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Fil-Ams rise to local posts in New Jersey

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Arvin Amatorio. ASIAN JOURNAL PHOTO

NEW YORK CITY — Two Filipino-Americans ran for city council in their respective places and won during the US midterm elections, joining two other Filipinos who already hold city council posts in the state.

One of the recent winners is 43-year-old lawyer Arvin Amatorio, who won in Bergenfield, and the other is 23-year-old law school freshman Jonathan Wong, who won in Mahwah.

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The two neophyte politicians join two other Filipinos who are incumbent city council members in New Jersey: Rolando Lavarro, Jr. who won in Jersey City in 2011 and Peter Mendonez, Jr. who won in West Windsor last year.

“The election of Arvin Amatorio in Bergenfield and Jonathan Wong in Mahwah to their respective councils and Rachel Puno Juliana of Plainsboro to the school board is historic and speaks volumes about the ascent of Filipino Americans in New Jersey politics,” Jersey City Council President Rolando Lavarro told the Asian Journal.

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“Along with Peter Mendonez in West Windsor, there are now four Filipino Americans elected to city councils in New Jersey,” Lavarro explained.

“All of them are young, smart, innovative and energetic. As the senior Fil-Am elected, I am excited about the future as I expect all of them to have long and successful careers. It’s incumbent on Filipino American voters and donors to continue to support kababayans who are doing a good job and representing their interests,” he added.

Rolando Lavarro, Jr. Jersey City, New Jersey (population 247,597) Term ends June 30, 2017 -17,268 Filipinos; 7,537 21 years and over; 5,525 households, almost evenly divided, with 2,737 owning their homes and 2,788 renting.

Filipinos made political history in 2011 by electing Rolando Lavarro, Jr., to the City Council of Jersey City, the second largest city in the state. As such, Lavarro became the first Filipino-American to win an elective position in Jersey City, and two years later, became the first Filipino-American president of Jersey City’s City Council. A few Filipinos in the city have been appointed to various posts and commissions.

He was elected for a second term as Councilman-At-Large on June 11, 2013. He was voted in for a two-year term as Council President by the newly sworn in Municipal Council on July1, 2013. Originally elected via a special election on November 8, 2011, becoming the first Asian American in the history of Jersey City to serve on the Municipal Council.

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Rolando Lavarro Jr. ASIAN JOURNAL PHOTO

Lavarro grew up in the Greenville section of Jersey City where he still resides with his wife and child.  He is the son of doctors Rizalina and Rolando Lavarro, Sr., who immigrated in the late 1960s to the United States from the Philippines. After attending St. Paul’s Grammar School in Greenville, Lavarro graduated from St. Peter’s Preparatory High School in downtown Jersey City.

He went on to earn his Bachelor of Science in Marketing from New York University’s Leonard Stern School of Business. Prior to serving on the City Council, Lavarro was the Director of Constituent Services for Assemblyman (now State Senator) Robert Gordon in New Jersey’s 38th Legislative District and was an Aide to Councilwoman Mary Donnelly in Jersey City’s Ward B.  For a decade, he worked with World Education Services, helping immigrants and foreign students to transition to the United States by providing evaluations of foreign academic credentials.

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Currently, Lavarro is the Assistant Director for the Office of Grants and Sponsored Programs at New Jersey City University, where he has worked since 2007.  Since joining NJCU, his office has shattered previous grant-making records and has amassed over $20 million in grant awards for the University.

Lavarro is committed to building coalitions and working with diverse groups and organizations in the community.  His legislative priorities include crime and public safety and implementing a city budget that prioritizes the needs of Jersey City residents, businesses, and stakeholders.

New Jersey winners

Peter Mendonez, Jr. West Windsor, New Jersey (population 27,165) Term ends Dec 31, 2017 – In 2008, Forbes listed West Windsor as the 15th most affluent neighborhood in the US. – AOL/NeighborhoodScout named West Windsor in 2009 as the best neighborhood to raise children because of its school district (top 7 percent in New Jersey, top 3 percent nationwide), prevailing family type (families with school-aged children), and neighborhood safety (safer than 97 percent of neighborhoods) – Asian Americans comprise 37.7 percent (10,245) of the township’s total population of 27,165. There are 255 Filipinos in West Windsor, representing about 65 households.

