The Rising Blue Tide

 /  Nov. 7, 2017, 12:05 p.m.


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New Jersey Democrats are about to cement a victory that everyone sees coming, no one is watching, and is the most consequential election of the year.

New Jersey is about to become a blue state. It hasn’t been a swing state in Presidential elections for twenty-five years and its voters haven’t sent a Republican to the US Senate since 1972, but Ambassador Phil Murphy, this year’s Democratic candidate for governor, is ushering in a new kind of progressive politics. Modeling his vision for the state off of Jerry Brown’s successes in California, he wants to create a universal healthcare system, establish a public bank to forgive student debt, provide free community college, make New Jersey a sanctuary state, and increase the state’s minimum wage to fifteen dollars an hour. It’s an ambitious menu of progressive policies for a state where forty-one percent of its electorate is unaffiliated with any political party and property tax reduction is the number one issue for most residents. But this year’s electorate is disengaged, and those who aren’t want change. The shocking conclusion to last year’s election prompted the creation of numerous activist groups within the Garden State, which have buoyed Murphy’s candidacy and are seeking to fundamentally transform the political power of the Democratic Party. Twelve points ahead in the polls on Election Day, a Democratic wave into Trenton would send the exact message to Washington that many distraught voters crave, but also mandate a swift and unprecedented reformation of the state that many voters might not expect.

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Eight years ago, an executive was sworn into office on the promise of economic relief, expanding healthcare coverage, and change. He made an unusual effort to be bipartisan early in his tenure, and his persona cultivated a reliable base of support that propelled him through reelection. His name is Chris Christie, and following his reelection in 2013, his popularity has suffered tremendously.

“He didn't come true on any of his actions. He was unnecessarily harsh towards teachers and firefighters and nurses and all the people that are caregivers. All the people you don't want to screw up,” a former teacher from Neptune City complains.

“He was doing just fine until he really abandoned the state when he was running for President. He abandoned us. I don't really have much use for him at this point especially after what he did on the Fourth of July,” a former supporter from Totowa says with disgust.

From Bridgegate to Beachgate to his antics during last year’s election, Christie couldn’t be more bruised. His popularity in the state has taken a nosedive, currently bottoming out at fourteen percent and earning him the un-distinguished honor of being the least popular governor in American history not under criminal investigation. He’s political arsenic and not making it any easier for his Lieutenant Governor, Kim Guadagno, to succeed him. Moreover, President Trump’s favorability in the state (thirty-one percent) makes a bad situation worse for Guadagno.

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Ambassador Phil Murphy at ease at the Democratic State Committee Conference (DSCC)

“Every time Phil Murphy speaks, it's Kim Guadagno-Donald Trump-Chris Christie. If he were to just say Kim Guadagno is Donald Trump and Chris Christie and just repeat that again and again and again, she would lose,” Matthew Hale, a professor of political science at Seton Hall University, figures.

Pigeonholed by her current boss and the President, a poll has yet to show her climbing above forty-one percent of the vote. As a result, Guadagno has tried to jumpstart her campaign multiple times by changing the central message of her campaign from property taxes to transparency to immigration.

“I hope it's wrong because it's so idiotic that it's hard to figure that she's on a path toward victory,”  John Weingart, Associate Director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Institute of Politics, remarks. “But one of her so-called ‘ethics planks’ is to require anyone in her cabinet to give out their cellphone number. Shooting for the moon is too generous a definition for that.”

A blasé race in a firestorm year for national politics has also sucked away airtime for Guadagno to redefine herself. Twenty-five percent of New Jerseyans are not familiar with either candidate, and a Monmouth University poll from this month found fifty-three percent and fifty-seven percent of New Jerseyans don’t know what Murphy’s and Guadagno’s political views are (for comparison, the numbers were twenty-five percent and ten percent in October 2013 and sixteen percent and fifteen percent in October 2009 for each year’s Democratic and Republican candidates).

“There's been a governor's race going on and partly because it hasn't been close, but it’s at least as much because the news is all Trump all the time and everyone's exhausted about that discussion. So for a challenger facing other obstacles, it's been a really difficult playing field to get any kind of message out,” Weingart reasons. “We were all pretty sure who the next governor was going to be before the presidential election had even taken place.”

With few noticing, Murphy has been steering a slow moving freight train towards victory for two and a half years. The tens of millions that the political novice has amassed allowed local Democratic organizations to finance more campaigns this year and spread Murphy’s progressive platform across the state.

As Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) put it, “We were the progressive lab that people looked to and that's what we're going to get back to with Phil Murphy … Phil has a dream about how New Jersey can be a model for the future for social justice, for economic justice, for good jobs, and for good wages. We can be the progressive state once again.”

But Murphy isn’t doing it alone.

*****

Yard signs may have sprung up in unsuspecting neighborhoods only last week, but progressive activist groups have been gearing up all year. Organizations like NJ 11th for Change, Action Together New Jersey (ATNJ), and the Indivisible groups sprung forth from an election loss last year so catastrophic that it catapulted thousands of women and men into grassroots organizing and political resistance.

“I thought maybe twenty or thirty of my friends will get together, we'll write some post cards, make a few phone calls. I didn't really know what it was going to be. And before I knew it I had three hundred people. And then I had five hundred people. And now I have 1200 people. So I just started putting out actions and then they did them. And then we started calling for protests and they showed up. And we just started doing things and people responded and it's just been a true grassroots evolution from this thirty page manual,” Suzy Zander, leader of the Congressional District 3 Indivisible group, recalls. On a whim, she started her own Indivisible chapter, a national organization inspired by a manual written by former Congressional aides on how best to resist government action. She now leads one of the most successful Indivisible groups in the country.

