Jen Santori likes the Washington’s Headquarters neighborhood so much, she and her husband have owned three homes here over the last dozen years.
“I actually joke with my friends that I’m going to have my ashes scattered over the George Washington statue someday, so I never have to leave,” she says.
As its name implies, this neighborhood is steeped in history. General Washington bunked at the Ford Mansion, now part of the Morristown National Historical Park, for the Revolutionary War winter of 1779-80.
A little over a century later, Normandy Park Estates offered stately mansions to Gilded Age barons who didn’t want the bother of baronial expanses at “Millionaire’s Mile” down the road.
Today, the Washington’s Headquarters enclave encompasses leafy streets of meticulously kept, mostly older homes in a pleasing variety of styles, ranging in price from around $400,000 to north of $1.5 million.
It offers a mix of political views, too: The neighborhood straddles the border of Morristown, where Democrats and sidewalks are plentiful, and Morris Township, where the sidewalks end and Republicans hold sway, as they do across Morris County.
MorristownGreen.com is focusing on Washington’s Headquarters as part of a New Jersey collaborative reporting effort called Voting Block.
The project aims to encourage civil political discussion and more informed voters across the Garden State, ahead of next month’s gubernatorial election.
More than two dozen news organizations are following groups of neighbors as the race develops. The reporting partners include 15 hyperlocal and six ethnic news organizations across the state, as well as WYNC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record.
This year’s race pits Democrat Phil Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, against Republican Kim Guadagno, who has served as Gov. Chris Christie’s lieutenant governor for eight years.
What makes the Washington’s Headquarters neighborhood so intriguing are its insights into the art of getting along.
Some residents have different polling places, and pay taxes to separate municipalities. But they share a zip code, a school district — and a passion for their neighborhood.
They enjoy living within a 10- or 15 minute walk to the Morristown Green, the train station and downtown restaurants, all just on the other side of Interstate 287.
The glue that binds most of them–nearly 400 households–is the venerable Washington’s Headquarters Association. It’s been organizing block parties and Halloween parades for decades.
‘LEAVE IT TO BEAVER’
“One of the first things we did after we moved here was go to a holiday party. It was a couple of weeks after we moved in, and we met a lot of the neighbors. We were made to feel very comfortable,” says Rob Lahoda.
Lahoda discovered the neighborhood while visiting the Ford Mansion a couple of years ago. Charmed by the housing variety and sense of community, he convinced his spouse, Gilbert Baez, that they should sell their home, a couple of miles away in the Township.
They moved to Washington Avenue in Morristown on Election Day last year. Their 1940s center-hall Colonial sits on a half acre; Baez grows tomatoes in the backyard.
When Liz and Peter Jarvis were transferred to New Jersey from Boston 30 years ago, Liz was eight months pregnant. They had to buy a house fast. A relative saw a cute Cape Cod on Georgian Road in Morristown. The couple figured they would move elsewhere as soon as they had time to shop around. But the neighborhood grew on them.
“All of the houses were different. It had mature trees. There was a real Leave It to Beaver vibe to it,” says Peter Jarvis.
They raised two daughters here. Now, they are contemplating retirement somewhere with a lower cost of living. So far, however, they cannot agree on any place that suits them as well as Washington’s Headquarters.
Across the street, Alice and Cary Lloyd feel the same way. Both their children are grown, too, and they have just put their home of 23 years on the market–with the goal of downsizing somewhere close.
“The neighborhood is really special. It’s certainly a gem in Morristown,” says Alice Lloyd, a past president of the association.
She helped start a neighborhood gourmet club nearly two decades ago. She belongs to a book club, one of several here, and she organizes volunteers for the Morristown Festival of Books downtown.
Her husband has chaired the Morristown zoning board, served on the environmental commission and coached youth wrestling. Replicating all of this in another locale would be daunting, Alice Lloyd says.
It’s why, almost nine years ago, Chris and Allison Wilson moved to Tiffany Road, where they have raised their daughter Victoria, now a senior at Morristown High School.
“When Victoria was a baby, I always walked her through this neighborhood. I always dreamed I would live here,” Allison Wilson says.
