They are so indifferent, in fact, that they are likely to stay home in record numbers on Tuesday, rather than casting a ballot for a successor to Chris Christie, the state’s most unpopular governor of modern times.
Our Morristown focus group didn’t show much enthusiasm, either, for Murphy, the 59-year-old retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, or Guadagno, the 58-year old lieutenant governor.
Over sandwiches around a dining room table, as part of the statewide Voting Block project, neighbors from different political camps shared broader concerns about a system they feel is failing them at all levels.
They spoke of nightmarish battles to obtain competent and affordable healthcare for seriously ill loved ones.
Sky-high property taxes stirred charges of mismanagement and corruption. Disparities between public and private schools raised questions of fairness and social equity. Big money in politics–from town hall to the White House–bothered everyone.
Government, they said, even is falling down on such essential tasks as ensuring our supply of clean drinking water, and managing storm runoff.
“I think we’re one really bad storm away from being a Third World country,” said Deb Regan, a realtor who joined five others from Washington’s Headquarters at our “potluck” dinner last month, prior to the gubernatorial debates, at the home of former town Council President Rebecca Feldman.
Washington’s Headquarters–yes, the General really did sleep here–is a prosperous neighborhood with a charming mix of older, well kept homes, and a mix of political views straddling two municipalities.
On the Morristown side, you’ll meet more Republicans than usual for this heavily Democratic town. Morris Township is a red bastion gradually changing hues.
More than two dozen news organizations have followed groups of neighbors as the race has unfolded. Morristown Green’s reporting partners include 15 hyperlocal and six ethnic news organizations across the state, as well as WYNC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record.
‘IT’S A HUMAN ISSUE’
Ruth Zamoyta of the New Jersey Theatre Alliance moderated a spirited yet cordial conversation.
Liz and Peter Jarvis describe themselves as conservative Republicans and Rob Lahoda and Gilbert Baez are progressive liberal Democrats. Regan has migrated from Republican to Democrat. Feldman won two council terms as an Independent.
But first and foremost, they are neighbors.
“This is not a Democratic issue, it’s not a Republican issue. It’s a human issue,” a matter of life or death, Regan said of her 20-year-battle to obtain quality, affordable care for her husband, who has multiple sclerosis, and her son, who suffers from Type I diabetes.
Regan, who emigrated from Venezuela as a teen, said she is so frustrated with healthcare here that she may pursue treatment for her family in Europe. Obamacare, though a step in the right direction, still is too expensive for many people, she maintains.
Both parties “need to collaborate to make healthcare accessible to everyone, and also affordable,” she said.
Health care also is topmost for Baez, 55, who works at Morristown Medical Center.
“I see such a disconnect between who can afford it and who can’t. So for me that’s a very personal issue as far as being sure that everybody in New Jersey has access to quality health care,” he said.
Murphy and Guadagno both oppose a federal repeal of Obamacare.
For the Jarvises, who are contemplating retirement somewhere less expensive after 30 years in Morristown, taxes are a consuming matter.
“Why are our taxes the highest in the country?” asked Liz Jarvis, who does some interior design consulting. “I think it still goes back to mismanagement. How much money can you choke out of the public?”
“We’ve been promised for decades, ‘Oh yeah, we’re going to do something at the state level, to lower your taxes.’ Never happens,” said Peter Jarvis, who works in auto sales.
“We had property tax rebates, and then they rescinded them. They give it lip service, but there’s really no concrete plan to do anything about it.”
NO BORDERS = NO COUNTRY?
Corruption permeates New Jersey politics, much like his native Massachusetts, continued Peter Jarvis.
“You know, the people that have the big gold shields on their windshield, you know that’s a signal to a cop, ‘Hey I’m connected, do you really want to open up this can of worms?’ That’s corrupt. I’m sorry,” he said.
He sees mismanagement throughout government. He expressed shock at his recent discovery that Morristown never has employed a human resources director.
“So each individual department head is running his own little fiefdom. You know, there’s no coordination….there’s like seven different unions within the town, and there’s no one looking at the big picture,” he said.
Still, the Jarvises, Lahoda and Baez generally are pleased with municipal services in Morristown.
Lahoda, who works for a pharma benefits company, said he does not mind paying taxes for things that matter, like good schools. But he has scant patience for what he perceives as cronyism, from Washington to Morristown.
“So we go into an office and we get treated like crap. You know, it’s happened to me when I’m at the permit office. You get ignored for five minutes and then finally they look up,” said Lahoda, 52, who is married to Baez.
Nor, he said, should citizens tolerate absences like Chris Christie’s, when he was away campaigning for president.
“That’s time we’re paying them to work for us … not run the Republican Governors Association and be out of the state for an entire year while your state’s crumbling,” Lahoda said.
