EDISON – It must be tough albeit gratifying enough to beat the sitting Democratic Chair by a single vote, then watch him change parties and run for mayor in an attempt to stay alive politically, but to have to choke down the appearance of Make America Great Again ballcaps on the shaved heads of that former Democratic chair’s committeeman allies must make the sitting chairman somewhat squirm in agony.
These are Democrats with Make America Great Again hats on in meetings, whose former chair is now the Republican-backed candidate for Mayor against incumbent Tom Lankey.
That’s life in Edison politics these days.
It’s chaotic. It’s cross-pollinating. It’s unsettling. It’s a squashed-together Middlesex County reflection of the country, where the diner booths of the Skylark on Route 1 bear the pillars of county party power.
The man who won the local chairmanship in 2015 did so because the South Asian wing of the party was tired of the late Doc Paterniti running things and so brought the Bob Diehl and Keith Hahn forces together to make Hahn the chair while suffocating Paterniti protégé Anthony Russomano. Hahn backed Lankey’s guys when necessary and in exchange appeared to have the mayor’s tacit support to be re-upped as local chairman. Then Hahn ticked off the minorities, lost multiple committee seats in the June Primary, and when a parade of Koreans, Chinese, Blacks, South Asians and Muslims formed against him, Shariq Ahmad did what any good politician would do: he jumped in front of it.
In June, the 27-year old Ahmad beat Hahn to become chair of the party, and this past Saturday that elegant and cool born and raised Edison guy, a Pakistini Muslim son of a single mother and himself a former Rutgers University scholar, who cut his teeth in the office of Bob Menendez before becoming chief of staff to Assemblyman Robert Karabinchak, settled into a chair at Paris Baguette – a clinging slice of urbanity on a cultural lunar landscape – and somehow summoned the will to channel positive energy.
“I was very disappointed,” he said with a smile, when asked about Hahn changing parties. “I had a good working relationship with him. I thought he had Democratic values, and to see him give those up so easily to a Republican Party that is in the doldrums and embrace it so openly – disappoints.”
The trouble is – and Ahmad wouldn’t talk about this, but those who sympathize with him will – the party apparatus that includes Hahn backers and those very decrepit Paterniti backers who later backed Hahn out of necessity in an effort to hold off their old detractors, who had become Hahn’s enemies, still harbors resentments and prejudices, enough for some of them to sport those Trump caps in the presence of the new and young Democratic leader.
He may have to oversee some pruning in the coming weeks and months.
In a 3-1 advantage Democratic town, there are 156 committee seats in the Edison Democratic Party.
Hahn almost had half.
Now the developing brain trust around Ahmad, who’s delicately fighting fights within fights (remember, this was the party that hit the eject button on then-Mayor Jun Choi when he made the quaint observation that people who sit in committee seats should be there not because of patronage but out of idealism; which prided itself on pitting minorities against one another to stave off the political consequences of a majority minority town) wants those crumb bums to get with the program, develop an evolutionary understanding of civilization and the political process, or leave and go join Hahn in Trump World, if that is indeed where honestly they feel they should reside.
Ahmad is trying to pull people together, seeking to engage and make relevant those factions that have spent too much time in the past warring and allowing others to dominate the political conversation. He’s trying to pull in the Indian Business Association, the Koreans, Chinese, Orthodox Jews and Muslims.
He’s up against it. Everyone says it. Knows it.
Edison is a beast.
But Ahmad, somewhat like Choi before him on at least one level, said he dares to believe in a core set of principles that he identifies with the party he serves, which Hahn abandoned. He wants to wrangle those into some wholeness that will make Edison a force to be reckoned with in Middlesex and then, truly, statewide. “Politics is not the only way to create meaningful change in your surroundings, but it’s one of the ways that you create the greatest good for the greatest number,” he told InsiderNJ.
He describes the political awakening he had when he was in high school during the Iraq War.
“I would say it was indignation over the way things happened,” with the way then-President George W. Bush took the United States to war, Ahmed said.
“Politics is a way to fight the small indignities that people have to suffer in everyday life, that compound over time and hold them back,” the Edison Democratic chairman said. He reads Thucydides, specifically the Melian Dialogue, as a reminder of how an imperial and strong super power should not treat a weaker neighbor; the words “the strong take what they can and the weak suffer what they must” profoundly a part of him. With the influence he has, he wants to improve the lives and opportunities of low-income people, in the words of the Old Testament: the widows, the orphans. “That’s the voice I take to heart,” he said, and the quote from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. :”The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Armed with those primary sources, and his own hard edged life experiences locally, he chooses the high ceilinged surroundings of Paris Baguette for his own meetings, but will find himself, without apology, in the Skylark Diner, when he attempts to add his voice to the larger dynamics of party, with a world of work to do, starting with the challenge of defeating the reanimating Hahn on Election Day, and by slow degrees chipping away at an old guard in the Democratic Party that resists what Ahmad sees as little more than the very core values of the party.