West Orange. It’s one of those donut hole New Jersey towns that looks like the highways around it shaped it into what it is: a perfect, living testament to a secular, suburban age, with the mountains looking forlornly on from not too great a distance.
In sheer political terms it’s also the place where social media trolls ran amok, battering away to the point where Mayor Rob Parisi finally decided against running again for what would have been a third term, rather than endure the sulfuric invective of his neighbors.
It wasn’t only the theater of cruelty, though.
That ad hominem atmosphere had a context and in this case, that context was taxes, thrown into high relief this season by inflation.
They’re high – the lowest in Essex County, according to Council President Susan McCartney, but that’s not saying much, says former Councilman Joe Krakoviak, who notes West Orange’s 8.3% tax increase in 2019 and the town’s ballooning debt service.
A former financial reporter, Krakoviak says the town is “going to hell in a hand basket,” his words.
Maybe his best shot at beating McCartney – who has the endorsements of local establishment figures in the Democratic Party, among them Senator Dick Codey and Parisi – is the fact that McCartney has to grit through a field by two other sitting Council colleagues, Cindy Matute-Brown, and Bill Rutherford.
As the outsider railing against the three of them, Krakoviac hopes the voters differentiate him from the
herd and catapult him to a Nov. 8th victory.
In a way, the race looks a little like 2010, when then-Mayor John McKeon decided not to run again and Parisi had to hold off John Schmidt, like Krakoviac a fed-up taxpayer looking to get a hold of West Orange’s finances.
But the chopped up field – coupled with anemic turnout to date via vote by mail – has McCartney allies worried.
In a mostly Democratic town of almost 50,000, West Orange appears on pace to process about 12,000 votes in this nonpartisan contest nestled on a partisan ballot.
The new congressional district doesn’t help turnout models that require people to actually know about the election. Prior to this year, U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill (D-11) oversaw part of the town, and had to work hard here against credible Republican challengers. Now all of West Orange occupies the 10th District commanded by U.S. Rep. Donald Payne. That situates it in the most Democratic district in the state, hardly prepared for general election mayhem.
Each of the candidates has a story to tell. Educator Matute-Brown worked at Golden Door Charter
School in Jersey City as an Enrollment and Truancy Officer. Rutherford says his professional background as an asset manager is the kind of experience West Orange needs “because this economy has not been kind to us.” In a town that’s still small enough to be on intimate terms with itself, educator McCartney raised three children who went through the West Orange public schools, and has run a daycare where a lot of people who still live here got their start in life.
Lumping his opponents together in his messaging, Krakoviak the former councilman of a decade and reporter – says he wants to take West Orange in another direction. “I don’t take political contributions from anyone who does business with the town,” he said in a debate in the closing days of the contest.
The numbers don’t favor him given the dominance of Democratic Party affiliation in West Orange (if he’s a Republican because he wants to do a better job with the town’s money, this environment in desperate Democratic Party hands, transforms him into a member of the party that gave the country Donald Trump as president). Moreover, McCartney is running with allies or at least one council ally affiliated with the empire of Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo, nullifying the often self-defeating Codey versus DiVincenzo rift in this West Orange election. Plus, DiVincenzo is on the ballot next week.
But will Democrats, each in his or her own hunger to occupy the throne, fail to get out of one another’s way in a perfect storm scenario for the insurgent?