“I think there needs to be a dedication that we don’t get out of our elected officials. We elect them to do the job, and in most cases, they need to be more myopic about that job.”
Feldman, a mother of two who works for the town administrator, said she worries about New Jersey’s infrastructure–particularly, water. Tropical Storm Irene and Hurricane Sandy exposed how poorly the state handles storm water, she said. And our drinking water systems are old.
“Those are things we should not be taking for granted, and they are not unlimited and they are already affecting municipalities’ ability to continue. Nobody’s talking about it,” Feldman said.
Immigration also came up, though only briefly. Peter Jarvis said he opposes declaring New Jersey a “sanctuary state” for undocumented people. California is such a state and Murphy has expressed openness to that model; Guadagno has hammered him over it.
“If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country,” Peter Jarvis said.
PAROCHIAL SCHOOLS AND RUG RATS
The most animated discussions keyed on two of the most intractable issues: Funding of public education, and funding political campaigns.
New Jersey homeowners pay the highest property taxes in the nation, largely to fund public schools.
Citing moral values and dissastisfaction with public school bureaucracies, Regan sent her children to Catholic schools. She said she resents paying taxes for public schools that do not benefit her, and argued for greater parental responsibility:
“I feel that if you don’t have the resources and you cannot be a responsible parent, then maybe you should rethink that, because it’s a huge responsibility to bring children into this world and have them be participating citizens in our community.”
Lahoda countered that public schools do benefit Regan, and society, by producing educated citizens instead of “rug rats running around tearing down the neighborhood.”
It’s why he is okay paying local school taxes despite having no children. It’s also why he objects to any public funding for parochial schools.
He and Baez bristled at the implication that public schools cannot instill morality, or that parents who cannot afford $20,000- to $40,000 a year for private schools should think twice about parenthood.
Both spoke movingly about their parents’ struggles: Lahoda’s mother raised two boys alone on a meager income in Los Angeles; Baez’s mom and dad, with limited educations, worked multiple jobs to feed and clothe their family in Perth Amboy.
The challenge, the couple said, is providing quality public educations for all New Jersey kids, when funding varies so widely from district to district.
Video playlist: Toggle through for our panelists’ key concerns for next governor:
More money isn’t always the answer, according to Peter Jarvis, citing Newark’s troubled schools as an example.
The Jarvises sent their two daughters to public and parochial schools, and reported good results in both settings. School vouchers and innovative charter schools might be worth trying statewide, Peter Jarvis contended.
“If every kid’s got a $10,000 check in his pocket, there’s going to be people out there creating schools that will attract these kids,” he said.
For Lahoda, that conjured images of for-profit clones of the University of Phoenix.
“Is anybody going to really sit there in their daily job and hire somebody who’s got a degree at the University of Phoenix?” he said.
Baez doubts Garden Staters would pony up more tax dollars to create a level playing field in public education.
“I don’t think people are willing to do that. I think people are looking at what’s going on in their community, what’s going on with me, how can I do the best I can for my family?” he said.
GETTING A FIX
Fixing urban schools means fixing poverty, Feldman said.
Poverty, Jersey-style, “is reinforced by the kinds of zoning we’ve done, the kinds of transportation that we offer. The things that most impact somebody’s ability to move out of poverty, we don’t spend the money to do,” she said.
“It’s access to transportation, it’s access to people who have things that you don’t have. It’s access to cultural institutions. You know, if you’re stuck and you can’t get anywhere, then how do you find your way out?”
Everyone appeared to agree on one point, at least: Money is too dominant in politics.
Lahoda, who favors publicly financed campaigns with strict spending limits, said candidates at all levels waste too much time fund-raising.
Noting that Morristown’s Democratic ticket for mayor and council raised $100,000 for the spring primary, he said it’s incredulous to think elected officials won’t be beholden to donors. Conversely, he said, donors hesitate to support challengers, who lack power.
“And so our voices get lost and officials are stuck doing one thing, which is chasing the money, before and after the election,” Lahoda said.
Changing the business-as-usual politics of New Jersey, where corruption outpaces other states in “scope and scale,” is possible, said Feldman, a triathlete.
However, as with most issues debated over Sloppy Joes and Thai noodle salad on this early autumn Sunday afternoon, cracking this one will be a Herculean challenge.
Because, Feldman said, New Jersey is among the few states where voters lack the power of initiative and referendum.
“We can’t put a question on the ballot. There is no possible way,” she said.
“It’s a huge problem,” remedied only, Feldman said, by “re-electing an entirely new legislature this November. That’s how you do it. You elect people who are willing to change the state constitution, to give citizens the right of initiative and referendum.”