Indeed, Jen and Vin Santori can’t really envision raising Riley, 9, and Christian, 6, anywhere else.
Their first home here was on Sunset Place. Needing more room, they went to Morris Avenue. When traffic got too intense, they crossed to the Township side, into a 1920s brick Colonial on quiet Kenilworth Road.
“We won’t even move off of our school bus line, we like our school bus driver so much,” says Jen, another former president of the association.
She never worries about her kids on their bikes. Neighbors keep an eye out. She calls them “framily,” raising their children side by side “like they were cousins.”
“It’s a wonderful place to live,” Jen says.
TREES, TAXES AND TRUMP
When neighbors here talk politics, it’s mostly local politics.
Morristown’s plans to remove ash trees, a move meant to thwart invading bugs, stirred passionate reactions on Tiffany Road.
Washington Avenue residents squared off, largely along generational lines, over how to tame traffic speeds. Parents of younger children favored speed bumps; older residents worried that would hinder access for emergency vehicles. “Bump-out” curbs were the compromise.
In 2015, association members united to defeat a proposed daycare center that they feared would worsen traffic on Normandy Parkway.
By the numbers, Washington’s Headquarters is a political toss-up. Unaffiliated voters are the biggest block.
About three-quarters of the neighborhood association’s households sit in Morristown’s Ward 1, District 1, where Registered Democrats barely outnumber Republicans, according to numbers from the spring primary.
The remainder crosses into a slice of Morris Township’s District 6, where Republicans enjoy a comfortable margin over Democrats, and a whisker-thin edge over independents.
Voters here don’t always toe the party line:
Registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by about 2 1/2 to 1 in Morristown. But the voting district that includes Washington’s Headquarters elected a Republican, Robert Iannaccone, to the town council in 2015. He succeeded Rebecca Feldman, an Independent.
Last year, traditionally Republican Morris Township joined Morristown in favoring Democrat Hillary Clinton over GOP nominee Donald Trump for president. But the Township district that includes Washington’s Headquarters chose Trump by three votes.
Back in 2012, things played out more as expected: Morristown chose President Obama and the Township preferred GOP nominee Mitt Romney. The neighborhood districts split the same way.
But for the last gubernatorial race, in 2013, Morristown joined the Township in supporting Republican Gov. Chris Christie, as did the neighborhood’s combined districts by more than 2 to 1.
The neighborhood districts also chose Christie four years earlier, even though Morristown as a whole backed incumbent Democrat Jon Corzine. Christie easily won the Township.
Now, as the nation is riven by stark ideological differences, one issue appears to resonate with liberals and conservatives alike in Washington’s Headquarters.
“Taxes, yikes!” says Jen Santori. While she really loves the neighborhood, such love does not come cheap in the Garden State.
“We really pay for it here. And it just doesn’t seem to add up when you look at the way the rest of the country lives, and the cost of living they enjoy,” she says.
Santori describes herself as a Republican who does not closely follow state or national politics.
All she knows is her single-income household is struggling to raise a family, despite her husband’s good job in information technology for a big pharma company.
Alice Lloyd is a conservative Republican who supports strong public schools. But in her 50s, her prime concern is “keeping taxes at a level where we can stay in New Jersey.”
“The exodus of people leaving [the state] because of taxes is just awful,” says Andrea Kelly, a retired marketing director who soon may join that exodus after 24 happy years on Washington Avenue.
Traffic is another irritant. Morristown’s rental development boom has inspired nearby towns to follow suit. New units coming to Whippany Road and the former Honeywell campus in the Township are sure to bring more congestion to local streets, Kelly says.
For the gubernatorial sweepstakes, Kelly says she is “evolving” from a Republican “to anything else.” Though unsure about Democratic candidate Murphy, Kelly has a firm opinion of GOP hopeful Guadagno, the lieutenant governor.
“Forget her. She will lose with a capital L. She’s so tarnished with that Christie brush. Hillary Clinton would have a better chance with Republicans,” Kelly says. “Chris Christie has been such a bad reflection of New Jersey. I feel sympathy for her.”
‘KICKING THE CAN DOWN THE ROAD’
Joe Nosofosky, a Democrat, has called this neighborhood home for 24 years and is reasonably content with Morristown’s government. But statewide, he wants to see smarter use of state and federal tax dollars for the public good.
