Category Archives: The Populist Approach

Dennis “DJ” Mikolay
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On The Horizon

mikolay headshot 2011 120For a very long time now, I have pondered how to make the jump from blogging solely about news and politics to also documenting less-divisive, more inspiring matters. Until now, such a development has yet to come to fruition, as it is easy to talk oneself out of any kind of drastic overhaul of web based-content. For fear of losing readership, the format has remained unchanged. That said, this blog has reached the point where an expansion to new horizons, beyond the boundaries of strictly political matters, is imminent: there are too many things to discuss at the Jersey Shore—history, events, people, and places—all of which are intricately interwoven with one another, to restrict new content. Additionally, there are more than enough websites out there that are strictly political, but very few I can think of which focus upon the important trifecta that helps to make a community: people, government, and history. 

Innumerous stories are waiting to be told, so it would be a shame to neglect them.  The new space will be called On The Horizon.

Yes, the political columns will remain and there will definitely be many more in the future; however, elections and government are but two of the things that make the Garden State what it is. There really is a great deal more I have wanted to write about yet never did for lack of isolating the political audience.

Now, the time feels right to try something new.

 

Romney Seems Ready for Another Run

mikolay headshot 2011 120For the past several weeks, the media and the Republican Party have been abuzz with talk related to a most unexpected of topics: former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. If the pundits are to be believed, the two-time GOP presidential candidate will soon launch a third campaign for the White House, a prospect as warmly received by social moderates as scorned by the Tea Party. Mere months ago, such chatter would have been dismissed as irrational and laughable, the result of a lack of knowledge regarding the contemporary state of national politics, or even an unwillingness to accept the reality that Governor Romney’s political career was all but finished.

And yet, against all odds, Mitt has undergone something of a rejuvenation lately. From James Carville to Pat Buchanan, prominent voices see Romney 2016 on the horizon. This unexpected resurgence in popularity, accompanied by the respect and admiration that was unachievable during his doomed presidential candidacies, means that for the first time in his career, Mitt Romney is considered “cool.” But why wouldn’t he be? He “slow jammed the news” during a funky appearance on Jimmy Fallon, danced to Korean disco track “Gangnam Style” before a cheering audience, and was the focus of Mitt, a popular (and humanizing) documentary. As a private citizen, Romney is much more relatable than he was as a candidate.

 There are certainly those who reject the likelihood of a 2016 bid, arguing the former Governor has run and lost twice before. These skeptics are quick to ask why voters would invest any confidence in an individual who has already proven he will not become President of the United States. It sounds like a valid point, but students of history will recognize both Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan endured failed candidacies before arriving on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Should Governor Romney seek to re-establish himself within the Republican primaries, it would not be without precedent. Given the lack of other credible candidates and his successes re-inventing his public image, it wouldn’t be unbelievable either, if he can stay “cool,” even when competing for votes alongside more socially conservative, ideologically pure candidates. Last cycle’s drawn out primaries, where the moderate Romney was forced to move farther Right to siphon support from Senator Rick Santorum and a slew of other Tea Partiers, damaged his brand among independents and moderates.  Next time, the GOP would need to squash a Tea Party insurgency early on.

Though Governor Romney has denied interest in running in 2016, he has certainly acted like a presidential aspirant lately, touring the country on behalf of Congressional candidates and taking every opportunity to encourage buyers’ remorse among those who cast their ballots for President Obama. Thus, it was hardly earth shattering news when it was announced Mitt would appear at Governor Christie’s birthday party on September 10th. Indeed, in the weeks leading up to the event, there was a great deal of excitement, as two of the most highly speculated presidential candidates within the GOP would share the same stage, and do so in New Jersey!

Taking the podium at the Hilton in East Brunswick, Governor Romney certainly looked the part of a presidential candidate, briefly addressing all the pertinent issues of the day and piling heaps of praise upon the Christie Administration. And yet, when the speech turned to President Obama and the issue of ISIS, Governor Romney’s potential as a candidate really shined through.

“Three years ago, there were people saying to the president, ‘you need have a strategy in Syria, you should be finding the moderates and supporting them,’” he said. “Now, three years later—tonight—he’ll be speaking…finally doing that. Now we have something known as ISIS. Months ago, leaders in Congress were saying, ‘watch out for this group, prepare for this group.’ And then he admits the other day he doesn’t have a strategy yet. It’s extraordinary that we don’t have a president who knows what to do!”

Though largely a matter of personal opinion, these criticisms were warmly received by attendees and are typical Republican talking points, particularly within the mainstream of the party’s base. However, it was what Governor Romney said afterward that betrayed he is likely considering another run for the White House. Amidst attacks against the Obama Administration, Romney made it clear Republicans should support the President’s battle against ISIS.

“Unfortunately, Al Qaeda is not on the run, and the jihadists are not on the run, and Isis is not on the run yet,” Governor Romney said. “But I’ll tell you, we are finally going to do what needs to get done in this country and elect people, and fight for people, and support the president at this time, and make sure that we stop these awful people from exacting such terror on the world!”

It was a clever comment, a sign Romney is trying to position himself as a unifier in divisive times. Yes, he is a Republican. Yes, he disapproves of the President. Yes, he would handle things differently. However, he isn’t going to let partisan differences stand in the way of fighting ISIS or backing President Obama when he takes a stand against terrorism. Such are the views of a presidential candidate, someone who wants to have broad appeal among Republicans, Democrats, and independents moving forward.