"We blew the doors off [Congressman Tom] MacArthur on healthcare. He had a town hall May 10 that was epic. It was frickin' epic. We had him there for five hours. And I say we because we orchestrated this whole thing on the outside and the inside. We had protesters on the outside. We had die-ins. We had the Trump chicken. We had an airplane with a banner. We had every major news outlet not just in the US, but I was getting press calls from outside the country,” Zander remembers.

Like many of the activist groups in New Jersey, she and her group have adopted a two-pronged approach called “Resist and Persist.” Resist is where the fire from within originates:

“The endgame for us, the big enchilada, is getting Trump out of office. That's the day that we all live for. We wake up every day. We pray every night. That's what we want. We want him out. And all his henchmen out. If we could do anything to further that, we're going to do it,” she makes clear.

Persisting, however, is their more subtle regiment. It’s resistance by means of the system.  Phone banking, canvassing, and registering voters to come out for progressive candidates at every level.

“Don't just vote for Phil Murphy for governor, but go all the way down the ballot. Start at the top and push all the way down the ballot. Don't stop,” Zander commands.

It’s an effective strategy that’s brought working women and men (but mostly women) together from all across the district to put their First Amendment rights to the test. They assemble every Wednesday afternoon in front of Congressman MacArthur’s office to protest his latest offense. “Now his office boards up at 3:30 on Wednesdays because they know we're coming at 4:30," she says with a laugh. True to their mission, Zander and her group also help local candidates fundraise in races the Democratic Party never dreamed of challenging before.

“It’s like having an additional campaign,” David Brown, Chairman of the Monmouth County Democrats, jokes. Although Zander’s group doesn’t operate in his county, he’s worked closely with sister groups and other activist organizations.

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Activist leaders and Party workers meet at the DSCC

“We have so many new people involved now in the process by having the progressives and their groups become a part of us. They're all participating heavily, and as a matter of fact, some of them have even become Democratic Committee people now. They're really starting to become an integral part of the Democratic Party,” he exults. All across the state, the line between party member and grassroots activist is beginning to blur.

“I've had Democratic leaders in this state tell me to keep going with our group because we are the stand-alone grassroots group, and it's like having people dip their toe into the Party and support the Party without being a Party member,” Winn Khuong, Executive Director of Action Together NJ, remarked. Her organization focuses on connecting different activist organizations in the state with the party, working with these groups, and building a recruitment pipeline for young people to serve as candidates.

“The Democratic Party in New Jersey: they're old, they're graying, and they're a lot of white men. What we want to do is revive the Party by adding new, younger people,” she states. At only twelve months old, they are not looking to replace legacy organizations or the Party itself. But the eighteen thousand members of the organization, which has inspired millions of small ‘Actions’ like calling one’s Congressmen or donating five dollars to a local race, want their voices to be heard inside the halls of government.

“Look how effective the Tea Party were. They were absorbed into the Republican Party and they run a lot of its policies. Why can't we do that as progressive Democrats? Well, this is the year,” she hopes. “If all the volunteers are doing our jobs correctly, we too will cease to exist in about  two to four years because all of us volunteers will have been absorbed into the Democratic Party and then we will be helping to form the policies within the Democratic Party here in New Jersey.”                    

Moreover, their influence is felt across party lines. Due in large part to their efforts, Congressional Republicans in the state who voted for Obamacare repeal in the past came out almost unanimously against the AHCA and played a crucial role in sinking the bill’s first rendition. As Congressman LoBiondo joked to the co-Chairs of ATNJ Atlantic/Cape May County: “I can't with a clean conscience vote for something that's going to affect my constituents too much. And besides that, I have you guys out here every Wednesday holding signs. How could I possibly vote for it?”

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A protester rests her sign on the ground in Freehold

In this year’s June primary, turnout among Democrats exceeded even the most generous expectations. As compared to the 2013 primary when all of the same offices were up for election, there was over a one hundred percent increase in Democratic ballots cast for state Senate, as opposed to a three percent decrease among Republicans. The momentum is certainly with the Democrats and it’s no question who has funneled it through the right channels.

“I've never seen more excitement than I've seen in all the years that I've been here," Peg Schaffer, Chairwoman of the Somerset County Democrats, concurs. “It would only be right if our Party's benefiting from their energy and efforts that they have a say in what policies are enacted,” Michael Suleiman, Chairman of the Atlantic County Democrats, concludes.

“I talk to legislators quite a bit, and Action Together and all of our chapters are well-known. They have this cushion now where they know: ‘I've got this really active electorate who are really engaged. And they're looking at me for my votes and how I'm going to legislate. So, I've got their support if I'm going to legislate in a progressive manner,’” Khuong says, explaining her long-term strategy. Before they had arrived, according to Tammi Bathke, the ATNJ Burlington County Director, “the Democratic Party organizations in these small towns had kept the lights on and paid the bills.” Now, as advocates and instigators, activist groups across New Jersey are bringing life back to the Democratic Party from the local level up.

While activist groups, working in tandem with the Democratic Party, clearly amplified a certain partisan sector of the electorate by driving out high primary numbers, today’s election will be their greatest challenge yet. Even with the added megaphone that these groups provide for the Democratic Party, a significant amount of New Jersey voters aren’t hearing their call yet.

“They're taking the Party way too far to the left. They're just so far left of the extreme that they're getting more and more in line with Bernie Sanders,” Patti Page, Chairwoman of the Morris County Republicans, objects. She’s concerned that too few voters are realizing how embedded these groups are within the Democratic Party structure now, even as the activist groups pursue a ‘Blue 40 Initiative’ to flip every legislative district in the state.

“There's a lot of municipalities that are getting challenged by the Democrats. There was a big time increase. But, most of the electorate is still apathetic. People's emotions on Facebook don't necessarily translate into votes in the voting booth,” she says confidently. “I've seen it time and time again where people are all over Facebook ‘This has gotta end! Change! Change! Change!’ and then you have the same turnout as you did the cycle before.”

