The Board of Ed Elephant in the Room and Other Passaic Elections Nuggets

Senator John Girgenti Photo Credit: Senate Majority Office.

When one thinks of a Board of Education election, or boards of education in general, it is not common to associate them with political drama.  But the 2021 election cycle has shown that no assumption is safe.

In Randolph, the culture war bubbled up when Columbus Day was taken off the school calendar, only to be met with a backlash from the public.  This, in turn, led to the knee-jerk reaction where all school holidays were erased, replaced with a simple day off.  Another uproar followed and when all was settled, Columbus and all the other holiday names were returned as before.

The Randolph school kerfuffle was picked up by Jack Ciattarelli’s campaign as an example of political correctness run amok.  The Passaic County Republican commissioner campaign even used the decision of the Paterson School Board to swap Columbus Day out as a sign that Democrats were out of control. The Democrats later fired back on social media, saying the county government does not have anything to do with what the schools choose to call their holidays.

Columbus, however, has been stirring controversy for several years.  More recent, and more imperative, is the matter of COVID-19 defense and policies which best serve children’s health and education.  To keep the focus on Passaic County, the Wayne school board meetings have been a manifest microcosm of the bigger debate on masking. Tensions have run high between those in support of and against keeping kids masked in school. Parents have also raised concerns regarding the content of what they describe as inappropriate, explicit literature in the schools with respect to sex education.

In the summer, the governor issued an executive order requiring all pre-school through high school personnel to be vaccinated or undergo COVID testing every week.  Executive Order 251 required all personnel as well as students to wear masks while in school for the 2021-2022 school year.  The NJEA, the powerful teacher’s union, supported the governor’s decision.

The messaging on mask requirements coming from Trenton has changed over the course of the year, with the government often saying that decisions are determined by the data, reserving the right to issue such executive orders as he deems the coronavirus situation requires.  Not everyone agrees, however, with requiring students to wear masks in school.  Executive orders from the governor bind the school boards, but there are other areas where the board can exercise control.  A group of parents opposed to mask mandates wanted the board to send a letter to the governor, asking that school districts be allowed to set this policy on their own.  Initially, the suggestion was taken up, passing by one vote.  Then, the decision to send the letter was reversed.

The drama continued when a raucous school board meeting in early October saw a woman condemning certain books in the school—illustrated books which demonstrated particular sex acts.  Parents cheered for her as the board turned off the microphone and a man approached the board itself, being escorted away by police.

Former New Jersey State Senator Norman Robertson (R) took an interest in the developments in Wayne, getting to know many of the parents opposed to the controversial literature.  “Wayne is a harbinger of things to come in New Jersey,” Robertson said.  With virtual learning required during most of the pandemic, parents at home were privy to the details of their children’s educational experience in ways that they had not been before.  For some, this sparked their concerns and brought them out in large numbers to protest to the school board.  “Parents became involved because of the things that they saw being taught to the children online,” Robertson said.  He was unhappy, however, with the way some of the board members have handled the parents’ concerns.

Matters came to a head in Wayne most recently when the Board of Education meeting was not held because there were an insufficient number of board members to constitute a quorum.  A sizable gathering of people had met to make themselves heard, and were angry no meeting would take place.  This, of course, with Election Day right around the corner.  According to local news, the absent board members all offered reasons they could not attend, but some parents felt it was a deliberate act designed to silence them.

“What I would say is, unfortunately, it appears that some people believe in public education,” Robertson said, “as long as the public has nothing to do with it.”

The election, according to the veteran senator, will not put the matter to bed in Wayne, however, and he expects more conflicts between school boards, school administrations, and families going forward.  Wayne, in a sense, is the canary in the mineshaft.

THE MUNICIPALITY – HAWTHORNE

Elsewhere in Passaic County, the borough of Hawthorne represents one of the battlegrounds of the county with respect to the mayor and council race.  Hawthorne is also the only municipality with a Green Party candidate running for local election.  Craig Cayetano is running an independent campaign to capture one of the three council-at-large seats.  Madelyn Hoffman is the Green Party candidate for governor.

Hawthorne is politically famous for the forty-year reign of Republican Mayor Louis Bay II, whose administration stretched from 1948-1988.  Afterward, the borough changed to a Faulkner Act strong-mayor municipal government.  All mayors since Bay have been Republican and the council has also reflected a majority of Republican control.  However, for the first time, Hawthorne now sees a slight advantage in registered Democrats than Republicans and the Democratic party has new municipal leadership.  Hawthorne in the 21st Century has not been able to return more than 1 Democrat to the council which comprises 4 ward councilmen and 3 at-large seats. A largely ineffectual Democratic Party in Hawthorne, combined with the historic majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning unaffiliated voters meant that the former grew stagnant and the latter became complacent after easy victories, with re-elections a near certainty.