Who are the Presidents Americans remember most fondly? Teddy Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, the unifiers who were willing to reach across the aisle. Maybe, Governor Romney has finally learned that polarization breeds animus and defeat. We can only hope that if Governor Romney decides to run for president one more time, he will stay “cool” and extend the olive branch to those neglected during his previous campaign.  

Will This Man Defeat Cory Booker?

mikolay headshot 2011 120Former Mayor Steve Lonegan, among the many Republicans assembled at Shackamaxon Country Club in Scotch Plains last Thursday night, has reason to be confident in his king-making abilities. The occasion in question: a fund-raiser for Jeff Bell, once a confidante of President Ronald Reagan, currently the GOP nominee for United States Senate.

Mayor Lonegan, himself a former candidate for the office currently held by Senator Cory Booker, was one of the fund-raiser’s co-hosts. It was an event few believed would be possible, as nobody really thought Bell, who previously ran for United States Senate in 1978 and 1982, stood any chance during last June’s four-candidate primary. He lacked endorsements, money, or name recognition. The idea that his campaign would eventually be hosting General Election fund-raisers, mingling with the national media, and encroaching upon Senator Booker’s presumably unbreakable lead seemed like fantasy, too unlikely to ever occur.  

And yet, despite the odds, all of the aforementioned has since come to fruition. Mayor Lonegan, among only a handful of figures to openly endorse Bell during the primary, can rest assured that his political astuteness has been confirmed by recognition of the underdog candidate’s potential. After all, recent polls show Bell is only trailing the Democrat by seven points, a shocking development in a state where the GOP seemed poised to abandon future Senatorial efforts as pointless. Thus, the optimism and sense of achievement pervasive at this fund-raiser were reflective of the fact the Republicans seem to be gaining traction, something they really aren’t used to doing.

Rich Pezzullo, the conservative activist who represented the strongest competition during the primary, was also on hand in Scotch Plains, having since enthusiastically accepted a position as the campaign’s co-chair. Pezzullo made his support and admiration for his former adversary apparent and was hardly at a loss for words while introducing the Republican nominee:

“He’s advised Congressman, he’s advised Senators, [and] Presidents, Ronald Reagan, in fact,” Pezzullo said. “Jeff actually helped write what we know as the Reagan tax cut legislation. This is the type of skilled, go-to legislator that New Jersey has the opportunity to send to Washington, D.C.”

Yes, the opportunity is certainly there—Bell’s supporters already know that—but many within the GOP remain skeptical as to whether or not the Garden State’s voters will take it. They have become soured by continuous electoral defeat, aware that Republican Senate contests are viewed as a lost cause in New Jersey, innately futile given the strength of the Democratic Party. True, Mayor Lonegan came close last year, but the same couldn’t be said for most of his predecessors.

That was past, however, and since then the Republicans have undergone another primary, selected a new candidate, and there is a sense of subtle enthusiasm in the air. He may not have the PAC money or celebrity endorsements, but Bell might prove himself a more formidable contender than anyone was previously willing to admit.

It is voter support that truly matters, and in that respect, the GOP may be justified in their optimism. The latest polls show Bell doing well among Republicans, which was to be expected; however, he has actually surpassed Senator Booker amongst independents, the key demographic in any New Jersey election. Perhaps the same type of upset that twice resulted in primary victories can be harnessed during a General Election?

“One of the reasons nobody predicted I would win the primary is I didn’t compete for a single party line,” said Bell. “I was of the opinion voters do not go by who is where on the line, that they make their own decisions, and they did. They were willing to vote for the one candidate out of the four who didn’t have a single party line that had been awarded to him.”

Voters seem to be receptive, and while the campaign hopes to appeal to younger demographics with solutions to the so-called “jobless recovery” (the bane of any recent graduate’s career search), Bell may also benefit from the fact that a large portion of the electorate remembers what life was like during an era of fiscal and economic abundance.

“The electorate here is…old enough to remember better times,” said Bell. “It’s old enough to remember it doesn’t have to be like this. If I can fund my campaign and talk about my solution to the economic crisis and [Cory Booker’s] lack of one—his desire to continue doing what we have been doing for five and a half years, which has not worked—I am confident the voters of New Jersey are capable of sending a message that will resonate.”

Of course, the ultimate question on everyone’s mind remains the same: can Jeff Bell, conservative Reaganite Republican, defeat national superstar Senator Cory Booker? Rich Pezzullo had the answer:

“People say: ‘can Jeff Bell beat Cory Booker?’” Pezzullo asked. “No, Jeff Bell is one man, one vote…can we beat Cory Booker? That’s the question we have to ask ourselves! As people all look at Jeff Bell and say: ‘can he beat Cory Booker?’ I invite them to look to themselves and say: ‘can I beat Cory Booker’s team?’ Because that’s what it really takes.”

With Primary in the Past, Jeff Bell Moves Forward

mikolay headshot 2011 120Jeff Bell’s supporters are feeling optimistic these days. Their candidate of choice, who mere weeks ago was dismissed by critics as having embarked on a futile endeavor, recently shocked his varied detractors and scored multiple political victories. The most obvious among these is the fact that, even though he didn’t receive a single GOP county endorsement during this month’s primary election, the former Reagan advisor won the Republican Party’s nomination, emerging victorious from a field of four candidates. It was the second time Bell, who unseated incumbent Senator Clifford Case in the late 1970s, made electoral history. That he could round out this reputation with a third upset (by defeating Senator Cory Booker in November) is an exciting prospect for many voters, hopeful the Garden State may finally send a Republican to Washington.

