out of both sides of their mouths, promising one thing and then doing the opposite.
Once it sunk in that Mendy was not Teaneck’s next mayor, it was not easy for his family and friends to watch him sit stone-faced on the council’s raised dais while the new mayor whipped out a prepared acceptance speech to deliver to the assembled. The acceptance speech that had been written in advance was particularly shocking because Mr. Pagan clearly knew what was going to happen, and also knew what Mendy’s expectations had been.
Fast forward to the following week, this past Tuesday night’s first formal Teaneck town council meeting of the year, which I also attended to see how the town council would move forward. Although I didn’t speak, I listened attentively to a large number of Teaneck residents, friends, and supporters of Mendy sing his praises and express their discomfort and anger at what happened.
The words that most stood out to me and that I am sharing with you now, were spoken by Teaneck’s Ari Davis, who shared a vignette about how Mendy once helped him and added that his experience has been repeated by a wide variety of residents in town, whether or not they knew him previously. It never mattered to Mendy whether the person asking was Jewish, Muslim, white, black, or even a resident of Teaneck or not. Ari explained that Mendy makes himself available to anyone needing assistance, day or night, because that is Mendy’s character. Ari concluded with:
So, where do we go from here?…No one is claiming that there was anything illegal done by Mr. Pagan or the Rise for Teaneck Slate or that the council reorganization vote should be reversed. In fact, if you believe what you read and hear from their supporters, this is politics and everyone should just deal with it and move on. After hearing these same supporters’ often baseless complaints for years against the council majority to which Mark has been aligned, the pungent smell of hypocrisy is overwhelming. This was not politics. This was Mr. Pagan and the Rise for Teaneck slate publicly embarrassing Mark in front of his friends, family and township members who came to the reorganization meeting. They could have had the same results by giving him a 24-hour warning, 12-hour warning, even a two-hour warning that they were turning on him, so that he could have at least alerted his numerous supporters and prepared himself. That would have been politics that we all could have understood, even if we did not agree with it.
I stand before you this evening with a challenge to Mr. Pagan. I challenge you to publicly apologize tonight to Mark for the hurt and embarrassment that you have caused him in this forum. Again, no one is asking to overturn the council vote or accusing you of illegal activities. I turn to you and to the Rise for Teaneck slate and just ask for you to do the right thing, give a public apology right here, right now, for the needless and senseless public humiliation that you have caused Mark, and let us all move on to work together to continue making this town such a great place to live.
I agree with Ari, and while it was not forthcoming on Tuesday night, I hope this challenge is someday accepted; although in politics, apologies are often hard to come by.
Mendy, I am not worried about you in the slightest as I know you have already put this incident well behind you and are looking forward to the next two years of your council term, representing all of our communities and doing your best to make life better for everyone around you and continuing to be a kiddush hashem (conduct that makes God proud) and a positive light among the nations. I, as well as my family and staff, am grateful to work with you and proud to call you our friend and beloved colleague.By Moshe Kinderlehrer/
Co-Publisher, The Jewish Link