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 out 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.

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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