And then, there are the polls. Though he was originally considered something of an underdog within his own party, a recent Rasmussen poll showed Bell trailing the incumbent by a mere thirteen points. For the uninitiated, that is a narrow margin for a Republican running for United States Senate in New Jersey; it’s higher than Mayor Steve Lonegan’s numbers were at the same point in the campaign season last year.

Finally, the other three Republican primary candidates (libertarian Murray Sabrin, businessman Brian Goldberg, and conservative activist Rich Pezzullo) each put their ideological differences aside and united behind Bell, publicly backing his campaign and its economic goals. Speaking via telephone earlier this week, it was clear Bell is pleased with this post-primary unification, a benefit not all candidates enjoy.

“They have all endorsed me and a couple appeared for me,” he said. “That’s all going very well; they are very supportive of my candidacy. I haven’t really had any pushback from the Republican Party in New Jersey since winning the nomination. I think it will be united.”

Now, with November less than five months away, it is time for Bell to steer the conversation and introduce his message to the public as a whole. For the Republican, fiscal matters rein supreme, particularly in regards to the fledgling United States economy. In that respect, much has been made of his support for the gold standard. While there will likely be attempts to shift the discussion to higher-profile topics, be they social issues or economic matters, Bell plans to highlight the issues he believes have stifled America’s financial recovery. For example, he slammed the Federal Reserve’s zero-interest rate policy, saying it is “crushing the economy” and vowed to “make sure that there is a debate on it.”

Of course, there are other issues to be discussed, many of which are not of a directly monetary nature. In regards to foreign policy, Bell isn’t bashful about the fact he comes from the Ronald Reagan school of thought and believes the strategic use of force is necessary to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (better known in the West as ISIS) and to eliminate potential threat to American safety.

“We have to go intervene,” Bell said. “We should use the air force to bomb [ISIS] formations in Syria and Iraq and we need to take the lead in training the Iraqi army, not allow Iran to be the only player and certainly not to take the lead in comparison to us…it would benefit mainly Iran if we continue to be passive in our view of how to help the Iraqi government.”

Bell’s candidacy may have been relatively low-key during the primary, though he is now ramping up his activities, appearing on Fox News and campaigning throughout the state in addition to his newly developed social media presence. A lot has undoubtedly changed since his last bid for office; however, Bell believes he is in a favorable position this election, especially compared to his previous runs. While Senator Booker remains a political superstar, Bell feels he is vulnerable, especially when compared to his first Democratic adversary, Bill Bradley.

“Bradley was iconic and Booker has some significant negatives,” Bell said. “He is still the most popular state-wide politician…but he has some more negatives than Bradley had at a comparable time.”

Jeff Bell is Back in Jersey

mikolay headshot 2011 120Though minimal media attention has assured it has gone largely unnoticed, there is currently a race for United States Senate underway in the State of New Jersey. While punditry and press alike seem to have written off a Republican victory as a pipedream, an unachievable goal in light of incumbent Senator Cory Booker’s undeniable star power, there are currently four contenders vying for the GOP nomination, though the field will be whittled to a single candidate following Tuesday’s Primary Election.

As of this writing, there is no clear frontrunner or establishment favorite, so the nomination is literally anyone’s for the taking. This will undoubtedly make for some interesting developments next week, though realistically speaking, the odds are stacked against any Republican running against Senator Booker. That having been said, one candidate in particular is certain he can defy expectations and give the former Newark Mayor a real run for his money. That individual is Jeff Bell, and though such a campaign will undoubtedly be an uphill battle, the seventy-one year old political activist isn’t exactly a novice when it comes to electoral upsets.

After all, back in 1978, he defeated incumbent Senator Clifford Case in the Republican primary. Though he wasn’t elected that November, the shocking upset solidified Bell’s permanent place in Jersey political lure. A follow-up campaign in 1982 also ended in defeat (the more liberal Millicent Fenwick received the nomination); however, Bell, who previously worked alongside President Reagan, went on to have a respectable career in political advocacy, working for a variety of conservative causes and authoring two books on conservative politics.

Now, some thirty years after he first sent shockwaves through the New Jersey GOP, Jeff Bell has returned to the Garden State in hopes of once again rocking the establishment, this time by challenging Senator Cory Booker. But what spawned such a drastic decision?

“It was a process of being frustrated with the way things are going in Washington,” Bell said. “I’m from a Reagan, Kemp, supply-side background and I felt that the members of Congress and other candidates I talked to were not really stepping up and saying, not just why Obama has been bad for the economy and the country, but what is it that we should be doing instead?”

Initially, after witnessing Mayor Steve Lonegan’s performance during the Senate Special Election last fall, Bell attempted to recruit another candidate into the race. He was unable to find a sufficient voice willing to jump into the political arena, so decided to launch his own campaign.

“I have nothing but admiration for Steve Lonegan’s race,” he said. “He did very well and I think that was one of the factors that made me think Cory Booker might be beatable.”

Bell, who had resided in Virginia for several years, moved back to New Jersey specifically to challenge Senator Booker. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but Bell feels he is well suited for the role of political candidate. Indeed, many high-profile figures seem to agree: Mayor Steve Lonegan, Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, Governor George Allen, Gary Bauer, Steve Forbes, and Larry Kudlow all endorsed his candidacy.

In the race for the Republican nod, Bell is competing against businessman Brian Goldberg (who possesses the greatest number of county GOP endorsements), libertarian academic Murray Sabrin (an heir to the Ron Paul mantra), and conservative activist Rich Pezzullo (who received the Monmouth County party’s backing). It’s a crowded field, but he feels his particularly detailed platform sets him apart from the competition.