Even though turnout was the lowest it’s ever been in New Jersey history in 2015, Democrats secured the largest Assembly majority they’ve had in nearly forty years. But Phil Murphy needs as many seats as he can get to completely revolutionize Trenton.

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Extra campaign signs strewn about the DSCC

“This is the single most important race in the country in the next three years before the presidential race,” former Vice President Joe Biden declared while endorsing Phil Murphy during the June primary. Not Virginia, not the 2018 midterms, both of which will likely end with a split government. The race for governor in America’s fourth largest state has the potential to create a drastic and unprecedented paradigm shift.

“Phil’s message is ‘Look, without a supermajority, I'm not going to be able to implement a lot of what we're trying to do,” Saily Avelenda, Chair of NJ 11th for Change, a progressive activist group holding representatives in Congressional District 11 accountable, comments. “He's not technically run on that, but he's made it a priority to bring up all of the legislative district candidates with him because he understands that he's not going to get anything done if it's just him there without that support.”

For some of his major reforms that go beyond simply letting bills pass that Christie once vetoed, Murphy knows that he’s soon to be up against a Democratic legislature that Professor Hale thinks “may actually be more conservative than he turns out to be.” Democrats hold twenty-four of forty seats in the Senate and fifty-one of eighty seats in the Assembly, which places them two seats in the Assembly and three seats in the Senate away from holding supermajorities in either chamber. Picking up as many seats as possible in both chambers is essential to Murphy’s policy goals.

“That's why we have the Blue 40 Initiative, because we're not blindly stamping every Democrat. We have these town halls to hear what they say on fifteen dollar minimum wage for example,” Khuong explains. “Phil Murphy was on our conference call where he fully supports our efforts to make sure that we ask those questions of the legislators so that hopefully the bills that come on his desk are progressive enough so that he can sign them into law.”

The progressive campaign promises Murphy has made will be challenging to achieve, but a supermajority, especially in the Senate, seems almost impractical. It’s a milestone Democrats have not been able to capture in either chamber since the 1977 election.

“We should not be in 2017 debating and politically arguing that we must have distribution of wealth, opportunity, and privilege to all people. But Murphy and Oliver are going to make certain that there's equal access to opportunity, wealth, and privilege to all people of this state,” former Speaker Sheila Oliver, the running mate of Phil Murphy, instructed a room of Democratic committee members. “There's no reason why we can't create supermajorities in the New Jersey state legislature,” she added.

Even though filibusters are not possible in the New Jersey Senate and only a three-fifths majority is required to amend the state Constitution, the allure of two-thirds control within the Legislature has taken ahold of some Democratic leaders. But, a two-thirds majority would allow each chamber to override the veto of the governor, and effectively centralize power in the legislative branch. Murphy has the ability to politically remake the Garden State, but he still needs a Legislature that’s willing to cooperate. A Democratic supermajority could make this a possibility, or it could turn over too much power to state Senate President Sweeney, whose attitudes towards some progressive issues remain unclear. Murphy needs the right type of progressive Democrats to win across the state today. If he’s going to expand Democratic control in Trenton, a Democratic supermajority could mean the success of his agenda or its ultimate downfall.

Few avenues exist for the Democrats to expand their control over either chamber in Trenton. But if some seats were to flip, this is where they would be.  

*Note: New Jersey has forty legislative districts (LDs). Each is represented by one Senator and two Assembly members. Typically, four Assembly candidates (two from each major party) run for both seats.*

Second Legislative District: Big Shoes to Fill on the Jersey Shore

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Beachgoers brave the October ocean water in Ventnor City

“There's these points where the temperature will drop. It'll go from seventy-six down to seventy-three down to seventy-two as you get closer to the shore and then you hit seventy and that's how I know. There's that smell of the bay. It always gets a little cooler out. And you go ‘Okay, now I'm getting close to home,’” Edward, a resident of Margate, describes his commute from Philadelphia back to the small seashore town in Atlantic County’s Second Legislative District.

But the races for LD2’s one open Senate and one open Assembly seat have been nothing like the region’s tranquil atmosphere. Chris Brown, the district’s incumbent Republican Assemblyman, faces recently-appointed Democratic Senator and former Freeholder, Colin Bell. Brown, a Gulf War veteran and Assemblyman for almost six years, maintains a name recognition edge across the district, while 43 percent of voters still don’t know who represents them currently in Trenton. If prompted, many might guess that Jim Whelan, the beloved Atlantic City mayor turned senator, was still crusading for his city in the State House. Spending most of the last thirty-five years as a public servant of Atlantic City, Senator Whelan decided not to seek re-election earlier this year and passed away in August. He occupied the second most Republican district held by a Democratic Senator by appealing to both independents and some ‘Whelan Republicans.’

“A lot of what’s come out in the tributes to him since he's died is people, in effect, saying this is what politics should be or used to be or we'd like it to be,” John Weingart, Associate Director of the Eagleton Institute, reflects. “To be able to run saying you're going to continue Jim Whelan's legacy is probably going to be helpful.”

And this is precisely how Bell has decided to overcome his lack of recognition. In both of his TV ads, his closing message is “Jim Whelan always did right by Atlantic County. As your state Senator, I will too.”

“I consider myself fortunate enough to have been Senator Whelan's nurse for the last month of his life,” Amie, co-Chair of ATNJ Atlantic/Cape May County, says coyly. “ATNJ had a vigil at [Congressman] LoBiondo's office for Charlottesville and Colin Bell came out. He was standing on the sidewalk with us holding signs and waving at cars and shaking hands with the about fifteen or twenty people that showed up. I live-streamed Colin Bell and I went back and showed Senator Whelan. He was nothing but beaming and proud because he absolutely did hand pick Colin Bell to replace him. If there was one thing that Jim Whelan, if he was still here, would tell you himself is that there was no doubt in his mind that if there was anyone that could continue what he was doing, it would be Colin Bell.”

