The measure to seek indicted mayor Jose “Joey” Torres’ resignation failed this week after council members voted to protect their political interests, according to more than a dozen local political observes and strategists interviewed for this report.
Council members Andre Sayegh and William McKoy were the two votes in favor of seeking the mayor’s resignation through a vote of no confidence. Sayegh and McKoy are not allies. In the past, both men have clashed on the council floor.
Sayegh couched his argument in favor of the measure as one of consistency. He has been Torres’ biggest critic on the council and has taken a public stance against excessive overtime expenditures at the Department of Public Works (DPW).
McKoy took a moral stance citing the need for good government and “accountability.” He is repelled by Sayegh’s trenchant statements and his aspirations for the mayor’s seat so much so that McKoy endorsed Torres in the 2014 mayoral election campaign which allowed Torres to capture the city’s Jamaican vote.
“As a group, 6-2, we said it wasn’t a major problem,” said council president McKoy. Indeed, a political observer, who did not wish to be named, described the failed vote as a “vote of confidence for corruption.” Torres and three public works supervisors were indicted on theft and other charges.
McKoy said he was surprised by how the vote turned out.
Some of his colleagues saw the no confidence measure as a way for the council president to secure the mayor’s office. When the mayor resigns, the council president becomes the mayor until the governing body appoints an interim mayor.
“What was supposed to be referendum on Joey Torres turned into a referendum on Bill McKoy. It was a vote of no confidence in Bill McKoy. That’s one way you can observe it,” said Sayegh.
Though oddly on the same side in this case, both Sayegh and McKoy remain adversaries. There’s talk both will run for mayor next year.
The votes against the measure was supplied by council members Maritza Davila, Michael Jackson, Shahin Khalique, Alex Mendez, Kenneth Morris, and Luis Velez.
Davila has been cultivated as an ally and a reliable vote on the council for Torres’ by his close people. She was effectively utilized by the administration to push through the unpopular “parade tax” which forced organizers of the Peruvian, Dominican, and other parades to pay for security and clean up expenses.
The parade fee measure has alienated Davila from the city’s Peruvian community, according to political strategists. Davila is of Peruvian heritage.
She has tied her political fortunes to that of the three-term mayor. She hopes to secure votes from Torres’ base by touting some of the mayor’s accomplishments like drop in crime and the reduction in property taxes.
The vote against the no confidence measure is not likely to help her re-election efforts, according to observers. She is siding with a mayor who won by little more than 36-percent of the votes in 2014. The corruption indictment has further eroded his support even in the city’s Puerto Rican community, according to two leaders of that community.
Her example was followed by Khalique.
Jackson has been a critic of the mayor’s in the past several months. Most recently, he criticized Torres’ economic plan for the city while most of his colleagues heaped praise on a plan that presented little that was new.
Some have called his criticism of Torres as political posturing to position himself for a run in 2018. In the past, he said publicly denouncing the mayor only creates an enemy on the second floor of City Hall which makes securing services for constituents difficult.
Jackson said “political strife” does not help the city prior to his vote. His vote against the measure appears to be aimed at gaining support in the city’s Hispanic communities, reckoned strategists.
Similarly, Mendez is attempting to gain Torres voters by his silence on the indictment. He did not want to condemn the city’s first Hispanic mayor as he gathers support for his own run in 2018.
Mendez will have to heavily rely on the Hispanic community for support. His support is very limited outside of the city’s Spanish speaking population. However, by casting his vote against the measure, he likely estranged African-American voters, said one black strategist.
City activist Ernest Rucker, who pushed for the no confidence measure, has criticized Mendez for his silence. Though Rucker believes this will harm him as he seeks the city’s highest office, others say this helps to better align him with his base and creates a pathway to capture those who cast ballots for Torres.
Though he often criticizes the administration’s budgeting practices, Morris, who lives few doors from Torres, is a longtime friend of the mayor’s. He cited the language of the resolution to vote against the measure.
Very few were convinced the language was the actual reason for his vote against the measure. McKoy quipped, “I think part of friendship requires accountability and responsibility.” Championing the measure has strained communication between McKoy and Torres.
Morris is up for re-election next year. He often runs a low-key campaign focusing on perennial issues like property taxes and economic growth. He will likely have to explain his vote to his mostly conservative base.
Velez, who is not up for re-election until 2020, delivered the surprise of the night. He appeared to support the measure the week before the vote, but radically shifted his position on Tuesday by voting against.
“It’s obvious, Luis Velez flip-flopped,” said Rucker. “He had all of the mayor’s talking points in the folder.” Velez repeatedly held up Torres’ economic plan presentation prior to the vote. Observers say his vote was likely changed as a result of the protest put on by workers of Jaslin Construction, a company in the 5th Ward.
Velez is close to the owner of the construction company.
Rucker was caught off guard when several dozen people filled the council chambers with signs and shirts to support Torres, according to insiders. Those protesters were largely louts from Summer Street and Park Avenue.
There was a small diverse group – fewer than a dozen — that appeared to genuinely support Torres. However, many of them had remarks that appeared almost scripted.
“They were very effective in shifting the conversation and the issue,” recalled McKoy on Thursday morning. Torres’ supporters made no mention of the charges against him, but focused on his achievements like cutting taxes, tackling abandoned properties, and resurfacing roads.
The measure had a high rate of success in the council if the mayor’s supporters did not put on a demonstration, according to observers.
Rucker scrambled to bring supporters of the no confidence measure, according to strategists. Over a dozen people streamed into the council chamber, but none of them spoke to make a case in favor of the no confidence measure. It also did not help that many of them were standing behind Torres supporters holding up signs professing their support for their mayor.
Charles Florio, who it is speculated hired the private investigator who followed Torres to capture footage that led to the indictments, watched from the hall. The private investigator, Harry Melber, has said he was hired by a developer involved in a building permit dispute with the city. Florio had a dispute with the city over permits.
Councilwoman Ruby Cotton abstained from voting on the measure. She suggested the vote was risky and raised the prospect of a lawsuit like the one filed by former councilman Julio Tavarez after a no confidence measure was passed rebuking him for making comments on a Spanish radio program.
This report was updated on March 31st, 2017 at 10:30 a.m.