Latina trailblazer Maria Magda O’Keefe, a beloved local official who served as a Paterson City Councilwoman from 1984 to 2000, died on August 10. She was 82.
O’Keefe, a popular local beauty shop owner, was among the first Latinas to hold public office in Paterson.
Born in Las Piedres, Puerto Rico, O’Keefe launched her political career as a deputy mayor of Paterson under Lawrence “Pat” Kramer. She was the administrator of the planning division in the mayor’s office and the coordinator for Hispanic services. She ran a nutritional program for the elderly.
O’Keefe ran for the first time in 1984 when she sought a 5th Ward council seat.
Four months before the election, the Hispanic Committee for Politic Action held a convention to coalesce behind a single candidate. She defeated Manuel Martinez and Jose Lugo. Both dropped out after the convention voted to support Magda O’Keefe.
In the May non-partisan municipal election, O’Keefe defeated incumbent Raymond P. Cassetta by a 52%-31% margin, with 17% going to Anna Taliaferro.
Cassetta has been a councilman for ten years and ran for mayor in 1982 losing to incumbent Frank X. Graves by a 10-1 margin.
After the mayoral race, Graves engineered Paterson ward redistricting that moved the Governor Paterson Towers, an enormous senior housing building with a large minority population, into the 5th Ward.
O’Keefe was the first Paterson councilmember of Puerto Rican descent.
She became a strong ally of Graves and despite her Democratic affiliation, with the county Republican boss, Sheriff Edwin Englehardt.
O’Keefe was easily re-elected in 1988 against David Walker, Jr.
When the city council reorganized in July, O’Keefe became Paterson’s first Hispanic council president.
By 1992, when she won a landslide victory for her third term against Carmen Jimenez, the power of Paterson’s Latino community in local politics was significant. She was one of four Hispanic members of the city council after the ’92 elections.
O’Keefe faced a tough race in 1996, against Manny Martinez, who had dropped out in 1984. She won 35%-26%, followed by Jessie Dixon (22%) and Charles Pettiford (17%). The 5th Ward was 60% Hispanic at that point, and the two Hispanic candidates combined for 61% of the vote.
In 2000, O’Keefe made a bid for the Democratic nomination for Passaic County Freeholder, but dropped out when John Currie, the county chairman, picked Sonia Rosado, a former Paterson council president, instead.
She did not seek re-election to a fifth term on the city council in 2000 and later served as executive director of the Hispanic Multi Purpose Center, known as Centro Hispano.
O’Keefe was a commissioner of the Paterson Board of Social Services and Board of Health, and served on the board of St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. She was a licensed social worker.
“She was truly a beautiful, caring and loving Person. My husband, Edward, loved serving with her on the city council,” said Paterson Councilwoman Ruby Cotton. “She would call him her brother”
Following a mass on Thursday at St. John the Baptist Cathedral, there will be a funeral processional through Paterson’s 5th Ward.
O’Keefe was living in Puerto Rico at the time of her death.
She is survived by her daughter, Debra Ann Martinez, four grandchildren, and four great-grandchildren. She was predeceased by her son, John M. Morales.