Despite the slight partisan bent of its population, the district is overwhelmingly full of non-ideological independents. And the bipartisan and trustworthy Jim Whelan who always kept Atlantic County in mind was the perfect fit.

“I just want somebody that's fair and that's all. Just do the right thing,” a Trump supporter in Ventnor who backed Whelan for years sighs. “We need somebody who looks at both sides. Somebody who can go both ways. Because we've got to start working together.”

“There's no spirit of cooperation anymore,” a Democratic man who has lived in Ventnor for sixty  years laments as he waves to his snowbird neighbors going to the beach.

“I vote liberal, but if I was to sit down and really think about some of my politics, I probably could lean towards the conservative side. I don't care. Let's just make it work,” Edward, a resident of Margate, says with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

Operating in the shadow of a politician like Whelan has made it difficult for either candidate to measure up to par in the minds of voters. In a political climate where voters are looking for a politician to be truthful and deliver for them, Whelan excelled at both. Brown has been marketing himself as the assiduous candidate in the race by focusing on his successful opposition to northern New Jersey casinos that could have jeopardized Atlantic City’s fragile monopoly on regional gambling.

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"Chris Brown's #1 Fan," Betty, holds up a piece of his campaign literature in Ventnor City

“I don’t really know either candidate, but I know Chris Brown. I know his past and I know the history of him,” a woman in Margate tells Gate reporters.

Michael Suleiman, Chairman of the Atlantic County Democrats, thinks emphasizing Whelan’s other attributes will win voters over. “Republicans think of Brown as a panderer. And they know that with Colin, just like with Jim, they might not agree with him one hundred percent of the time, but he will always tell them the truth.”

However, voters’ trust in Brown’s abilities has convinced him to duck debates and consider Whelan’s former seat like “a throne waiting for him” according to Alison, co-Chair of ATNJ Atlantic/Cape May County. Her and Amie’s organization has been working hand-in-hand with the Bell campaign knocking doors, protesting, offering carpools on Election Day, and getting Colin Bell’s name out. She points to another concern with Brown that could sink his candidacy: his position on abortion. This July, Planned Parenthood’s last remaining location in New Jersey’s lower five counties closed for good in Atlantic City, largely in part to Christie’s annual line-item veto of the Family Planning Budget. Brown voted for the measure in the Assembly, but Alison has the sinking feeling he did so primarily for political gain and only because he knew Christie would veto it.

“His biggest concern is that people are going to go around saying that he's anti-woman,” she figures. “I feel like New Jersey is becoming Arkansas because at this point in the game a woman has to go to Cherry Hill to get proper care. And that's a really far drive, about an hour.”

Vince Mazzeo, one of the primary proponents of women’s healthcare and an annual sponsor of the Family Planning Budget, is also a two-term Assemblyman in the same district seeking re-election. Running with John Armato, an inland committeeman and veteran, the Mazzeo/Armato ticket is trying to turn Chris Brown’s seat blue and unify one of the few split districts left in the state. They face Republicans Vince Sera and Brenda Taube in the election.

“He's not going for sainthood like Senator Whelan was, but everybody has really positive things to say about Vince Mazzeo as an Assemblyman already,” Amie beams.

Regardless of which candidates win tomorrow, opioid addiction and foreclosures continue to plague Atlantic City and voters hope their future representatives address these problems. In America’s Favorite Playground, the wind-turbines sitting out in the marshes spinning aimlessly without generating electricity due to operation costs epitomize Atlantic City’s promise, if only the powers that be could just flip a switch.

“We did not bounce back as well as some of the nation did after the market collapsed. We have people that post-Sandy and Irene are still not back on their feet. There are thousands of people that are still homeless after Sandy. That was five years ago. So as we were watching the rain fall down in Houston, all I could think of was how many of my neighbors still weren't in their homes,” Alison retells with a fragile tone in her voice.

“If they could get Atlantic City back on track with families that would be a great thing. Because the casinos aren't doing what we initially thought Atlantic City was going to be involved in,” a resident of Ventnor points out. “Look at what we have to offer: the beach and the boardwalk. But the people that are coming to gamble aren’t interested in that so much.”

“If I didn't have a good job right here, I wouldn't be in New Jersey. That's for damn sure,” a restaurant owner in Ventnor exclaims. “It's like a police state. People are afraid to even come to Atlantic City.”

Frustration is a common feeling across the district’s electorate. Whether it’s Atlantic City, Trenton, or Washington, many of these voters feel scammed by an ineffective government that has only ever let them down.

“Phil Murphy literally came in to breakfast yesterday morning and was like ‘Here's my ATNJ girls,’” Amie excitedly recalls. But her vote for him in the primary was premised on his commitment to fixing and willingness to understand the unique and dire problems of LD2 and South Jersey as a whole. “If we put Phil Murphy into office and he does something that as Democrats we're not behind, we still have to hold him accountable. That's what you have to do to everybody that's out there.”  

The most recent polling shows Brown up by three points, Mazzeo and Armato lead their rivals by almost twenty-four points. Conclusion: Senate tossup, Assembly leans blue.

Seventh Legislative District: Economic Populism and a Sure Bet

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An aged folk Victorian home in Riverside 

Twenty-year Republican Senator Diane Allen is retiring this year after presiding over LD7’s transition from swing district status to reliable Democratic stronghold. With almost forty-two percent registered Democrats now in the district, her seat is the most Democratic one held by a Republican senator. For Troy Singleton, the incumbent Democratic Assemblyman looking to succeed her, the race couldn’t be going smoother. Rob Prisco, his original opponent, was nominated for a judgeship and dropped out of the race over the summer. Then, John Browne, the mayor of Delanco, was selected in September to replace Prisco on the ballot. All the while, Singleton was fundraising and now touts a ten-to-one spending advantage (even though, according to his opponent’s filings, the $13,000 Browne spent wasn’t even on his own campaign). But Singleton still isn’t taking any chances.

