Posted by Joan Hanna on June 07, 2016 in Blog

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2016-06-07.jpgVoting is a privilege. Having a voice in how your country is run should not be taken for granted because, in some countries, citizens do not have that right. Yet, some say their one vote will not matter. Some say they do not vote because the system is rigged. Some say they are too busy to do the research required to be properly informed. If a person prescribes to any of those mindsets, do they also consent to having their voice, their opinions, their fundamental rights being taken away? When Arab Americans across the country first began seeking political power, we struggled and were unfairly ostracized.

But today is a different story and Arab Americans are running and winning, even in today’s tough political climate. Andre Sayegh, who’s of Syrian and Lebanese descent, is one of them. A Paterson, New Jersey City Councilman, representing the sixth ward, Sayegh understands the importance of civic engagement and how much one vote matters.

Always challenging himself throughout his career, Sayegh graduated Summa Cum Laude from Seton Hall University in 1997 and earned his Master’s in Public Administration from Columbia University three years later. Over the next seven years, Sayegh gained experience in community and political organizing by working as a field representative for Congressman Bill Pascrell (D, NJ-9) and serving as Chief of Staff for State Representative John A. Girgenti (D-35). From there, he became the Paterson Alliance Executive Director at the New Jersey Community Development Corporation, working to improve the quality of life in Paterson by advancing opportunities for education, youth engagement, and housing. During this time, Sayegh has also been an Adjunct Professor at Passaic County Community College and William Paterson University, teaching social sciences and history, respectively. Over the past 16 years as an Adjunct Professor, he has emphasized voter engagement. “I always tell my students to have a strong sense of civic duty -- it’s so important.” These experiences influenced not only the way he ran his campaigns, but also contributed to the areas he chose to focus on since he has been a Council Member: education, public safety and economic development in Paterson.

Sayegh has run for office every two years since 2004. There have been wins and losses along the way, but that has not shaken his dedication to civic engagement. Sayegh was first elected to the Paterson Board of Education in 2004, re-elected in 2006, and served as President from 2007-2008. Sayegh ran for the Ward 6 council seat in 2008, winning more than 70 percent of the vote. In 2010, Sayegh jumped into the mayoral race against incumbent Jose Torres and Jeffrey Jones. Jones won in an upset. Two years later, Sayegh faced Eliecer Montoya and Maria P. Rivas in his council re-election campaign. He won almost 69 percent of the vote and became President of the City Council in 2013. In the 2014 Paterson mayoral race, Sayegh threw his name into the mix, challenging seven other candidates. He placed second, losing by only seven points, but that has not diminished his passion to serve the Paterson community.  

Sayegh won his re-election bid for city council last month with 485 votes -- and worked hard for every single one. When speaking to the Paterson Press and the Record, Sayegh explained the time and effort he put into going door to door. “I went to my podiatrist and he told me to get off my feet. I’m glad I didn’t listen to my doctor.” This city council election was one of his toughest, but he stuck to what works best: the ground game. “There’s nothing like it. You have to pound the pavement as hard as you can and touch as many voters as you can. You listen and you learn, and you can turn that into real action that you can take back in the council. The results of going door to door have translated into positive results for Patersonians.” Sayegh ran against a fellow Arab American, Al Abdelaziz, a community leader, teacher and coach in Paterson. At 28 years old, Abdelaziz ran a tough campaign and had the support of Jose Torres, current Paterson Mayor, and raised nearly $35,000 more than Sayegh in contributions.

Although Abdelaziz excelled in fundraising efforts, Sayegh believes his years on the city council have prepared him to walk the walk, not just talk the talk. Speaking to the Paterson Press, he said “I ran on a strong record of results and it resonated with the voters.” Over the past eight years, Sayegh has been vehement about improving the quality of life in Paterson. He has focused on attracting new business by creating Special Improvement Districts across Paterson. He also led the effort to shut down nuisance businesses, like clubs that attracted violence; in one instance replacing them with a preschool. While he has a record of opposing tax increases, Sayegh has sought to make up the difference with new ideas, like expanded recycling, to generate revenue.

Only a few years ago, the Arab American community in and around Paterson was targeted for simply turning out the vote. That Arab Americans, like Sayegh, who are steadfastly passionate about politics, continue to plow ahead and fight for our community is a testament to how far we have come, but also a reminder of what our vigilance can bring. As Sayegh puts it, “Participation does translate into power to those that have been excluded in the past….It’s not about getting mad or getting even, it’s about getting stronger.”