“I think I am the only candidate who has a specific program to turn the economy around,” he said. “We all agree the economy is underperforming and it’s stagnant, but I am the only one who is willing to put something on the line and say: ‘I think the problem is heavily monetary and we ought to have a return to the dollar backed by gold.’’’

Bell believes this message can strike a chord with voters, particularly given the positive responses he has already received on the campaign trail.

“I think that the reactions I have gotten to this—the fact that the zero interest rate policy is grinding down the Middleclass, making it impossible to save, making it impossible for small business to access lines of credit, and therefore creating a ‘jobless recovery,’ if you can call it a recovery—resonates a lot. Another thing that resonates is the fact students are going to college for four years, borrowing a lot of money, their parents are borrowing a lot of money, and they come out and their college degree is worth a little piece of wallpaper because their aren’t entry rate jobs available. That’s the way the zero interest rate policy is stagnating the economy.”

There is another potential roadblock to a Republican Senate hopeful: the GOP’s lack of effectiveness at marketing itself to demographics that typically vote Democratic, namely minorities and the youth. While there has been positive energy since Governor Christie’s election, Bell believes the GOP’s future is particularly grim if it ignores the demographic shifts in New Jersey.

“I think Governor Christie has invigorated [the Republicans] in that he’s the most conservative Governor in the last several decades,” he said. “But the party is still very much in a defensive mode. To me, the biggest change is not so much in the party but the population; the minority portion of the population is bigger now…much bigger than it was when I was running before. If the Republican Party can’t find a way to communicate with minorities it has a very bleak future.”

As was previously stated, there is no frontrunner in this contest, so the outcome of Tuesday’s primary will likely be just as much a surprise to the candidates themselves as to the public as a whole. Regardless of this uncertainty, Jeff Bell is prepared; after-all, he has vision, experience, and is certainly no stranger to surprises.

In Asbury Park, Amy Quinn and John Moor to Seek Re-Election

mikolay headshot 2011 120Everybody who lives in New Jersey is familiar with the story of Asbury Park, its illustrious history, disheartening decline, and slow but steady rebirth. The small city by the sea’s long-awaited rejuvenation has been front-page news for over a decade as public officials have fought to revive the town. 

Last year, Amy Quinn and John Moor, who ran as part of the One Asbury ticket, were elected to the City Council with the highest vote totals of any candidates running. It was a rough campaign, but the weeks following Election Day were arguably just as tumultuous, with high profile ballot challenges and much publicized disputes within City Hall, attempts to prevent the newly elected Councilwoman and Councilman from taking office. Yet, despite their opponent’s best efforts, when the smoke finally cleared, the electorate’s will prevailed and Quinn and Moore both retained their seats. The duo campaigned on fiscal responsibility, open government, and crime prevention—all of which resonated with voters—and fought for these ideas while in office.

“We did hundreds of hours of door-to-door,” she said. “The interesting thing we learned from that was a lot of people have the same issues. Whether you lived on Deal Lake Drive or Cookman Avenue, Southwest or Southeast, you were worried about crime, the budget, redevelopment, and literally all similar issues.”

It has been a challenge, but with the next election right around the corner, the two incumbents are already looking towards Asbury Park’s future. Thus, in preparation for the upcoming campaign season, Moor and Quinn recently announced not only their own re-election efforts, but also plans to form a ticket of like-minded activists who are willing to seek public office to help advance these goals.

“There are a number of things John [Moor] and I have not yet gotten accomplished but want to continue getting accomplished over the next couple of years,” said Quinn, who noted that, due to the city’s charter study, her first term will only total to a little over a year. “We’re looking to put together an entire slate, similar to last time, that we think accurately reflects Asbury Park.”

The decision to launch another candidacy came after a great deal of encouragement from members of the community. Indeed, there is demand within Asbury Park for officials like Moor and Quinn, something they both learned firsthand while canvassing door to door last election cycle, and many have come to respect their voice on the Council.

“I think we want to focus on some of the issues we focused on before,” Councilwoman Quinn said. “Continuing the fiscal responsibility of the city [and] finding places that we can save money. Crime is another major issue; we want to continue working with the police department, but also find more innovative ways than only putting more cops out on the street.”

Quinn believes Asbury Park should examine crime prevention: “programs that have been proven to work in other cities with similar issues as ours. Crime is definitely one of the big ones that we want the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time looking at and figuring out what works, what isn’t working, and how we can improve it.”

Obviously, however, anyone running for office in Asbury Park is going to have to voice their opinions regarding the redevelopment of the city’s waterfront and other neighborhoods. The small City by the Sea was once among the Jersey Shore’s prime destinations, until the lethal combination of race riots, the construction of the Garden State Parkway, the legalization of gambling in Atlantic City, and a failed 1980s redevelopment plan killed the tourist trade. The once bustling oceanfront tourist area sat vacant for over a decade before experiencing something of a rebirth in the early 2000s.

“There is always this kind of balance between bringing in development and ensuring it is the right kind of development for Asbury Park,” she said. “People are pro-development, it’s a question of what kind of development.”

The question of how to keep up the momentum of Asbury Park’s rebirth without losing the unique character of the town has become an issue of debate and intense criticism over the years. To that end, Councilwoman Quinn recently voted against (an incredibly controversial) proposal by mega-developer K. Hovnanian, believing that new development needs to be done with an eye towards the needs of residents while retaining the overall aura of the city.