Mendonez, 30 years old, grew up in Central New Jersey with two sisters and one brother. He is also an Electrical Engineer by profession who has worked for Electric Utilities and IBM. Right now, he is focused on a company he co-founded in Princeton NJ. “My life goal is to change the world through clean energy,” Mendonez told the Asian Journal.

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Peter Mendonez Jr. ASIAN JOURNAL PHOTO

“Politics intersected with this goal when I realized we didn’t have elected officials who know anything about climate change or had solutions to solve our sustainability problems.”

Mendonez said he was raised to be involved and interested in local community organizing and helping people. He was a church volunteer and middle-school basketball coach. When he was in high school, he was an assistant soccer coach for his Dad, coaching his sisters’ and brother’s teams.

“My career in politics started organically as a community organizer. As you get more involved and take on more responsibility you naturally become a local politician, solving problems for the community and helping children. Within those circles, I found myself volunteering to campaign for people who shared my drive and ideals. Then naturally, I was asked to run. I am currently 1 for 1,” he shared proudly.

His current term as a Councilman is four years with three more to go. “Not knowing what the future holds, my short term and long term goals are the same. I want to educate the youth and the Filipino community on how to get involved in politics, while spreading the message of real representation and equality,” he said.

“I want to promote long term sustainability and diversity. I am not a career politician, I am a politician with a successful career.” “If all goes well, both in my entrepreneur and political endeavors, how does the first Filipino-American President sound?” he asked.

Like Jonathan Wong, Mendonez has not been to the Philippines. “I have not visited yet since the core family is either in the United States or Europe. The plan is to go as part of my honeymoon next year and a big family reunion in 2016,” he confided.

He credits his success so far to his parents who reared them and taught them life lessons. His mother is from Makati and his father is from Quezon City. “They both came to the Bronx in the early 70’s and met at a local Filipino American function in New York City,” he quipped.

“I owe everything to my mom. She sacrificed her career as a nurse to raise the family. She taught us respect, humility, how to dance, and how to love,” Peter said. “She didn’t teach us how to cook her good food though!” Good food like pancit and lumpia, Peter’s all-time favorites. He also likes the way his mom whips Pinoy breakfast with eggs, bacon, rice and some meat from the night before.

Like many traditional Filipino-American families, the Mendonez kids also grew up with their grandparents around. “My dad’s mother fought in WWII in the Philippines. My mom’s mother was a police officer in the Philippines. My grandmas were strict! Our mom was the one we ran to,” he shared.

Asked about his plans in the city council, Mendonez said he plans to keep taxes low, encourage smart development in town, and ensure that future children have at least the same opportunities as he did to grow and become successful. On encouraging second-generation Fil-Ams who want to run for public office, he said he’d be more than happy to share his knowledge.

“It is a part-time job so anyone can do it! I’m happy to mentor anyone,” he said. “Our current Vice President, Joe Biden, was elected to the U.S. Senate at the same age (29) I was elected into Council. Second generation Filipino Americans have a lot to catch up to. We and our parents have contributed greatly to society and it’s time that we are represented.

Arvin Amatorio Bergenfield, NJ (population 26,764) Term starts 1/1/2015 –  4,767 Filipinos; 3,384 21 years and over; 1,184 households, 75 percent own their own homes and the remaining rent. – Has been dubbed as “Little Manila of Bergen County”

Although Filipino-Americans make up nearly 20 percent of the borough’s population, more than a decade has passed since one has served in

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Jonathan Wong. ASIAN JOURNAL PHOTO

local government. That drought ended Tuesday when Arvin Amatorio, a 43-year-old lawyer who moved from the Philippines 12 years ago, won one of the two council posts. He received 2,947 votes as part of the Democratic ticket.

Amatorio is the first Filipino-American to serve on the council since Robert Rivas, who was appointed to the remaining year of Kevin Clancy’s term after Clancy was elected mayor in 1996. “We need to support candidates who understand our values and will represent the interests of our community,” said Jersey City Council President Rolando Lavarro, who announced his endorsement of Amatorio and incumbent Chris Tully who were running for Council seats in Bergenfield.