“I for one am trying to find a way to have all viewpoints represented across the spectrum,” he tells Gate reporters.

With a legislative track record endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, Singleton has been more than willing to reach across the aisle to bring in economic gains for the riverside district.

“There are so many issues that typically are solved by economic prosperity. If folks are feeling good about themselves, they're working, they're earning real money, a lot of the other challenges that exist tend to go by the boards when the economy is more flush and robust,” he explains.

It’s a different message than many Republicans associate with the Democratic Party--one that isn’t so much focused on cultural and social issues.

“The overwhelming number of voters, at least the ones that I've talked to, while they're supportive of a more inclusive society and standing up for gender equality and sexual equality, the thing that matters most to them is how they are providing for their families,” Singleton reiterates about his demographic.

It’s this brand of “economic populism” that has won over a quite a number of Republicans who may never have seen themselves voting for a Democrat.

“I adore Diane Allen and I'm going to miss her,” a Republican woman from Palmyra says prefacing her statement. “I hate to admit it, but I do like Troy Singleton. I have met him and spoken to him one-on-one. I think he cares about the people.”

Along the Delaware River that spans the district’s northern border, middle income families live in eighty-year-old Victorians indicative of an era when manufacturing and jobs across the river in Philadelphia kept the area economically vibrant.

“There’s a lot of drugs problems here,” Barb, a self-described foot soldier of the resistance movement with a ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ sign in front of her Riverside home, reveals. “I think it comes in through the pharmaceutical companies. But the Riverline [local tram] certainly exacerbated the problem because it's easy to go to Camden and get it. It's easy for the drug dealers from Camden to come up here and sell it.”

For many in Barb’s community, the economic despair and influx of Brazilian immigrants has brought out aspects of her neighbors she couldn’t ignore any longer.

“Their kids went to school with my kids and so I've been friends with them for twenty years,” she makes clear. “You turn a blind eye to what you know their political leanings are, but ever since 2008, I've lost so many people that I once called friends. I have zero tolerance for intolerance. I have zero tolerance for the hateful ignorance that they spew.”

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Hate has no home in Riverton

Last year’s presidential race divided these small towns along the river with most giving slight edges to Clinton. A house with a Blue Lives Matter flag is quickly followed by one with a “#nohate” pennant.

“I was in tears before the election. I didn't support either one of the candidates and that's a problem,” a Palmyra Republican recalls.

“Every day I wake up and I want to scream. I'm still in shock. Every morning I can't believe that this is where we are as a country,” Barb says resting against her metal storm door and holding back a tear.   

Singleton has also noticed the increase in emotions and civic engagement as a result of the election as activist groups organize within his district.

“You're seeing more and more folks who traditionally were not involved in politics waking up and saying ‘Not only am I now interested, I want to be actively engaged in it,’” he describes with pictures of legislative awards hanging around his office. “Utilizing that active engagement in a manner that is supportive to an agenda that is progressive, inclusive, and growing is the challenge that anyone who's running for office has to try to marry.”

Aside from workforce development and income opportunity, Singleton could use some of that progressive energy to back up other parts of his platform like strengthening protections for the domestically abused and making the state’s green economy look more like Massachusetts (“It’s the wave of the future”).

But a pragmatist by nature, Singleton knows the constraints on his ability to legislate. “Our biggest challenge—like we're seeing in Washington right now—is the diversity of opinion that exists in any political party and trying to bring consensus with such a diversity of opinion,” he identifies.

He has similar thoughts on how Phil Murphy will be able to legislate with a legislature that might not be on board with every single thing he’s mentioned on the campaign trail.

“When you get in office and the books are in front of you and you get to actually look at things, sometimes the idea of saying ‘I'm going to accomplish XYZ’ meets the reality that XYZ from a financial or timing standpoint can't get done,” he states from experience.

The three-term Assemblyman has an idea of the challenges Murphy will face when in office. He knows that for Phil Murphy, the election will be the easiest part.

Although no public polling has been performed on the district, it’s a sign of Singleton’s strength and inevitability. Conclusion: Solid Democratic.

Eleventh Legislative District: Burning Cash and Organizing for Tomorrow

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A fisherman casts a line into the Shark River in Neptune City

If there’s a district in New Jersey that certainly knows an election is happening, it’s New Jersey’s 11th. So far, the two candidates for state Senate have pulled over $1.8 million into a race that has already surpassed the amount raised for last year’s Congressional election in the area. Vin Gopal, the former Chairman of the Monmouth County Democrats, has been campaigning since February to replace five-year Senator Jennifer Beck, a frequent Christie critic. Nevertheless, even before Gopal jumped in the race, state Democrats had been eyeing the 11th District after the long-time Republican bastion lost both of its Assembly members in a shocking upset last cycle. In addition, registration in the district has been trending in that direction. Since the 2015 election, Democrats have become 4.55 percent more of the total registered voters in the district, the second largest gain in the state for a district with a Republican Senator. 4.55 percent may seem like an insignificant amount, but it makes things much easier for Gopal in a tight race where he’s raised the lion’s share of dollars. The Gopal ticket has taken in almost $1.4 million from donors across the state, including over $200,000 from New Jersey Democratic power-broker, Donald Norcross.

“If you have one candidate with $100,000 and another one with $5000, the $5000 candidate is screwed. But if you've got one candidate with $1,000,000 and another one with $600,000 then maybe money doesn't necessarily tell the whole story,” John Weingart, Associate Director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Institute of Politics, explains.