“People want to see redevelopment of the waterfront,” Councilwoman Quinn said. “That a big thing: bring people into town, bring ratables into town, and develop some of these blocks of land that have remained kind of dilapidated. Then you have people who don’t want to see cookie cutter condominiums, so it’s a really delicate balance. Obviously, we want to see redevelopment all throughout the city, not just in the waterfront, but you want to make sure that its not just addressing the needs of the people who live in the city, but that it is also going to bring ratables online and be an asset to Asbury Park.”

Away from the waterfront, the team hopes to continue their crusade for open, accountable government. They believe the City Council should be more easily accessible to their constituents, whether it is by the internet, snail mail, or in person meetings.

“I am interesting in the way the city communicates with people,” she said, noting: “There are huge improvements that could be made. There are different ways to communicate with people and a big priority for me, and John Moor as well, is that we absolutely think that communication can be better in the city. We can communicate better with the residents about what exactly is going on, what programs we have, what we are doing about issues like redevelopment, or how we are helping businesses.”

To that end, Councilwoman Quinn believes Asbury Park could benefit from technology like Nixle, which alerts residents to road closings and other emergencies.

This year’s election will also be exceptionally interesting. Like many New Jersey cities, Asbury Park holds non-partisan elections where all candidates appear on a single ballot without a stated party preference. Until last year, these elections were held in May, as they are in most locales; however, voters recently decided to move them to November, a decision Quinn hopes will bolster turnout.

“I’m hoping it brings the turnout a little higher,” she said. “It should get a few more people out to the polls because there are other offices that are up for re-election. I am also hoping that because of the charter study, which was in the papers for a quite a period of time, that people know there is another City Council election coming up.”  

Long Branch Mayoral Race: Low Turnouts, High Hopes

mikolay headshot 2011 120Huddled into Avery Grant’s mayoral campaign headquarters on Brighton Avenue, Long Branch’s long-downtrodden political opposition experienced an unprecedented boost of energy and inspiration on Tuesday night. It was the non-partisan Election Day, and though twenty-four year incumbent Mayor Adam Schneider was ultimately re-elected to a seventh term, his victory came by a much smaller margin than anticipated, a sign to those who backed Grant that re-alignment might be near.

Only two hundred and forty eight votes separated the incumbent from his rival (1,461 versus 1,213), an unprecedented turn of events that represented a drastic departure from the overwhelming dominance Mayor Schneider displayed during the two previous races. Having come closer to being elected than any of his predecessors, Avery Grant remained optimistic as he conceded the race and encouraged his supporters to remain involved in the community.

Grant also reaffirmed his commitment to a clean and respectable campaign.

avery grant

PHOTO: Avery Grant and former Councilman Brian Unger on Election Night.

“We don’t want any dirty tricks,” he said, recounting an early discussion with his volunteers. “This is serious business, because this is the city that I love and that my family loves.”

His enthusiastic supporters, several of whom stood along Brighton Avenue waving signs in a last minute attempt to get out the vote, warmly received Grant upon his arrival. In addition to campaign volunteers and the familiar faces that have accompanied the candidate during the duration of his journey along the campaign trial, former City Councilman Brian Unger, who has kept a somewhat low political profile over the last four years, was also on hand to show support for the mayoral aspirant.

David Pizzo and Cynthia Branch, the two independents running for City Council, were also present. Though the three were not running mates, there was a great overlap of support between the non-incumbent candidates, and all expressed the belief that their candidacies and platforms had a positive impact on the direction the race took.

“It was a very important election and will make a difference in this city,” said Pizzo. “It always has. Every election does.”

“Long Branch is my city,” Branch said. “When I leave town, I am always happy to return. I might go visit another place, but I just can’t wait to get back to my hometown. Hopefully, with the results that we had as a team against Adam Schneider’s team, it might shake them up and [make them] think, ‘you know, we might need to do a little bit better for the people in Long Branch.’”

Branch hinted strongly at another run in the near future, channeling former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger when she boldly proclaimed, “I fought a good game, and I’ll be back!”

One of the defining features of this year’s race was very low voter turnout. One thousand eight hundred and eighty nine less ballots were cast in the mayoral race than last time around, when Mayor Schneider defeated Councilman Unger by eight hundred and sixty three votes. Former mayoral candidate Alfie Lenkiewicz, who was defeated by five hundred and seventeen votes in 2006, thought favorably of Grant, whom he described as “a good man,” but believes that apathy is largely to blame for the low turnout in recent years.

“I think that the community has become very apathetic,” Lenkiewicz said. “The candidates need to do a better job in inspiring the voters to get out and become more involved, empowering each and every individual in the community to take pride in their city.”

All of the Schneider Team’s Council candidates were re-elected. With 1,793 votes, Council President John Pallone represented the top vote getter; the former mayoral candidate and brother of popular Congressman Frank Pallone served on the City Council during the 1990s before being re-elected as an independent in 2010. Mary Jane Celli, a veteran member of the City Council, was the next highest vote getter, with 1,688 votes, followed by Joy Bastelli (1,633), Kate Billings (1,615), and Michael Sirianni (1,586).

Specter of Eminent Domain Haunts Long Branch Mayoral Race (Part III)

mikolay headshot 2011 120Initially, it didn’t appear that the courts would provide relief for residents of MTOTSA, the quaint oceanfront community slated for demolition after Long Branch partnered with a private developer as part of an all-encompassing redevelopment plan. The first few attempts at using litigation as a means of combating eminent domain abuse proved dishearteningly futile.  In City of Long Branch v. Anzalone, Judge Lawrence M. Lawson upheld the use of eminent domain, determining the city acted within the confines of the law when it declared the properties “blighted.”