“We need public servants who will listen to constituents, fight for working families, and push for diversity in representation.” Amatorio has an immigration law practice in New York, and serves as Counsel to the Law Office of Victor Sison in Bergenfield.

He has provided free legal workshops and numerous pro bono legal service usually referred by the church and foreign consulate.  He is a parishioner at St. John’s church and active in various charitable projects.

“After more than 18 years of political drought we’re finally free from the bondage that kept us silent…now, we’ve proven that the Filipinos, when united in a show of force, could change the entire political scenario,” Amatorio said.

“This is the result of hard work and painstaking scheme-tactical collaboration…I’ve never felt such euphoric emotion.” Amatorio’s victory in Bergenfield is a community effort that defied city borders. Active community leaders from Jersey City trooped to Bergenfield to encourage kababayans there to go out and vote.

Amatorio’s close buddy and confidant Mike Florendo helped to mobilize and dispatch adequate persons to strategic points. Others remained in the campaign headquarters to do phone brigade.

“Let’s call all our kababayans to go out and vote! Let’s ask them for their support. If they don’t have transportation means we will provide them with transport…if they complain of headache, we will give them Tylenol or any paracetamol. Let’s just don’t give them any reason not to vote,” was Mike’s straightforward instruction to the members of the telethon brigade to ensure the maximum voters’ turnout.

Jonathan Wong Mahwah, New Jersey (population 25,890) Term starts 1/1/2015 – 165 Filipinos; 106 21 years and over; 48 households – The name “Mahwah” is derived from the Lenape word “mawewi” which means “Meeting Place” or “Place Where Paths Meet”

Wong, 23 years old, is a Mahwah High School graduate and a freshman law school student at Brooklyn Law School. He came in second with 2,015 votes at the November 4 polls. Born 1991 in Livingston, New Jersey, Jonathan and his parents moved to Mahwah when he was three years old. He attended the Mahwah school system from pre-school through High School, where he lettered for four years as a wrestler for the Thunderbirds.

During High School Wong volunteered as a youth counselor at Trinity Fardale Church and volunteered at Habitat for Humanity, helping to build housing for low income first time home buyers.

He has continued his volunteer activities serving as a volunteer youth leader with Burnt Meadow Charities in Ringwood, New Jersey, which provides outdoor leadership, team building, and ethics programs to inner city and youth-at-risk in New York and New Jersey.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in finance from City University of New York, Baruch College. He is president of Trinity Property, a property management company, and is also employed as a real-estate broker for Full Service Realty.

“When I was 19 I met an assemblyman and learned what he did. [Last year] when I read in the newspaper about the unexpired term that was available, I seized the opportunity and ran,” he shared.

That was his first campaign for councilman where he competed against an attorney who had run twice prior, a former councilman and freeholder who was running for office the second time, and an environmental advocate.

He was the third highest vote getter and was only 300 away from the winner. He was so inspired by the result that he studied the town issues even harder, attending almost every town council meeting for the next year and ran again this year.

“While I came in third in that race, as a first time candidate, I found that I had broad support because of my message for better and more responsive government,” Wong told the Asian Journal. This is why he decided to run again this year.

“It has been an awesome experience and I would recommend it to everyone my age. It’s time to get involved! “ Once his interest in politics was piqued, he started attending council meetings to get involved and to familiarize himself with the issues facing the community.

As the city council’s new member, Jonathan hopes to focus on transparency, control the tax rate, make good decisions “balancing the financial with the quality of life we have in our community.”

“What would I tell second generation Fil-Ams who want to run?  Learn the issues. Have a good message. Shake hands and kiss babies,” he said. “Again I encourage everyone my age to get involved in their community, run for office, volunteer, but get out there and get involved. You can make a difference.”

Looking forward, Wong said he’d probably seek higher office, establish his own place in the family businesses and be the best representative for his family and community that he can be.

“I’d like to thank everyone for all their support and kind words.  It has been an honor, privilege, and blessing.  I am humbled by all the support I have received and I am very excited to start the next four years,” he said.

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TAGS: Arvin Amatorio, Filipino American elected officials, Filipino American winners Nov. 4 US midterm elections, Jonathan Wong, Peter Mendonez Jr., Rolando Lavarro Jr., US elections, US politics
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