A Battle for Wards in New Jersey’s Hub City

How an organization of residents crossing age, race, and socioeconomic lines took on an unyielding City Hall known for quelling grass-roots efforts and (almost) overtook the political party machinery.

An orange tinted bridge over water in New Brunswick, New Jersey.
Photo by Christian Oliveira; healthcarecity.tumblr.com

New Brunswick is New Jersey’s so-called “Hub City” for many reasons: It’s an economic driver housing major institutions like Johnson & Johnson’s world headquarters, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Rutgers University, and two major in-state hospitals. The small, 50,000-resident city is also home to two conference centers and hotels, major arts venues, and some of the finest restaurants in the state, and it lies at the confluence of central Jersey’s major roadways. It’s a hub.

It’s also home to machine politics, as is the case in many New Jersey cities, with residents and grassroots organizations finding it increasingly difficult to penetrate the inner workings of this Democratic stronghold. That changed recently — almost.

For almost two years, a dedicated group of New Brunswick residents, crossing age and cultural lines, ran a campaign for electoral reform. Specifically, they mounted an effort to get a referendum on the ballot that would have altered the city’s government structure. It was the first real challenge to the entrenched city government in decades.

New Brunswick’s city council suffers from the unresponsiveness and corruption characteristic of unchallenged one-party rule. John Lynch Jr., the last mayor before the current mayor’s 20-year incumbency, recently completed a three-year term in prison for mail fraud and tax evasion; construction executives have been sent to prison for paying city officials bribes; and city police officers have been indicted for running a brothel. There is no organized Republican Party in the city, so appointment by the local Democratic Party has basically replaced competitive elections: three of five current council members were appointed to serve out unexpired terms, giving them an incumbent’s advantage in their “reelection” campaigns. Just this year, an aide for current Mayor James Cahill was charged for illegally possessing official mail-in ballots that were sealed.

Without competitive elections, officials have no incentive to serve their constituents. Lacking other candidates on Election Day, voters cannot remove ineffective officials. This has created an environment where it is difficult for the politically unconnected to get things done.

Irresponsible development prioritizing the downtown has been pushed through, while many neighborhoods remain neglected. Redevelopment policies enacted in New Brunswick have uprooted low-income families and replaced their housing with luxury condos that sit half full. Residents are frustrated by unequal access to city services, resources, and homeowner variances; a lack of bike lanes and pedestrian safety measures; and chronically failing schools. There is growing recognition that New Brunswick’s leaders invest in the people they want to attract, not current residents.

Need for Wards

New Brunswick’s city government is a bit archaic: it’s divided into wards — administrative divisions — but the city’s governing body is composed entirely of at-large representation. This means entire communities are left unrepresented.

And so Empower Our Neighborhoods (EON) set out to (a) get its own candidates on the ballot for election to the Democratic municipal committee — the body that chooses which Democratic candidates will be on the ballot — and (b) get a referendum on the ballot that would allow residents to vote on whether they should have a wards-based system on city council.

Residents have been challenging the New Brunswick machine in a variety of ways over the years, with council elections, previous wards referendums in 1986 and 1996, fights over rent control, and other ballot questions. The city has, of course, been resistant to forms of change that weaken its hold on key institutions, and a wards-based system effectively threatened that stronghold. Therefore, the city has used any tool it could to defeat wards initiatives before they got to a vote. In 1996, knowing a petition was coming that would get a wards question on the ballot, the city preempted that effort by passing a measure that put a wards charter study question on the ballot. Since state law prohibits a charter study question and an outright wards question from being put to voters within four years of one another, the city effectively killed that campaign.

When wards advocates began to regroup, they immediately recognized the importance of a community-based movement, rather than a merely campus-based one. Outreach began in early 2008. EON’s first project was to catalog problems unaddressed by the city council and mayor. Canvassers went to residential areas armed with residential satisfaction surveys and community members were encouraged to come talk about problems in their neighborhoods at EON meetings. This appealed to residents who were feeling ignored by the city.

EON worked to get residents more involved in their city government by bringing their concerns to city council meetings, which have traditionally low attendance. Skeptical members of the public became members of EON after observing the City Council’s disrespectful dismissals of concerned residents. When requests to broadcast council meetings to the public received no response, EON organizers began taping council meetings and posting them on the Internet.