It’s an important truth about campaign finance that Beck must be keeping in mind. Her team has managed to raise almost $500,000, but is unable to keep pace with Gopal’s donors.

“He's such a prolific fundraiser, which helps me out tremendously,” David Brown, Chairman of the Monmouth County Democrats, admiringly notes. “By getting out there early and getting out there often—and he was raising money at that time too—Vin could do a whole media campaign with ads, which put him out there even more.”

Beck has pointed to her independent voting record as evidence that she’ll represent the people of LD11, not the Republican Party. She’s continued with that theme and derided Gopal’s extensive fundraising outside the district, branding him a “puppet of the Camden County machine.” Gopal counters by targeting some of the more controversial votes Beck took this session including voting against equal pay measures.

“We just think it's crazy how she voted against women's rights and equality and she's a woman herself representing the women of Legislative District 11. That's something that should be easy for her. Her being a woman alone should have overcome the politics,” Brown argues.

But the finer details of who raised what from whom and why Beck voted against her own interest don’t seem to matter to the voters of LD11. Instead, like voters from every other district in New Jersey, they want the state’s highest property tax rate in the nation to vanish.

“Property taxes. The Worst. Get ‘em down!” a Republican from Neptune City shouts.

“Taxes. We pay a whole lot and I don’t have much for what I pay. I have nothing,” a Democrat from Neptune City says dejectedly.

“I’ve been here sixty years. And I have seen my property taxes go up over six times what I originally paid,” a Democrat turned Republican in Neptune City details.

Chairman Brown mentions that Gopal is running with “a big shared service program” in mind, which would combine the redundant public services of small, neighboring municipal governments (a plan Murphy also has as part of his platform), but residents seem to have heard it all before.

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Shuttered pumps in Red Bank

“I've seen so many politicians say they're going to do certain things and I guess when they get in and the other people are there,” a Neptune City woman mutters with a collection of carefully arranged Hummels behind her.

“Drain the Swamp!” her husband interjects from the living room.

In the Jersey Shore district that Bruce Springsteen calls home, the voters, much like those in LD2, are not dependent on their parties. There’s Trump Democrats and Clinton Republicans, but everyone is at least glad to see Chris Christie go.

“I was not happy with Sandy and his disbursements of monies. It's taken those poor people five years to get back into their houses,” the same woman says.

“He's disgracing himself. He's making a fool out of himself and he's doing nothing,” another seconds.

In this old bungalow community, respect for Trump, even among Democrats in the area, runs high. Voters crave a candidate “who’s a mover and a shaker” that can deliver them from their region’s economic malaise.

“We took a school board member through the school and he was like, ‘Where are your computers?’ And we're like, ‘Computers? We don't have them.’ ‘How do you guys do things here?’ ‘With what we can. Old school,’” a concerned parent says of the Neptune City Middle School while she clenches this morning’s newspaper.

Even while the President remains popular in the economically wanting areas of the district, it’s those who oppose him who have truly started mobilizing.

“It’s the Trump bump,” Chairman Brown says. “Everything he does is energizing the base. Especially those progressives. They’ve had a couple of rallies out in front of Beck’s office, but not recently. I think they’re setting themselves up for next year’s race.”

That hunch couldn’t be more accurate.

“What we're trying to do is flip three Congressional Districts in 2018,” Winn Khuong, Director of ATNJ, specifies. “So for us to give those districts a fighting chance, we have to win some key local races this year.”

It’s a strategy ATNJ hopes will build election muscle memory within first-time volunteer activists. In some ways, they’re treating this cycle as warmup for the national election next year. By instilling a library of experiences that includes canvassing, calling, and protesting into each volunteer, ATNJ and activist groups like it believe they will be even more successful the second time around.

At an LD11 protest outside Congressman Chris Smith’s office in Freehold, those instructions are being put into action.

It was threatening rain when they arrived so turnout was light, but twenty people and one dog named Whiskey persist to show up with homemade signs and pink hats.

“You need to teach him how to say Democrat,” a young woman tells the dog’s owner as the small dog yaps at another passerby.

“We've been here since January,” the organizer from NJ Citizen Action explains to a new member. “[Smith] voted the correct way on repealing the ACA. So it's having some effect. People are calling him. People are writing him.”

The protesters, many of them with children at home, gather every Wednesday afternoon for two hours. Anticipating their arrival, Congressman Smith’s office shuts down early on Wednesdays, and he’s hardly ever in his Freehold office on that day. But before the office closes, they start their protest by each writing a short message to Smith and leave it with his receptionist.

“I was one of those people who just clicked on things. Protested online. I feel that those things don't actually accomplish anything,” recalls the dog owner as he places a leash around Whiskey’s neck. “But just standing here, my presence standing here with a sign does have some impact.”

Many of the people spending their afternoon on the sidewalk of a strip mall never saw themselves in this position before last year’s election.

“I have colleagues at work who have taken to the streets,” one woman describes. “I'm certainly making more donations, I even lose track. I just put them on my credit card and I pay it no mind anymore.”

“The amount of money I gave to various . . . ugh, I'm so mad at myself for wasting money on the DNC,” another protester moans.

Banter about the latest actions of the Trump administration and fears of voter machine tampering is interrupted by

“Good luck with that. And give ‘em hell!”

“We are! We’re doing our best,” they all yell to a man exiting a laundromat nearby.

Every forty-five minutes another truck drives by their location, stops, blasts the horn, and laughs at them.

“We should give them flowers,” one man suggests.

The group then assembles for a picture that’s going up on social media: “Everyone say healthcare!”

Involvement and dedication to the ‘resistance and persistence’ regiment varies widely across the group. Some had never heard of Vin Gopal, while others had cut checks to his campaign and knocked doors for him.

