Voting Block 2017: Morristown voters size up next governor

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Phil Murphy will be sworn in as New Jersey’s 56th governor on Jan. 16, 2018.

Will anyone show up for the ceremony?

Only 38.5 percent of the Garden State’s electorate –a record low–bothered to visit the polls in November. Members of our Morristown focus group, from both parties, are not overly enthused by the results, either.

“I have to say I found the whole race underwhelming,” said Rob Lahoda, one of six residents Morristown Green quizzed over a potluck dinner prior to the election, as part of Voting Block.

voting block logoThe project attempted to foster civil political discussion and more informed voters.

More than two dozen news organizations followed groups of neighbors as the gubernatorial race unfolded. Morristown Green’s reporting partners included 15 hyperlocal and six ethnic news organizations across the state, as well as WYNC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record.

Lahoda, 52, works for a pharma benefits company and identifies himself as progressive. He voted for Democrats, but remains doubtful about New Jersey politics in general and Murphy in particular.

“I’m still skeptical given his Wall Street background,” said Lahoda.

Gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy with Jon Bon Jovi and Whoopi Goldberg in Morristown, May 31, 2017. Photo by Maureen Denman
Gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy with Jon Bon Jovi and Whoopi Goldberg in Morristown, May 31, 2017. Photo by Maureen Denman

“But on social issues, I’m comfortable with where his positions lead. Like any leader, who he surrounds himself with makes a huge difference. I’m hoping any appointments he makes are representative of the people in the state, and have experience and expertise that support their responsibilities.”

He suspects the comparative lack of bombast in New Jersey’s election accounted for the much lower turnout than Virginia’s hotly contested gubernatorial campaign, won by Democrat Ralph Northam over Republican Ed Gillespie.

Lahoda said he’s hoping Murphy, a retired Goldman Sachs executive and former U.S. ambassador to Germany, will improve transparency and communication in Trenton.

“Residents need to know how things are being done, as well as why and when,” he said.

Robert Lahoda, with his partner Gilberto Baez at right, argues for strong public education at Voting Block 'potluck' dinner. Photo by Thomas E. Franklin
Robert Lahoda, with his partner Gilberto Baez at right, argues for strong public education at Voting Block ‘potluck’ dinner. Photo by Thomas E. Franklin

Lahoda’s spouse, Gilbert Baez, said he is guardedly optimistic about New Jersey’s future. 

Guarded, because of Murphy’s lack of political experience and an ambitious agenda  that includes legalizing marijuana and raising the minimum wage. Optimistic, because Murphy “has a realistic view of the challenges he faces given the political and social insecurities we face, both on a local and national level.”

Baez, 55, said New Jersey’s election should have been a bigger deal–the state is grappling with numerous issues confronting the country, from healthcare and immigration to taxes, infrastructure and education.

Instead, he said, it focused more on opposition to departing Gov. Chris Christie and President Trump than on what Murphy and GOP contender Kim Guadagno, the lieutenant governor, brought to the table.

Baez, who works at Morristown Medical Center, said he hopes Murphy will be transparent, build consensus between both parties, and exert care “not to relive the Corzine years.”

Peter Jarvis, a Republican, is the couple’s neighbor in Washington’s Headquarters, a historic neighborhood of well-kept homes straddling the border of Morristown and Morris Township.

He got tied up at work on Election Day and did not vote.

Peter and Liz Jarvis. Photo by Kevin Coughlin, Sept 2017
Peter and Liz Jarvis. Photo by Kevin Coughlin

“Neither candidate excited me and I figured that Murphy would walk away with it anyway,” said Jarvis, who works in automotive sales. “Kim Guadagno carried too much Chris Christie baggage, didn’t get much positive press and never really had a chance.”

A Massachusetts native, Jarvis considers Murphy “uber-liberal” and doubts the Gov.-elect’s stories about a “paycheck to paycheck” upbringing in upscale Newton, MA.

He fears Murphy will “continue the Blue State traditions of spending big money, supporting public unions and unrestricted immigration.” And he questions why Murphy supports the New Jersey Education Association while sending his kids to public schools.

“Doesn’t that make an elite hypocrite?” he said.

Nearing retirement, Jarvis describes himself as pessimistic about the state’s future. How pessimistic?

“I’m leaving before it crashes and burns,” he said. “I bet a lot of others will, too.”

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