Mayor Richard Goldberg, with some 13 years in the mayor’s seat, is a distant second to Louis Bay’s record, but nevertheless is the longest serving mayor the town has seen since 1988.  Under his watch, he has appointed a number of Democrats to posts within the town, including the Municipal Alliance, the borough administrator, and the recently-formed Hawthorne Pride Alliance to address matters related to the LGBT community.  Goldberg has strong bipartisan chops.

Hawthorne is also the home of former NJ State Senator John Girgenti (pictured, top), a man who, in the past, would have been the strongest Democrat to run against Goldberg, although he did not run.  With no other meaningfully competitive Democrat, Goldberg—generally popular and noted for his sense of humor—was able to handily win re-elections that the opposition put in his way.  In this cycle, however, he has decided not to seek re-election and a competitive mayoral race began.

Councilman Joseph Wojtecki, the Democrats’ only voice on the council, threw his hat into the ring.  This is his third time running and Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh at a recent fundraiser dinner lauded his effort, saying, “This is your time.”  Sayegh noted that he won the mayor’s seat on his third try, and was confident his Hawthorne counterpart would do the same before hoisting his fist into the air like a champion pugilist.

The Republican candidate seeking to succeed Goldberg is Council Vice President John Lane, a man who has served on the council for the better part of two decades and made an unsuccessful primary bid against former Mayor Fred Criscitelli in the past.

Both Lane and Council President Frank Matthews sought to run for mayor, but rather than risk a divisive primary election, they agreed to allow the County Committee to decide which of the two would be the mayoral candidate.  Lane prevailed.

The incumbents united, the Republicans nevertheless still faced a primary in June, where former school board member Michael Doyle and tavern-owner Jay Shortway ran as a ticket, while a third Republican, Phil Speulda, ran his own campaign.

The incumbents were solidly victorious in the primary and moved toward the general election.  The defeated Shortway, however, filed to run for one of the school board seats, running on a policy of maintaining the status quo.

The Hawthorne race has attracted the attention of county as well as state operatives looking to see whether or not the red borough will have become so purple that it might, in fact, turn blue.  If it did, it could well serve as another feather in the cap of former state chairman (and still Passaic County chairman) John Currie.  Currie’s tenure as Democratic chair saw the establishment of Democratic dominion on the county level where Republicans have consistently been frustrated in their attempts to gain freeholder seats.

If Wojtecki does not win he will still remain on the council since he represents Ward 1, and only the at-large council seats are up for grabs.  The stakes are higher for Lane who, as a councilman-at-large, would no longer serve as a public official should he lose.

Hawthorne, a sleepy suburb which seldom makes headlines in the Garden State, has become one of Passaic County’s must-watch races.

Schepisi
Schepisi

 

DISTRICT 39 

Senator Holly Schepisi, representing the 39th District of Bergen and Passaic Counties, is running with Robert Auth and DeAnne C. DeFuccio on the assembly ticket.  Given the bloodbath which marred the relationship between Auth and Schepisi after the passing of Senator Gerald Cardinale, their names together validate the late-great Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli.  The PM is said to have told Queen Victoria that Great Britain had ”no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”  In this case, a demonstration of party unity must prove somewhat astounding to insiders, given the bitterness of the Schepisi/Auth break. 

LD39 Democrats looking to displace the incumbents are senate candidate Ruth Dugan, who served on the Saddle River Board of Ed and is the wife of former state senator James Dugan, while Demarest Mayor Melinda Iannuzzi and Senator Loretta Weinberg aide Karlito Almeda try to dislodge Auth and DeFuccio. 

The district is very close in terms of Democratic and Republican voters, and the unaffiliated voters will fundamentally make the difference either way.  Schepisi, seen at several Ciattarelli rallies in North Jersey, demonstrated her tenacity and iron will.  This was shown when she overcame her former assembly partner Auth, beating him out for Cardinale’s seat, but also in the highly charged 2019 election where she beat Democrat John Birkner by some 5,800 votes. 

Auth, a longtime Cardinale acolyte, brings local name recognition through his incumbency, and DeFuccio a new face and fresh perspective.  The Republican and Democratic assembly tickets are, in a way, reflective of each other.  Iannuzzi, as a mayor and with her own local name recognition, represents the executive experience and political establishment to give balance to Alemda, a 26-year-old Filippino-American who has served Senator Weinberg, reflecting the growing diversity of the district’s constituents generationally and culturally. 

District 39 represents a unique palette of experience and continuity along with varied perspectives, all served up with a hefty-dose of New Jersey political diner booth chatter to make the race—and its consequences—well worth monitoring. 

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