Despite these initial setbacks, the anti-eminent domain abuse movement continued to gain traction and publicity. With the apparently unstoppable juggernaut of redevelopment looming over their daily lives, residents found themselves receiving the support of a diverse cross-section of the populace; the strangest of bedfellows and most unlikely of alliances formed on all sides of the political spectrum.

Congressman Frank Pallone, a progressive Democrat and Long Branch native, voiced solidarity with the property owners during a press conference on Ocean Terrace. He promised to introduce federal legislation that would limit the use of eminent domain to only the “most extreme” circumstances. State Public Advocate Ronald K. Chen also joined the fight. He appeared alongside MTOTSA homeowners and asked the Legislature to reform the law to protect homeowners against the “startling injustices” permitted under the existing protocol. It is also worth noting that the Private Property Rights Protection Act of 2005, co-sponsored by New Jersey Republican Congressmen Frank LoBiondo, passed in the House of Representatives (but never survived the Senate). It became increasingly clear both sides of the aisle were aware of the dangers the Kelo ruling presented and the treacherous precedent being set in Long Branch and elsewhere.

Though they received an outpouring of support from all facets of the community, in the opinion of many MTOTSA homeowners, the tide truly turned in their favor when the non-profit Institute for Justice took up their case pro-bono. The Institute was very familiar New Jersey’s eminent domain law, having previously represented Vera Coking, a widowed Atlantic City homeowner who made national headlines when real-estate mogul Donald Trump tried to seize her three-story home to build an addition to the Trump Plaza Casino and Hotel. The courts sided with Coking, a high-profile victory for property rights and a colossal embarrassment for Trump’s ambitions.

“Without the Institute for Justice, we would never have kept the house,” said Lori Ann Vendetti. “They did it pro-bono. Thank God there are people to donate to their organization.”

Additionally, new legal precedent would make it harder for the city to seize homes for private gain. In 2007, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled (in Gallenthin v. Paulsboro) that a municipality couldn’t declare a property blighted solely because it wanted to redevelop it. In the wake of this standard, Long Branch’s attempts to redevelop MTOTSA failed to pass muster. A year later, a three-judge panel of the New Jersey Appellate Court reversed and remanded the Anzalone ruling. Thus, in September of 2009, Long Branch announced it was withdrawing the eminent domain actions against MTOTSA homeowners. Facing public criticism and legal uncertainty, the City Council also passed an ordinance barring itself from using eminent domain in Beachfront South, lifting the fog of uncertainty that engulfed the future of that oceanfront neighborhood.

Though MTOTSA was spared the wrecking ball, some homeowners never lived to see the day when they could again take comfort in knowing their property was safe. Lori Ann Vendetti’s father passed away before the settlement was reached, as did several other senior citizens whose properties were declared “blighted.”

“My dad died without knowing we kept our house,” she said. “There were a lot of senior citizens who died without knowing their homes were saved.”

Today, eminent domain is no longer a threat to Long Branch, but battle lines forged during the early days of the redevelopment remain largely intact. After years of fighting with homeowners, the City Council promised to respect their property rights; however, this didn’t change the fact that some of those who lived in the redevelopment zones had lost confidence in their local government. In many instances, trust has yet to be re-established between City Hall and residents of MTOTSA and, not surprisingly, those who found their homes and memories viewed as expendable still feel betrayed by their elected officials. 

Driving through MTOTSA, one notices an abundance of lawn signs supporting mayoral candidate Avery Grant, proudly displayed reminders that many in this neighborhood—nay, this community—once slated for forcible demolition, now backs the city’s political opposition. Such has been the case for the last decade through the candidacies of Alfie Lenkiewicz and Brian Unger, though now that incumbent Mayor Adam Schneider is seeking an unprecedented seventh term, the opposition feels the time is truly ripe for a new voice in City Hall.

Avery Grant, a retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel and member of the Board of Education, has positioned himself as the mouthpiece of political change.  His campaign seeks to provide responsive and accountable governance, immediately reconstruct the Hurricane Sandy damaged boardwalk, provide free beach access for all local residents, and institute term limits in city government. His years of activism and dedication on behalf of residents have made him one of the more familiar figures in Long Branch, though it was his long-time opposition to eminent domain abuse that earned him the greatest praise in MTOTSA.

“He [Avery Grant] is really one of a kind,” said Denise Hoagland. “I love his persistence in continuing to try and education people…I think he has done a great job and has been a staple in Long Branch for I don’t even know how many years. He is wonderful; I was happy to have him on our side. He never wavered and always stood with us, and now we’ll stand with him!”

This year’s election has been surprisingly tame compared to previous contests; the rhetoric and mudslinging of the Schneider versus Unger showdown is nowhere to be found. Yet the two camps still remain harshly divided. Mayor Schneider’s supporters view him as a successful leader, the man who rejuvenated Long Branch’s waterfront and managed to re-establish the city as a respected attraction; Avery Grant’s backers believe that after twenty-four years in office it is time for fresh leadership and a new vision.

Though it isn’t clear which world view will win out in the end, one thing remains certain: as long as there is a MTOTSA, a Pier Village, a Beachfront North and South, and a Broadway, the specter of eminent domain will continue to haunt Long Branch and its mayoral races. Local activists will make sure of that, whether the incumbents like it or not.

