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"The Accidental Politician:" New Jersey's Only Latina Mayor Rises To The Challenge

Diaz_Wilda!908Mayor Wilda Diaz, Perth Amboy, NJ

To spend a morning with Mayor Wilda Diaz in this “City by the Bay” is to understand the meaning of local celebrity. Everywhere she goes, a familiar face or admirer turns up, saying hello or proffering a friendly handshake. Along a path near the windswept marina, an older gentleman walking his dogs inquires after her family. In front of the Marmolejos Grocery on Penn Street, a young woman excitedly waves at her. Visitors to City Hall do double-takes and stare at her, or yell out, “Como estás? How are you?”
It wasn’t so long ago that Diaz, 51, was an ordinary citizen, working in a local bank. Then in 2008 she ran for mayor of Perth Amboy and won, becoming the city’s first-ever female mayor. She is also the city’s only Latina mayor and currently the only elected Latina mayor in New Jersey. Her victory was so unexpected – she had zero previous political experience – that one national magazine dubbed her “The Accidental Politician.”
Located thirty miles southeast of New York City, Perth Amboy is one of the nation’s most historic cities. Perth Amboy’s Royal Charter dates back to 1718, and its City Hall is the country’s oldest city hall still in continual use. Perth Amboy’s other claims to fame include being the site of the first African-American man to vote in the U.S., and the birthplace of musician Jon Bon Jovi. The city is home to about 50,000 residents, who are 78 percent Latino.
It was Diaz’ Puerto Rican heritage that led her to taking on a leadership rule in her community. In 2006, the city’s previous mayor (now in prison on corruption charges) issued a controversial ordinance putting limits on the city’s growing Puerto Rican Day festival. A married mother of two grown children, Diaz was so angered by what she saw as abuse of the public trust that she successfully ran against the incumbent mayor. “And years later, a federal judge declared that the ordinance was unconstitutional,” she said. “And they caused all that pain and waste of money and it validated what we were saying. You cannot impose an unconstitutional ordinance on anyone because, you know what, if they did it to the Puerto Ricans, what’s to stop them from doing it to any other community?”
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