It’s beginning to get dark and many members of the group have hungry kids at home or need to pick them up from sports practice. They bid their goodbyes and plan to reassemble at the same place one week from now.

“I’ll see you at Howell Democrats,” one protestor shouts back to another.

At 5:20 p.m., an hour and twenty minutes into the protest, only a few hardcore protesters remain to voice their concerns about the party that’s begun to open its doors to them.

“If the party is getting a shove in the right direction. It could be progressive. But are they stepping up to it? I don't know,” one protester with experience organizing for Planned Parenthood questions.

“I think they're where we want them to be on some social issues. But I'm not sure about economic and small business issues,” the lead organizer says.

However, there’s widespread hope among the group that Phil Murphy is going to be that different kind of governor for the state. One that could make them proud to call themselves Democrats.

“We can lead the way because it’s just Jersey and Virginia that are having elections this year,” one protester concludes.

“If we have a Democratic governor, we can turn New Jersey into something of a stronghold,” the lead organizer seconds.

Paid family leave, an estate tax, fifteen dollar minimum wage, and in-state universal healthcare. The protesters have set their aims high and faith in what a unified government in Trenton could accomplish even higher, but back in Neptune City, homeowners are growing worried.

“Murphy’s the only one who says outright that he's raising taxes. He's got a legislature that's a Democratic legislature. He's a Democrat himself. And if they support him, he'll get anything he wants put through,” a former Democrat says with her hand resting on the door frame. “It scares me where it's going. New Jersey is getting totally unaffordable.”

The most recent polling has Gopal up by one point, well within the margin of error. It’s a race that’s far too close to call, and one that could deal a significant blow to Republicans. Conclusion: Senate tossup.

Sixteenth Legislative District: Weary Partisans and Presidential Resistance

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A recently mowed lawn extends back to an estate in Readington

LD16 is a district of divisions. Bisected by two Congressional districts (CD7 and CD12), their fissure line separates two completely separate worlds of Central Jersey. CD12, the lower half, was recently represented by Rush Holt, a widely respected physicist who turned a Republican district Democratic; it is now represented by Watson Coleman, also a Democrat. On the northern side, CD7 is represented by Republican Leonard Lance, a relative moderate in Congress. Lance’s half includes old farm towns like Readington where stately colonials with long, rolling front lawns welcome home New York commuters trying to live as far away from the busyness of the city as possible. WaColeman’s portion of LD16 contains the inner suburbs of Trenton and  New Brunswick like Kingston, where developments have manicured gardens and you can walk to your neighbor’s front porch without checking your watch. All of it, from silos to three-block historic downtowns, belongs to ten-year state Senator Kip Bateman. One of the most moderate Republicans in the Senate, he’s well-respected in the district and enjoys widespread name recognition in the area owing to his father’s time serving in Holt’s seat during the 1970s and 80s. ButHowever, a demographic shift is underfoot in his district: a surge of Democratic voters havein the district registered to vote since 2015 and now LD16 is almost five percent bluer.

“I've worked with the Senator for a very long time,” Peg Schaffer, Chairwoman of the Somerset County Democrats, comments. “I have a lot of respect for him, but I think his time has come.”

A poll from two months ago seemed to justify this feeling, finding Bateman only leading by eight percent against virtually-unknown Democrat Laurie Poppe, a lawyer and social worker. Since that poll’s release, Democrats have quietly funneled $625,000 into the LD16 races.

“Everything that we see indicates that there’s a very strong anti-Christie/anti-Trump sentiment out there,” Schaffer says explaining the poll’s surprising results. “It’s not so much because they don't like Kip Bateman, but because they don't want to elect a Republican.”

Schaffer hopes this aversion also carries down into the contentious Assembly races in the district. LD16, much like the geographic and ideological divisions that characterize it, has split Assembly representation in Trenton. But this occurred only recently after more than 40 years of complete Republican control. Andrew Zwicker, a plasma physicist at Princeton, narrowly won his Assembly seat two years ago by 78 votes and now faces Donna Simon, the former

Assemblywoman he took it from. Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli is vacating the other LD16 seat after having run in the primary for Governor. So Democrat Roy Freiman and Republican Mark Caliguire are now vying for one of the two seats.   

“Donna had her opportunity and she was defeated, people decided to vote her out,” Schaffer concludes about the former Assemblywoman.

But voters in the Republican town of Readington are excited to see Simon on the ballot again. And unlike the anemic turnout they had in 2015, they plan to turnout to vote for her this year.

“I don't trust any politicians, right down to our local mayor,” a suspenders-clad man grumbles through his screen door. “But I trust Donna. I see her and she seems like a reasonable, decent person.,”

“Oh, finally she's running again,” a man with a thick New York accent says. “I'm not sure what happened in the first place because it seemed like she was on the upswing and then all of a sudden she wasn't there anymore.”

But just 30 minutes away from bucolic Readington in Zwicker’s hometown of Kingston, interest is just as high—if only for his partisan affiliation.

“I'll try to do some research, but quite honestly I'll probably just go in there and vote for the Democrat,” a woman admits in a hushed tone.

“It's going to be Democrats. I don't care who it is,” one woman vowed. “I don't want any Republicans in with Trump in. I do go across party, but right now I will not.”

“I don't even know who's running,” a woman observes, shaking her head with her arms crossed. “But it's going to be a Democrat I vote for.”

Schaffer says Zwicker is running on his record in the Assembly and focusing his campaign on protecting the environment, expanding access to women’s healthcare facilities, and formulating a shared services program.

“He's been a pretty visible member of the Assembly over the last two years,” John Weingart, Associate Director of the Rutgers-Eagleton Institute of Politics, concurs. “People think of him as a rising star in the party.”

But both sides of the electorate remain largely unaware of either candidate’s platform; instead, preferring to limit their focus to keeping the opposing party out of power.