The retired AT&T manager’s wish list includes universal healthcare, preschool for every child, a new commuter tunnel under the Hudson River, a shakeup of the Port Authority, and more love for the state’s roadways.
“The whole road system is horrible. It seems like the same roads are rebuilt every couple of years. Why can’t they get it right the first time?” Nosofsky says. “It seems like planning is horrible, and execution is worse.”
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Likewise, Rob Lahoda, whose politics are progressive, says he is not averse to paying taxes–if they are spent “wisely to improve people’s lives.”
He’s satisfied with municipal services, but says he is deeply disturbed and embarrassed by President Trump and his agenda.
“The rhetoric is over the top, and it’s childish and it does not put us in a good light. I don’t think we always need to filter to the lowest common denominator, which is kind of where I think we are right now,” says Lahoda, 52, who works for a pharma benefits company in Bergen County.
The corrupting influence of big money gives him “pretty much zero” faith in America’s political system. Still, he hopes New Jersey’s next governor is an improvement over Gov. Christie, who aligned himself with Trump when his own presidential campaign fell short.
“Part of what I’d like to see is a little more balance, with the election of a more moderate or progressive candidate,” Lahoda says.
“Someone that will counteract some of the national changes that are happening, or protect at least New Jersey whenever possible. And maybe lead by example and show other leaders that there are ways to do things to be fair with people and compassionate.”
His spouse, Gilbert Baez, is “a little scared” and embarrassed by what’s happening nationally. He works at Morristown Medical Center and worries about the local impact of GOP attempts to dismantle Obamacare and curb immigration.
“I feel we are going backwards,” says Baez, 55. “I was at a point where we were very comfortable and happy and proud to be a gay couple in the United States. And now I feel we are just taking a different turn.”
Peter and Liz Jarvis, conservative Republicans, say Trump wasn’t their first choice in the primary. But they could not support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders last November.
“He’ll stick his foot in his mouth,” Peter says of the President. “I like his policies. I don’t like the rhetoric. I’m torn, I guess.”
Liz Jarvis says Trump is a businessman who is just learning the ways of Washington.
“But for the first time,” says the interior design consultant, “we have a president who’s actually talking to the people.
“He’s not doing it inside a glass office, through underlings. That’s why the press doesn’t like him. He goes around them. He goes out and he tells you what he thinks. He goes out and he meets people, once a week he’s somewhere in the United States, talking to people.”
The Jarvises worry that New Jersey’s public education is going downhill while property taxes keep climbing–theirs have doubled over the years, Peter Jarvis says.
Corporations and wealthy individuals are fleeing the state, shifting the burden to the middle class. Politicians promise tax relief and never deliver, they contend.
New Jersey’s state pension system is especially troubling, says Peter Jarvis, who works in automotive sales.
“For years, politicians have been kicking the can down the road, and not contributing to the pensions, and now I don’t know how many billions we’re in the hole,” he says.
“With the state pension system being so underfunded, and all the other things they borrowed money to do, I don’t see it as realistic that we could expect a tax decrease. If you’re going to balance the budget, you’re either going to have to cut out your expenses or bring in more income.”
The couple is not crazy about their choices for governor. They blame Democrats for profligate spending and expect more of the same from Phil Murphy.
And Liz Jarvis is no fan of Kim Guadagno. “She’s bringing some baggage to the table, having been with Christie and Bridgegate and all of that.”
She actually has pondered not voting at all. But she would forfeit her right to complain, her husband keeps reminding her.
Despite so many seemingly intractable issues, and the nation’s widening political chasm, Peter Jarvis retains a glimmer of optimism.
“I have a lot of faith,” he says, sitting on his front porch under what may be the largest American flag in the Washington’s Headquarters neighborhood.
“I really do think that when the rubber meets the road, people will do the right thing.”
MorristownGreen.com correspondent Beth Kujan contributed to this report.
This story is part of the Voting Block series and was produced in collaboration with Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Cooperative Media and New America Media. To read all the stories in this series and see the full list of reporting partners, visit VotingBlockNJ.com.