Score one for the little guys, finally
As I began my sixth year at Rutgers last Tuesday, it felt almost exactly the same as the beginning of every other year. I went to the first day of classes, ran into old friends, and tried to notice the little changes made to our 240+ year-old University. Typical. Then I went to work.
It was a typical day in the office at my new job. I'm the campaign manager for a ballot initiative in New Brunswick that would change the way our City Council is elected here in the Hub City. I work with a dedicated group of volunteers who are committed to switching New Brunswick's form of government to one that better represents its diverse population. Having looked extensively into the history of New Brunswick, I was a only slightly surprised to find out it is run by one of the most powerful political machines in the state and has been for some time. For about four years now, I have been finding out about the machine, their strengths and weaknesses, as well as allegations of corrupt deeds and cover-ups.
I had been intending to run for mayor in 2010 when James Cahill was up for re-election. Cahill has run the City since 1991. Prior to him, his second cousin, John Lynch Jr. was mayor from 1978 until he left his chair to Cahill. You can find Lynch in a Pennsylvania federal prison for tax fraud.
I figured I could try to get enough votes to beat Cahill as an Independent candidate due to the extraordinarily low voter turnout here in New Brunswick, particularly amongst the student population. The low voter turnout here is what has allowed the machine to continue its reign for so long. A group of people, (city and county employees, developers, friends, family) turn out every single election to support the machine that keeps them and their loved ones employed. A simple effort to register students to vote in the City of New Brunswick rather than in their hometowns could easily take down the machine and get me elected mayor. The one fatal flaw with my plan, however, was that, once elected, I wouldn't be able to change much of anything here because all five members of the City Council would still have some association with the machine.
Little did I know that while I was wrapped up in my mayoral delusions of grandeur planning out future redevelopment projects in Google Maps, there was a relatively large group of people working on a practical way to change our city even sooner than 2010. And they were literally around the corner from me.
So, the moment I found about these cats and what they were up to, I joined up. I started working full-time for the ward campaign, an effort to ensure that a City Council member comes from each of New Brunswick's six wards. While this could easily result in a student representative on the Council, more importantly it would ensure that each neighborhood is represented. Currently, the Council is made up of well-connected polticos who mostly live in the same part of town. Save one Councilman from near the downtown area, the rest all come from "the good side of the tracks" if you know what I mean. In fact, the Mayor, City Administrator, City Attorney, Police Director, Sanitation Director, and two City Councilmen all reside in one specific neighborhood far from Rutgers in suburban-style housing on the other side of Route 18.
A ward system would also make running for office much cheaper as candidates would only have to run in their own neighborhoods, rather than in the entire city of 50,000 residents. It also encourages more face-to-face contact between candidates and voters, as opposed to billboard, radio, and TV advertising. Most large cities in New Jersey have a ward system, as well as many small and medium-sized communities. Our neighbors in Franklin and Piscataway enjoy ward-based representation on their Township Councils and both townships were listed in the top 25 places to live in America by Money Magazine recently. New Brunswick was not even in the top 100.
Anyway, I learned more about this City during my two months at Empower Our Neighborhoods (EON) this summer than I had in four years of digging up dirt on my own. Things heated up pretty quick as we turned in the 1,116 signatures that my brothers and sisters collected over the summer to the City Clerk to get our question on the ballot. The City Council tried to pass an illegal ordinance to de-rail our question, but we beat them by two days. The City Clerk then had 20 days to tell us whether or not our petition was valid. Since we had three times the number of signatures necessary, we were sitting pretty assuming our question was on the ballot and going door-to-door in every community telling people about our efforts.
Much to our chagrin, one fateful Friday evening, New Brunswick Police officers rolled up to the different houses of our organizers to hand-deliver a rejection letter, saying that, although we had enough signatures, our petitions were nevertheless "deficient." The Home News Tribune jumped to our defense calling the City out for their "shenanigans," but, of course, the City's brazen efforts were not halted by one or two editorials or even front-page articles.
If there's one thing that surprised me about my cohorts this summer, it was their never-say-die attitude. It wasn't blind naiveté or even blissful ignorance, though at times it resembled it, it was actually practical perseverance. We didn't give up. We did the impossible and attempted to sue the City. We knew it might be a long shot because of connections between city politicians and the judiciary. But we did it.
On my birthday, August 14, EON's case against the city was heard in New Jersey Superior Court. We thought we would find out that day when the judge banged her gavel, but this wasn't like the movies. We had to endure a three-week long purgatory period where we had no idea if our question would be on the ballot. We all still showed up and planned for two contingencies: Plan A was if we lost, Plan B if we won.
But we continued on, each day seeming more and more hopeless. We wanted a decision more than anything, win or lose. Then something atypical happened for a change.
Going back to that first day of school, I was just about to leave our office for the day when I read an email from our legal coordinator that began "WE WON WE WON WE WON." We all jumped for joy and screamed and hugged like we had won the Super Bowl, as opposed to a court case to get a question on a ballot in a medium-sized city in Central New Jersey.
Honestly, though, this small victory was far bigger than any of us could have ever imagined when we embarked on our journey this summer. Justice, the will of the people, the good side of the force, whatever you want to call it, it prevailed. And now everything has changed. For the first time in about 40 years, we have the power to take back our city.
Vote YES for wards November 4th.
Charlie Kratovil is a Rutgers College Senior majoring in Journalism and Media Studies. He can be heard every Tuesday night at 9:00 PM on HearNewBrunswick.com. His column runs alternate Thursdays.