“I don't see Donna Simon coming out and saying here's what I'm going to do,” a Readington man wonders. “And this other guy. What did you say, Zwicker? What's he done? I don't even know if he's involved. He doesn't put any laws forward that I'm aware of.”

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Blue plates and blue voters in Hillsborough

In a rare enclave of independents within the district, Hillsborough residents concede that any political energy in the district may already have been spent.

“People don't really care. They're numb to it because they're just sick and tired,” a state trooper who supported Trump says dejectedly.  

“I get that there's not a lot of enthusiasm for either candidate,” a young father admits as Sesame Street blares behind him.

With a disinterested and partisan electorate, ultimately, control over LD16 will come down to pushing the right kinds of party loyalists out to vote. But like in many districts all across the state, Chairwoman Schaffer knows she has the advantage.

“Donald Trump is the best thing that ever happened to Somerset County,” she says with a grin. “Activists are just coming out of the woodwork!”

Ever since President Trump decided to have his Summer White House in Bedminster (just outside of LD16), hordes of protesters have flocked to the Party and are working to make sure down-ballot candidates get elected too. “They're demonstrating when he's not in the area, when he is in the area. They come out like gangbusters,” she exclaims.

In fact, Schaffer is certain that Trump is so loathed in the area that his presence over the summer may discourage independents and moderate Republicans from turning out.

“Somebody just told me that they saw an older man scratching a Trump sticker off his bumper,” she recalls. “The more he comes into this county, the more likely it is that people who supported him are either not going to vote or they're going to consider voting for the Democrats.”

In some respects, local activists have already been successful getting their message out and pressuring politicians. The lead organizer of the Freehold protest explains how:

“At [Congressman] Leonard Lance's Flemington office, they actually close at some crazy time like 3:00 p.m. and they don't allow people to park in the corporate park where his office is. On the couple occasions that I've been there, I actually spend most of my time just ferrying people back and forth from a strip mall to the rally point,” he describes.

Republican Congressmen fear them and with good reason. But the election today will measure how effective they can be at driving up voter turnout through positive advocacy.

If Democrats construct two-thirds majorities in either chamber, LD16’s seats are must-wins. And if Bateman falls and Donna loses, the district will sound a warning to Washington on how moderate Republican districts should fare in 2018. 

*****

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BlueWaveNJ pushes to flip all 40 LDs at the DSCC

Although there could be some movement in the LD1 or LD40 Senate races, winning over voters in the four aforementioned districts is the most likely path for Democrats to achieve supermajorities in either chamber. Yet, hardly any New Jersey politicos believe it can happen.

But in the small chance that Trenton is destined for a startling shakeup tonight, some of the behind the scenes Democratic infighting will leap to the front page of the paper. In LD3, Senate President Steve Sweeney is running a race against a Republican almost entirely propped up by millions of dollars in NJEA contributions. The New Jersey Education Association, a usual ally of the Democratic Party, is the most powerful donor and lobbying group in the state. Sweeney broke with the group’s legislative suggestions too many times this past session, and now the group wants the Senate President to pass on his leadership role to another Democrat. However, the group, which represents the teachers union and has lost significant power during the Christie administration, could have been on its last leg if Sweeney is victorious. But with Phil Murphy as Governor, they’ll have a champion in the Governor’s Mansion.

“It's a bizarre situation that I think is going to have policy implications going down the road,” Weingart says. “To have a state Senate President who at a minimum is going to have a grudge against the NJEA.”

“Steve will be probably very upset with them for a while,” Chairman Brown says. “And those are three powerful positions (Speaker, Senate President, and Governor) so if somebody doesn't want to do something, it won’t get done. All three have to be working in concert.”

NJEA’s advocacy work has the potential to become a contentious subject in Democratic circles. And with supermajority status in the upper chamber, decision-making power would tilt back to the state Senate, and may stymie many of the legislative goals NJEA was hoping to accomplish after eight years of bullying from Governor Christie.

Moving forward, even the North/South divide between Democrats that has boiled over into a Speaker fight could become more serious with the Assembly gaining a supermajority. Both Democratic camps have identified seats they want to flip in order to give their preferred Speaker candidate enough votes to claim the gavel.

“Southern Democrats and Northern Democrats often fight with each other,” Matthew Hale says. “And now that there's actual possibility of getting whatever they want passed, those fights could intensify.”

But GOP officials don’t believe any of these structural problems will stop most of Murphy’s agenda from moving speedily through government in the first 100 days.

“They'll bankrupt us. They'll put us on a path towards bankruptcy,” Patti Page, Chairwoman of the Morris County Republicans, says. “There'll be no checks and balances, they'll be able to do whatever the heck they want. It's a scary concept.”

A scary concept for some and the hope for a new tomorrow to others, Murphy’s modern brand of progressive politics and an upswing of anti-Christie/Trump sentiment has galvanized activist groups within the Garden State to drive out the vote for their candidates. Yet it remains unclear whether many New Jersey residents are paying attention at all.

“I liken it to myself in fact,” Weingart says. “I'm not a professional sports fan, but at some point I become aware of who's in the World Series and who's in the Superbowl.”

Whether New Jersey residents become aware in time to have their voices heard will be decided today. But it’s likely that that many residents of the state won’t know what’s happened until it’s all over. 

All images featured in this article are courtesy of the author.


Brett Barbin

Brett Barbin is a third-year Public Policy and Political Science double-major, interested in American history, geography, and political rhetoric. Last year, he served as the Deputy Political Director for Senator Mark Kirk’s reelection campaign and previously acted as a research intern for the Michael Smerconish Program. On campus, Brett is the secretary of College Republicans and a member of the Political Union. He enjoys exploring Chicago, collecting books, and reading way too much into public opinion polls.


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