Teaneck Democratic Chairman Alexandra Soriano-Taveras is being accused of divisive speech just as she has been named a slate candidate for New Jersey Assembly Seat 37, a seat being vacated by Assemblyman Gordon Johnson (D) of Englewood. Johnson has been slated by the Bergen County Democratic Committee for Senate Seat 37, which is being vacated by retiring Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D).
Assemblyman Johnson told The Jewish Link that he was unhappy with recently released recorded statements of his potential slate replacement.
Soriano-Taveras, who holds the position of municipal chairwoman of the Teaneck Democratic Party Organization, was recorded on July 3, 2020, during a protest of the installation of Teaneck’s town council, in which its mayor and deputy mayors were elected with an internal vote from within the council. While the video was deleted, a 24-second audio clip that is being circulated online called for a boycott of local businesses, and a Facebook live feed remains (https://www.facebook.com/gervonn.rice/videos/10217310751376198/). “Boycott those businesses, including the Dunkin’ Donuts and everything else, and we hurt them in their pockets. Who owns those businesses that we continue to support on Cedar Lane?” she asked.
To contextualize, this statement was made this past July, during the height of the BLM marches and advocacy in the wake of George Floyd’s May 2020 murder. Teaneck advocates, including Soriano-Taveras, were apparently calling for Teaneck’s only Black Council Member, Gervonn Romney-Rice, to be named Deputy Mayor. News of Irish American Jim Dunleavy’s election as mayor, as well as two Jewish Americans as deputy mayors, were allegedly what elicited this anti-Cedar lane language. Historically, the first kosher stores and restaurants were located on Cedar Lane.
In a statement emailed to The Jewish Link after an earlier version of this article was released, Soriano-Taveras said her comments were “selectively edited,” and “taken out of context.”
She shared her version of the statement that was circulated in her name: “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.”
Soriano-Taveras added that she has “nothing but respect and appreciation for the Jewish community in Teaneck, District 37 and all of New Jersey.”
However, calling for a boycott of small businesses in Teaneck during the height of the pandemic is still being cast as impolitic and is not being taken lightly. “I am not happy that she chose those words, period,” said Assemblyman Johnson. “I am looking for coordination and guidance, but the selection process is not done by me, so I am looking to see how they [the County Democratic Committee] are going to handle this situation,” he told The Jewish Link. Aside from seeing her at various political events and knowing that she was the Teaneck Democratic Municipal Chairwoman, Johnson said was unaware of her credentials or her occupation, and had been looking forward to her credentialing meeting with the board of the County Demcratic Party this coming Thursday, March 3. In her statement to The Jewish Link, Soriano-Taveras shared that she is a school teacher.
Democratic Congressman Josh Gottheimer, who represents Teaneck and surrounding New Jersey towns in the House of Representatives, was unhappy with the video as well. “Like everyone in the community, I’m outraged by what I heard. As ever, I am committed to tackling systemic racism, anti-Semitism, and all forms of hate,” Gottheimer told The Jewish Link.
The party slating process gives a strong advantage to candidates in primary and general elections. The 37th legislative district represents Northern New Jersey towns from Alpine, Cresskill and Rockleigh to Tenafly, Teaneck, Bogota and Hackensack. The primary for this seat will be held in June, with a general election in November.
“I find what Ms.Soriano-Taveras said to be reprehensible,” said Assemblyman Gary Schaer, who is Deputy Speaker and Policy Chairman. “The Democratic party stands for inclusion. It stands for the rights and participation of all individuals and all groups. We have carried that torch for decades. We should be proud of that,” he told The Jewish Link.
“Ms. Soriano-Taveras’ remarks were unacceptable. What she said was a not-so-veiled anti-Semitic trope. I appreciate the credentialing committe’s exploration of her qualities and everything else, but there is no candidate who can believe and say those kinds of things and still be considered for nomination. I am extremely distraught that this is happening, especially in a municipality like Teaneck.
“It’s very difficult to accept this in 2021, at a time when we have recognized the disparity in this country regarding Blacks, Latinos and others. This extends to all minority groups. Whatever she is saying, she is certainly saying it poorly. Democratic leadership in Bergen County is excellent, but this is certainly something that cannot be let stand,” Schaer said.
Weinberg, 86, of Teaneck, is a Senate stalwart who has served for close to 29 years in both legislatures, having been first elected to the Assembly in 1992. She was elected to the Senate in 2005 and has been Senate Majority Leader since 2012, the highest ranking woman in the legislature. She announced in January that she would not be seeking reelection. Johnson has served in the Assembly for 18 years, most recently elected as Speaker Pro Tempore in 2018.
“The process as we have in place to select a candidate is being tested. It’s unfortunate that this has come out. I won’t have a substantive answer for that until later today,” Johnson said. “I can work with anyone, but when this came out; this is an issue for sure. And it’s a surprise. I am still kind of shocked by it,” Johnson added.
The comments were personally offensive to Deputy Mayor Elie Katz, who has served Teaneck as a council member since 2006. “She’s been divisive,” Katz said of Soriano-Taveras. “In my opinion, at best these comments were anti-small business during a pandemic. At worst, her intentions were anti-Semitic, referring to a boycott of Jewish businesses on Cedar Lane.”
“Mayor Jim Dunleavy has no connection to Teaneck’s Cedar Lane businesses. The current mayor and the current deputy mayors have no financial connection to Cedar Lane businesses,” said Katz, noting that his business interests are not located in the Cedar Lane area. “She was, in my opinion, making a direct reference to trying to hurt the Jewish-owned businesses in Teaneck. Cedar Lane is synonymous with that. This was historically the location of all the Jewish-owned businesses,” he said.
“With that said, in this day and age this is not a person who should be representing a town like Teaneck. I don’t know how anyone could stand shoulder to shoulder with her and we should not accept it,” Katz told The Jewish Link. Katz launched an online petition to have her candidacy for Assembly “categorically” rejected.
Teaneck Mayor Jim Dunleavy also expressed his view, noting he could not support Assemblyman Johnson if he continued to run on a slate with Soriano-Taveras. “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,” Dunleavy wrote, in a letter to Johnson.
“Teaneck prides itself on its diversity and nothing represents our character more than our small businesses right here on Cedar Lane. For someone who wants to represent these same small businesses to call for a boycott during the worst economic downturn we have seen shows their lack of judgement and character,” said Teaneck Council Member Michael Pagan.
“We met with Gordon during the height of [last week’s] snowstorm, and he made it clear that he would not be endorsing or supporting her, and then we find out she is on the ticket,” said Teaneck’s other deputy mayor, Mark Schwartz, who also serves as co-publisher of The Jewish Link. “Soriano-Taveras was basically saying ‘the Jews appointed its own mayor and two deputy mayors with business holdings, so we should hurt them financially by boycotting their businesses,’” said Schwartz.
Schwartz said if Soriano-Taveras is not removed from the slate, he will support non-slate candidate Valerie Vainieri Huttle for Weinberg’s seat, who recently chose Teaneck council member Gervonn Romney-Rice as her assembly seat running mate.
“The reality is that Gervonn has been part of the team that has brought a lot of good to Teaneck,” Katz said.
At press time, The Jewish Link was awaiting calls from Bergen County Democratic Committee Chair Paul Juliano and Sen. Loretta Weinberg.
Updates to this article were made on March 2, 2021.