Attorney Arlene Quinones Perez constantly surveys the economic and political scene in New Jersey, especially in its cities. And when Perez, the daughter of Puerto Rican-born parents, looks around, she makes plans.
"You often see with a lot of municipalities a very reactionary way of handing things. You have to be proactive," said Perez, 35, a partner at the firm DeCotiis, FitzPatrick & Cole in Teaneck. "You have to have a plan in place."
Perez holds several positions that allow her to execute plans. One of relatively few Latina law partners in the Garden State, she was recently voted in as president-elect of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey. She is the law director of Perth Amboy, the first woman and first Latina serving in that position in a city that is almost 80 percent Latino.
Arlene Quinones Perez has high hopes for Essex County's Latino community.
Perez is also the chair of the Hunterdon County Democratic Committee, one of only a few women who hold an influential county party chair seat in New Jersey, and also serves as secretary for Latinas United for Political Empowerment (LUPE), a statewide organization dedicated to empowering woman to run for elected office.
"It's frustrating that there seems to be a higher bar for women or minorities who want to run for office," said Perez, who works with Perth Amboy Mayor Wilda Diaz. "In Hunterdon County, it's about working together. No one is telling us what do or who we have to listen to. With all of the special interests and power brokers, we want to make sure that we have people who can stand up and do what they want to do."
Perez praised the administrations of cities such as Newark, Paterson, Perth Amboy and Jersey City for encouraging diversity in the ranks as a way to accurately reflect the communities that they represent.
She noted that the way for Latinos to ultimately achieve political power in cities such as Newark in the long term is through unity: Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans, Ecuadorians must work together to form a formidable voting bloc that will accentuate the power of the more than 30 percent of Newark's population that is Latino.
The same concept applies to economic development. Figures from the Statewide and Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey show that the business component of the Latino community is growing significantly along with its population, especially with regards to entrepreneurial small businesses.
But to move in increasing numbers from the bodega to the boardroom, Perez emphasizes that Latinos must follow the same path taken by other ethnic groups on the way to achieving the American Dream.
"Education will put Latinos over the top," said Perez, a graduate of Rutgers-New Brunswick and Rutgers-Camden Law School.
"One of the things instilled in me when I was growing up was the importance of education," she said. "All of my sisters went to college and beyond. Education is going to take us where we need to go economically. It will give us the power we need to effectively deal with issues that affect all New Jerseyans, including property taxes, pension reform, education and economic redevelopment, as well as issues such as immigration reform that strongly impact the Latino community."
At DeCotiis, Perez focuses on municipal law and labor and employment law, encouraging redevelopment efforts in cities such as Newark, Jersey City, Paterson and Perth Amboy.
"The firm's name means something in this state," Perez said. "Politically, they are a strong firm, but substantively they are an excellent firm. That's where I wanted to go."
With the 2017 New Jersey gubernatorial election on the horizon, the names of several female politicians are being referenced as potential lieutenant governor candidates on the Democratic ticket.
State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-29), who represents parts of Newark, is reportedly on this list. Other political observers have suggested that Perez is also on the list.
Perez, praising Ruiz's work in the Legislature, believes that Latino are ready to rise up to any level in New Jersey politics.
"I want women and minorities to understand that if you are accomplished in your careers, you're more than able to come in and serve in a range of elected offices," Perez said. "When women, Latinos and other minorities are united, we are strong. We can do anything."