The 80 members of the New Jersey General Assembly were welcomed with hoots, howls and whistles while they proceeded onto the stage of the Patriots Theater in the Trenton War Memorial Tuesday.
At 12 p.m., West New York Mayor and Assemblyman Albio Sires was sworn into his second term as assemblyman. Later in the ceremony, Sires was elected by the entire assembly as the speaker of the assembly for the first time and sworn in by The Honorable James H. Coleman, the associate justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court.
“It is humbling to stand here after members of both sides of the aisle placed their trust and confidence in me as their new assembly speaker,” said Sires to his audience of family, friends, co-workers, fellow politicians and a proud group of West New York residents.
New Jersey Senator Jon Corzine, former Governor Jim Florio and Rep. Robert Menendez were among those in attendance.
As part of his remarks, Sires promised to work to better education, preserve open space and revisit racial profiling while in office.
“We need to recognize that education spending, whether for construction of new schools or early childhood education or after-school programs, is an investment in our state’s future,” said Sires. “We need to strike a balance of investment in urban areas such as Newark and Camden while continuing to protect open space that safeguards our rural areas against overdevelopment.”
As speaker, Sires is now the third most powerful man politically in the state, next only to the governor and the senate president.
Where I come from
When Sires was sworn in as speaker of the assembly, he was not only being sworn in as the first Hispanic-born speaker of the New Jersey assembly, but the first Hispanic to lead any legislative body in any state. “It is a great privilege to take part in the election of the first Hispanic speaker,” said Assemblyman Joseph J. Roberts, Jr. after being sworn in as the new majority leader. “There are more than 1.1 Hispanic people in New Jersey and they now have one of the most powerful voices.”
Sires, who arrived in this country from Cuba just before his 11th birthday in 1962, couldn’t help but choke back tears when he began to speak about his family and their struggles coming to the United States.
“My parents left everything behind to escape a Communist dictatorship,” said an emotional Sires. “They came to America in search of freedom and opportunity, in search of a land where their children could receive the kind of education that would allow them to succeed. And it impressed upon me to forever give something back to this country that has given me so much.”
The 210th general Assembly sworn in with Sires on Jan. 8 also marks the first assembly ruled by a Democratic majority in 10 years. The assembly now seats 44 Democrats.
During his remarks, new minority leader Assemblyman Paul DiGaetano spoke of the many accomplishments made by the Republican majority in the past decade, namely the three-strikes law for criminals, the New Jersey Kid Care and Family Care insurance plans and the preservation of 1 million acres of open space. DiGaetano stressed that he plans to work together with the new Democratic majority.
“I am proud to say that many of these accomplishments received bi-partisan support,” said DiGaetano. “We will continue to work together to make New Jersey a better place to live for all citizens.”
While DiGaetano said that he had great confidence in Sires to lead the Assembly, DiGaetano received a standing ovation after praising former minority leader Joseph Doria of Bayonne, who held the position for 12 years.
“You are a good and honorable man,” said DiGaetano to Doria.
Doria then proved what a great man he was when he nominated Sires for the position of speaker, a position he was up for just one month ago.
“Sires is the personification of the American Dream,” said Doria. “He is a role model for the new and ever growing Hispanic population in northern Hudson County.”
“Although the Sires family came to the United States in 1962, they are sending an irrefutable message today,” continued Doria. “We have arrived.”
The assembly also swore in the largest freshman class of assemblymen since 1974. This year there were 19 first-term assemblymen, 17 of which were Democrats.
Among that freshman class was a dentist, film maker, a restaurateur and educator Rafael Fraguela of Union City. Fraguela was elected to replace the seat left open by former assemblyman and Union City Mayor Raul “Rudy” Garcia. Fraguela had served on the Union City Board of Education until 1993 and then served as Commissioner of Revenue and Finance for the city since then.
Showing their pride
A full busload of West New York residents traveled to Trenton on Jan. 8 to show their support and pride for their mayor as he was sworn in as speaker.
“This is a very special day for me,” said Jose Delgado, who worked with Sires in the Board of Education when Sires was a teacher and coach at Memorial High School. “I am happy for that guy.”
Miriam Rendon, a volunteer at the West New York Senior Citizens’ Center, brought a group of 10 seniors from the center to Trenton with her.
“They wanted to come and support him,” said Rendon. “He [Sires] is always helping the seniors.” Although the new position is going to make Sires spend more time in Trenton and less in West New York, the residents are still confident that Sires will do a good job in West New York.
“He is always helping West New York,” said Rendon, a resident of West New York for 35 years. “Now he will help better than ever.”
“He has done a good job in West New York,” said resident Alicia Berezonsky. “I assume he will do the same now, not just for the Hispanic community but for the entire community.”
The Memorial High School Wind Ensemble also watched the ceremony from the orchestra pit. The ensemble played the opening and recessional music.