Wards, and the idea of a more responsive city council, was the vehicle EON promised to use to address many residents’ issues. This made bringing volunteers from many different walks of life and of varying political opinions together easier than running a candidate would have been. Coalition building was a constant focus of the ward campaign.

Management Obstacles

The original project plan for the ward referendum outlined legal deadlines and EON’s weekly signature and voter registration goals, but the campaign structure was informal. In its first year, EON’s organizational structure consisted of organization-wide meetings, ad hoc project-oriented committees, and hard working individuals. Meetings of the full membership were where policies, strategies, and other issues of importance were proposed, debated, and voted on. All members received voting rights as part of a “work together, decide together” philosophy.

Working only with volunteers dramatically reduced campaign costs, but it complicated the management dynamic. A campaign cannot demand as much from volunteers as from paid staff. EON organizers had to learn to balance volunteer input with maintaining campaign momentum. People were willing to invest a lot of time for free because they felt ownership of the campaign. Volunteers voted on their tasks and EON found that people work hard to actualize their own ideas, including programs like Summer in the City (SITC), in which students from across the country were invited to come to organize in New Brunswick over the summer. SITC volunteers were offered community organizing experience and room and board (donated by EON volunteers).

A Shelterforce ad seeking donations from readers. On the left there's a photo of a person wearing a red shirt that reads "Because the Rent Can't Wait."

EON’s lack of formal structure was never a problem when the group was small enough for everyone to know everyone, but as the movement grew it became more problematic. They ran into struggles with balancing democratic ideals with the need to quickly respond to the demands of a grassroots campaign. There was not always time to gather the membership for the authorizing vote on a pressing issue, but no one wanted a few unelected people making critical decisions in EON’s name.

There was also the troubling tendency of a few people who volunteered the most to become the guiding force of the campaign. With a wide volunteer base, those who do the most work get the most power: they know where the decision-making power is and how to get the membership together for a vote. All members were empowered to suggest policy at EON meetings and everyone could vote, but when the group lacked formal roles and processes, enacting policy was easier for some than for others.

These concerns led to an EON constitutional convention and ratification of bylaws in the summer of 2009. By formalizing elected positions and instituting clearly defined routine and emergency voting procedures, EON hoped to address process problems while maintaining a democratic structure. Decision-making power was kept in the hands of the membership to protect dissenting voices within EON.

Town/Gown

Campaigning in a college town was a mixed blessing, because students were able to volunteer huge amounts of time, and often volunteers were studying aspects of campaign they worked on. This brought much-needed people-hours and cutting edge knowledge and technology to the ward effort.

However, a historic town/gown divide curbed some of the strength the campus brought to the campaign. University students are often painted as transients, radicals, or worse. Moreover, the student wing of EON was perhaps too well organized, in that most campus volunteers were brought in by one organization, while organizers from New Brunswick’s communities were politically, economically, racially diverse. An unintentional result was that the voice of the community at large was less monolithic than the students’. Although the students never voted as a strict block, some community members felt student coalition members overshadowed their opinions. EON organizers worked to rectify this and prioritized making sure everyone’s voice was heard at meetings, but it was an ongoing source of tension.

This divide was complicated by machine attacks, which painted EON as a student organization and specifically targeted campus leaders or any organizers in their 20s as being drunk, littering, radical transients. Fliers alleged that students were not invested in the city and were waging a social experiment in their college town before leaving after graduation. Although many students spend only four years in the city (the national average time between moves is five years), Rutgers was founded in 1766, meaning the student community in New Brunswick predates the American Revolutionary War. Students felt frustration at having to be ashamed of their youth and connection to the university, and a feeling that they should not have to run from who they are. Still, almost all organizers recognized that when the campus and community are united they are much stronger than either would be alone.

Getting There, Vote by Vote

The ward effort fell 82 votes short. Although disheartening, defeat did not equal failure, because New Brunswick is now mobilized for change. Nearly half of the members of the Democratic Municipal Committee are now people sympathetic to the wards effort. The incumbent government had to pour an unsustainable amount of money into its various challenges to EON’s referendum efforts to win by less than 1 percent of ballots cast. Thanks to continued momentum and sound, democratic organizational tactics, the fight continues.

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Amy Braunstein is a New Jersey-based reporter and freelance writer.

1 COMMENT

  1. It was a privilege to be empowered into pushing for needed reform in my City by EON. I met the finest people on this earth .. right here in New Brunswick. YES WE CAN … YES WE DID, democratically united! We are STILL HERE and growing in numbers every day.

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