Man on the move

1/20/2006 9:34:44 AM

WAYNE - Even when he's flat on his back doing crunches at the Y, people come up to talk to him. And he talks to them.

It goes on like this all day: from the gym at 7:30 a.m., to his law office in Totowa, to speaking before a high school government class, to attending a wake for a former fire commissioner's wife, to strategy meetings at the municipal building, to a Township Council meeting dragging past 10 p.m.

Basically, Scott Rumana is everywhere. He puts in 40 to 50 hours a week as Wayne's Republican mayor on top of his full-time job as a real estate lawyer.

It's not for the money: The mayor's salary is $18,750. He does it because it drives him - and it's practically in his blood.

Rumana, an only child, doesn't have a political pedigree. His Assyrian grandfather was a tailor in Paterson and his boyhood pals on Wayne's Surrey Drive remember him more as an avid lacrosse player than a student of politics.

But Rumana picked up the public-service bug from his godfather, Robert Roe, who was mayor of Wayne before serving as a 23-year Democratic congressman. It was interning for Roe in Washington, D.C., during the Iran-contra hearings in the summer of 1987 that turned Rumana into a visible and outspoken lover of all things government.

"It was almost like a calling to want to serve," Rumana recalled. "Working for my Uncle Bob I realized that your ability to help people is on a very grand scale as you assume positions in the government."

Roe, who did not return requests for comment, remained a behind-the-scenes mentor to his godson, Rumana said. He first guided Rumana onto the Township Council in 1994 at age 29 - "He told me who to call, who to write letters to and told me to go out and knock on thousands and thousands of doors."

Now 41, Rumana has held elected office for more than a decade, developing a can-do record as a county freeholder and now mayor. In November, he won his second term by a landslide. And he has emerged as a potential maestro for Passaic County's Republican Party, still in disarray after the corruption scandals of the 1990s.

"He's got a knack of pulling people together," said state Assemblyman Kevin O'Toole, a Republican. "I don't think you'll find a better mayor in the state."

In his first term, Rumana ushered through a property tax to preserve land in his fully developed hometown of 55,000 residents and tried to reduce speeding with special signage on residential streets. He initiated plans for a multimillion-dollar cogeneration plant to heat and cool public buildings, saying it will save $20 million over 20 years in energy bills and reduce air pollution. He's corralled at least 10 neighboring mayors to push for flood control improvements and buyouts along the Passaic River basin, saying the threat to life and property from an inevitable 100-year flood is too great to ignore.

And he says he will fight for more state money for transportation improvements, an area of expertise: Rumana cut his teeth on traffic as a councilman and freeholder. With Roe's guidance, he convinced state officials to build a flyover ramp opening a bottleneck on Route 23 near Routes 46 and 80 - the infamous "spaghetti bowl."

"It's not glamorous but it's one of those bread-and-butter issues," Rumana said of transportation. "If you can get somebody home to their family that much quicker, I don't know what price you put on that. It's something so important to one of the most densely populated states in the nation but can also improve the ability of a community to bring in better ratables."

That big-think ability to actually get something done has attracted attention beyond Wayne's borders. In recent weeks, there's been an increasing drumbeat for Rumana to take control of the GOP in Passaic County, said Bill Connolly, the Republican municipal leader in Paterson.

The normally chatty mayor had no comment, but it's the latest sign of his widening circle of fans.

He packed an October fund-raiser with hundreds of area donors - the kind of crowd not seen by a Republican in the county for several years. On any given Friday, he's joined at Miranda's restaurant on Route 23 by 20 to 25 regulars of diverse backgrounds - a self-described "$13 lunch crowd." And he helped direct a clean sweep by his council running mates last fall.

It's a crescendo of support largely drawn to Rumana's ideas and ubiquitous presence. But it does have some politically experienced observers worried.

"They're power-drunk," Thomas Vatrano said of Rumana's cohorts.

Vatrano, a Republican leader in town in 1991 and 15-year veteran of the planning and zoning boards, points to the unorthodox appointment of the Township Council president this month. Traditionally, the position has been rotated; this year, however, it went to a Rumana confidant, Christopher Vergano, though he had served in that role just two years ago.

Vatrano argued that's a step toward drowning outside voices.

"There's an old saying," Vatrano said. "Absolute power corrupts absolutely. Sooner or later something's gonna happen."

Rubbish, says Rumana.

"This is the most independent-minded group of people that serve on this council and on all the boards in Wayne," Rumana said. "And I support that."

If Rumana seizes the county GOP's reins, he's already laid the groundwork as an insider. During his early days on the council, Rumana also was appointed and then elected as a county freeholder, serving from 1996 to 2000 before losing reelection. He then ran for mayor in 2001, squeezing to narrow victory.

And he was untouched by scandal, achieving a new-guard aura despite being front and center as a freeholder during catastrophic times for the county GOP.

"He's honest to a fault," said his father, Thomas, a retired state judge and Wayne councilman.

The elder Rumanasays the mayor has inherited the talents he'd need to stitch together the party, noting he resembles his grandfather, Louie Rumana, an immigrant from Turkey.

"He's a people person," Thomas Rumana says, "just like my father."

With the political primary season looming, Rumana must decide soon whether to reenter the rough ground of county politics.

Until then, you'll find him buzzing around Wayne. Besides public business, Rumana these days is indulging in a longtime love of team sports. This winter, he's playing ice hockey on Sunday nights and gearing up to coach preteens in lacrosse this spring.

But like his other interests, he also has channeled his passion for sports into a grander vision. On Rumana's agenda for Wayne this year are more ballfields and a $4.5 million pool renovation.

It's about building a legacy, he said. "These are things generations of people are going to enjoy."

E-mail: collinsp@northjersey.com