David Pizzo’s Plans for Long Branch

mikolay headshot 2011 120Today is Election Day in New Jersey’s non-partisan municipalities, and while most of the attention has gone to the incredibly high profile Newark mayoral contest, residents in three Monmouth County municipalities—Highlands, Keansburg, and Long Branch—will take to the polls tomorrow to make their voices heard.

In Long Branch, the bulk of press coverage has dealt with the mayoral race, where twenty-four year incumbent Adam Schneider has found himself squaring off against Board of Education member and retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel Avery Grant. It’s the first time in at least eight years that only two candidates are seeking the office; the political opposition is solidly unified behind Grant, which could make for interesting political theatre. That said: it is important that voters remember the City Council is also up for election.

Four years ago, twenty candidates entered the Council race, albeit this election cycle has presented a much less hectic climate.  There are only seven individuals seeking spots on the City Council, including the incumbent Schneider Team (comprised of Joy Bastelli, Kathleen Billings, Mary Jane Celli, John Pallone, and Michael Sirianni). There are only two challengers, Cynthia Branch and David Pizzo, independents who are unaffiliated with either mayoral candidate. Pizzo is neither a political novice nor newcomer to electoral endeavors (he was a member of the Robert Krebs ticket last time around); he has remained consistent in his efforts to provide a voice to the entire city, addressing issues that are often overlooked in the public discussion. To that end, he has appealed to residents who live inland, and hopes to be their advocate on the City Council.

“More than just the beachfront or Broadway, its important to go into the city,” Pizzo said, adding that residents “need a voice. They need somebody behind them and supporting them and looking after them and not only worrying about Pier Village and Lower Broadway. We need to know we have sidewalks, we have parks, and we have other things in this town of interest and issues that need to be addressed.”

He promises to address issues such as rising taxes and the number of abandoned or poorly kept properties within the city, which have caused problems for neighbors by becoming hazardous and attracting trespassers.

Of course, anybody running for office in Long Branch needs to have a plan for the waterfront. For Pizzo, beach accessibility and fostering a family friendly environment rank high on the list of priorities. Hurricane Sandy, which ravaged the coastline in 2012, destroyed the boardwalk south of Pier Village. Despite outcries from locals, it has yet to be fully reconstructed. While there is a plan in the works, many feel the boardwalk and promenade should have already been rebuilt.

“We still don’t have a finished beach two years later,” he said. That’s not good.”

Pizzo believes increased beach access, particularly for those who are handicapped, needs to become part of the public discussion. The wheelchair accessible ramps that once lead from the boardwalk to the sand were obliterated by the hurricane. It is now the second summer season since the storm and these access points have yet to be restored, meaning those who are unable to descend the thirty foot drop from the promenade to the beach via the stairways will have a difficult time enjoying the city’s waterfront.

 “They did put some stairs in but handicapped people can’t get down,” said Pizzo. “And people who come with children have to get down about thirty-three steps.”

In addition to the much-needed handicapped ramps, Pizzo said he believes existing sand should be used to create a natural slope, which would allow visitors with children to enter the beaches through a gentle incline rather than the existing steep wooden steps.

Discussions about Long Branch’s tourism future don’t end at the boardwalk. One of the more contentious issues of this campaign (a matter on which all candidates have had to weigh in) is the proposed construction of a pier and ferry terminal, which will provide a direct link between the Long Branch boardwalk and New York City. While the incumbent councilmembers have enthusiastically endorsed the plan, others in the community have voiced skepticism regarding its necessity and the high costs such a project will inevitably incur. Pizzo, however, is not inherently opposed to the project, so long as it can be demonstrated that it will benefit residents.

“It would be nice to see the pier come in and be established,” said Pizzo, though he remains skeptical that the boat service alone would benefit the in-land portions of the city. “As far as the ferry goes, how much revenue is that really going to bring to the inner-city? I don’t know if that is going to be totally beneficial.”

In regards to the pier, Pizzo sees an opportunity for the city to utilize its waterfront to its maximum potential, creating a family attraction that would help lure additional tourism and strengthen the bonds of the local community. He harkens back to Pat Cicalese’s famous amusement pier, destroyed by fire in the late 1980s. 

“Certainly, I grew up here and enjoyed the pier,” he said. “If they plan on establishing stores there again and the structure is good enough…I think it will enhance a good part of the city. I would hope it would be a situation where we have some youth activity, arcades and stuff involved in that, not just building something out there just for a ferry…It should be what it was in the past. It was always free to go out on the pier and there were stores and shops of all sorts. It was somewhere you could take your children; I would like to see that again.”

A proponent of local term limits, which would prevent an incumbent officeholder from seeking re-election after they served a specified number of years, Pizzo vowed to run a positive and honest campaign, resisting the negativity that has typically consumed Long Branch elections.

“I want to go in there in a positive way,” Pizzo said. “I want to be fair to everybody that’s running, and I want to be very positive because the residents who live here in Long Branch need that.” 

Specter of Eminent Domain Haunts Long Branch Mayoral Race (Part II)

mikolay headshot 2011 120As residents of Long Branch fought to save their homes, many external observers, the press included, questioned exactly how this battle over property rights came into being. To be clear, the rise of eminent domain abuse and the reshaping of the waterfront didn’t happen overnight; in both theory and practice, this redevelopment was a long-time coming.

Calls for redeveloping the city can be traced back to the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until the aftermath of the legendary pier fire that such plans inched toward reality, sparking debate as to what kind of attractions would be used to lure visitors and businesses back to the beaches. The damage from the blaze was irreparable and so devastating that Governor Tom Kean declared the boardwalk’s remains a disaster area. Amidst the rubble and ruins, businessman Pat Cicalese, who owned the pier and the adjoining Kids World amusement park, proposed building a successor, the plans for which demonstrated a structure in much the same spirit as the original. Unfortunately, insurance woes prevented this dream from ever growing beyond the initial planning stages; Long Branch entered the next decade without much progress in reviving the waterfront.

Financial impediment wasn’t the only roadblock to reviving seasonal tourism; changing social trends also stood in the way of any comeback. The boardwalks of yesteryear, now considered hotbeds of nostalgia and icons of Americana, were largely passé at that point, dismissed as unprofitable relics of a different era. Thus, some dreamed of a more refined waterfront, free of thrill rides, concessions, or arcades. This was the concept championed by Mayor Philip D. Huhn, who told the New York Times he would  “like to see a promenade” and not a clone of Cicalese’s old facilities. These competing plans, coupled with legal and financial woes of the property’s owner, led to developmental limbo. The lot sat dormant for a decade, a depressing reminder of the past, but a situation many still feel the city government was ultimately responsible for.

“Our boardwalk burned down,” said Lori Ann Vendetti. “It was a great attraction [but] nobody did anything to that place to build it back up. So everything was boarded up for years and years.” In Vendetti’s eyes, it was the months immediately after the fire when action needed to be taken: “That was the time they needed to go in and build it back up!”

But nothing was done, so the former home of the amusement pier became an eyesore, a citywide embarrassment, and remained as such until 1996. Ten years after the fire, local businessman Robert Furlong, founder of the non-profit Long Branch Tomorrow, presented a privately commissioned redevelopment plan. He called for mixed-use (residential and business) developments along the waterfront and the aforementioned “infill” of empty parcels in residential areas. However, once approved, the project evolved and expanded in scope to propose a complete reshaping of the waterfront’s character and physical attributes.

Pier Village, the centerpiece of this new Long Branch, was to be an upscale destination, complete with high-end businesses and expensive restaurants. Beachfront North and South, located in opposite directions of Pier Village, would feature luxury condominiums and townhomes. It was more than apparent the coastal city had decided to rebrand itself; MTOSTA and several other communities didn’t fit into this grand scheme. They were too middle class and, for all intents and purposes, were viewed as obsolete. The construction of Beachfront North Phase I, which razed an entire portion of the town, was to be followed by an additional phase, which called for the leveling of MTOSTA, even though neighborhood was far removed from the decrepitness of the former pier complex.

Homeowners were not the only ones to feel the sting of eminent domain abuse; local business owners were also targeted. Jimmy and Elizabeth Liu, the couple behind Wizard’s World Arcade and the Café Bar, two of the only remaining oceanfront commercial attractions, had remained dedicated to the city through the toughest of economic times. Yet, with the adoption of the redevelopment plan, the duo was ordered to vacate the businesses, both of which were condemned. Jimmy Liu, who spent his entire adult life promoting the city, was offered a mere $900,000 for property appraised at $2.855 million. The Liu’s refused to sell, eventually unsuccessfully taking the case to court.

The controversy then expanded into Beachfront South, where there were plans to seize additional homes to make way for new development. Again, pleas to the City Council to allow for infill fell upon deaf ears. Homeowners anxiously waited for the day when their properties might be taken so a wealthier crowd could move in and assume their place.

Feeling unrepresented by the local government, anti-eminent domain activists channeled their efforts into the electoral arena, hoping to unseat the pro-redevelopment incumbents. The first of these efforts came in 2006, when local plumber Alfred “Alfie” Lenkiewicz challenged incumbent Mayor Adam Schneider. With his slate of candidates (the “New Wave Team,”) acting as the mouthpieces of political opposition, Lenkiewicz’s grassroots campaign garnered forty-two percent of the vote in a three-person contest. Though he wasn’t elected, many in MTOTSA viewed the respectable showing as a sign that voters sympathized with their plight.

“I was a major part of the Alfie Lenkiewicz campaign,” Lori Ann Vendetti recalled. “We put a plumber up against the machine in Long Branch and only lost by a few hundred votes; it was a grassroots, down to earth, unbelievable campaign!”

Later that year, Councilman John “Fazz” Zambrano resigned after admitting he accepted a thousand dollar bribe. A Special Election was held to choose a replacement and, out of a field of five candidates, four vocally opposed eminent domain (Brian Unger, Michael Sirianni, Ralph DeFillipo, and Vincent Maccioli). On Election Day, it was Unger, a former Green Party Legislative candidate, who was selected to serve out the remainder of Zambrano’s term. In the politician’s own words, the race was “a referendum” on eminent domain, and during the next three years, a fierce rivalry developed between Mayor Schneider and the newly elected Councilman.

Aside from being a perennial critic of the redevelopment efforts, Councilman Unger proposed an ordinance, Protecting the American Dream,to revert development in MTOTSA back to infill, though the council voted it down. The ideological battle between the Mayor and the Councilman reached its apex during the 2010 mayoral race, a clash of personalities and visions that pitted Mayor Schneider against his nemesis in a particularly messy mud-slinging contest. Eventually, the incumbent emerged with fifty-four percent of the vote

While these electoral efforts helped raise awareness of the eminent domain battle, it was the judicial system that struck the harshest blow against the city’s redevelopment. By the time of the 2010 mayoral race, eminent domain would be off the table in Long Branch, a major setback for advocates of sweeping redevelopment, but a colossal legal victory for homeowners and advocates of property rights

 

To be completed in Part III….