RAHWAY-On the second day of Spring, along the banks of the substantial Rahway River in Rahway there’s more than crocuses popping.
The recent realignment of New Jersey’s Congressional boundaries finds this southern Union County now
within the the state’s 7th Congressional swing district where the Democratic Party’s Rep. Tom Malinowski, one of the nation’s most endangered incumbents, is expected to face-off against former New Jersey State Senator Tom Kean Jr., the son of former Gov. Tom Kean.
Rahway had been part of the state’s 10th Congressional district, one of the state’s most reliably Democratic districts, that was represented by Congressman Donald Payne from 1989 until his death in 2013 when he was
succeeded by his son, Rep. Donald Payne Jr. 1n 2018, Malinowski, a former U.S. State Department official during the Obama administration, flipped the seat from GOP control to the Democrats when he edged out incumbent Republican Rep. Leonard Lance by 15,000 votes.
In 2020, in one of the closest races in the country, Malinowski beat Kean, but his margin of victory had shrunk to just 5,000 votes. Subsequently, the two-term incumbent’s failure to follow Congress’s rules regarding stock trade disclosures has generated bad press and ongoing scrutiny from the House ethics panel. That, combined with the historic tendency of the party that holds the White House to lose seats in Congress, as well as President Biden’s poll numbers, suggests the incumbent has an uphill climb.
“The recent redistricting redrawing of the lines has favored Republicans in that district by about 5,000 to 7,000 Republican voters in that district,” said Peter Woolley, the director of FDU’s School of Public and Global Affairs and the founder of FDU’s Public Mind Poll. “So, in a district that was contested very closely two years ago and four years ago. It’s still close but it now had more Republican voters in it than it did.”
Now, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s control on the House hanging by just a handful of seats, who wins in the 7th CD takes on national significance and deep blue Rahway maybe a potential lifeline for Malinowski who also will be held accountable by voters for general economic conditions, including historically high inflation. If beltway Democrats want to maintain control of Congress they have to be able to make the case that places like Rahway are rebounding thanks to a new broad based prosperity that lifts up the American families at the base of America’s oppressive wealth pyramid.
In many ways this blue collar city of 30,000 offers us a preview of the 21st century America where demographers say households of color will be in the majority. According to the U.S. Census, 45 percent of Rahway is white, with Blacks and Latinos accounting for the majority of residents in a community where in over a third of the households a language other than English is spoken at home.
According to the United Way’s ALICE analysis, 40 percent, or 11,200 of Rahway’s households, struggle month to month to cover shelter, food, transportation or child care costs. That’s above New Jersey’s 37 percent ALICE rate statewide, yet Rahway compares favorably to Union County’s Elizabeth’s where 61 percent of households struggle to cover the basics. But both Elizabeth and Rahway are a world away from Union County’s Berkeley Heights township where just 15 percent of households struggle with basic expenses.
RAIL HUB REVIVAL?
In this southern Union County rail hub, Amtrak’s high speed Acela whizzes by on its way to New York City or Washington D.C. and NJ Transit trains whistles whine.
More than two years into a once in a century pandemic, downtown Rahway’s soundscape includes the metallic whirl of a carpenter’s circular saw and the ping of a masons hammer at work on a foundation.
In some downtown locations there’s high end apartment building construction on both sides of the street. Across the street, from the nicely appointed downtown rail plaza there’s the recently redeveloped Watt Hotel, a Hilton property with an inviting atrium and relevant art on the walls. A blue banner across the hotel’s brick facade announces that there is are “newly renovated luxury condos for sale” in this city that’s just 43 minutes away from New York City’s Penn Station.
Yet, in the same downtown district, there’s also ample evidence of the decades of national disinvestment in places like Rahway that are visible upon closer inspection of the train trestles and stairs up to the rail platforms. It’s a natural location for President Biden, aka ‘Amtrak Joe’, to come and herald the vital importance of his long overdue bi-partisan $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
It’s clear, that private capital already sees something in Rahway that all too often has been historically associated with Rahway State Prison that’s actually located in the Avenel section of neighboring Woodbridge Township. (In 1988, at the request of the people of Rahway, the New Jersey legislature renamed it the East Jersey State Prison.)
UP FOR THE CHALLENGE
Sitting in his office mid-morning Rahway’s Mayor Raymond Giacobbe, sounded very much like a very
enthusiastic Democrat who relishes the opportunity to deliver for his party in the mid-terms for Malinowski. The 42 year-old mayor joined the City Council in 2013 and was elected by the City Council to complete the unexpired term of Mayor Samson Steinman. In 2018, Giacobbe, a third generation Rahway resident, was elected by voters to a full term as mayor. Last month he kicked of his re-election bid.
“It’s motivating, for me and to our Democratic Committee members” Giacobbe said of his town’s shift to the 7th CD. “Being a Democrat and understanding the importance of controlling the House and being able to move the President Biden’s agenda forward. Being in the 10th Congressional district—Congressman Payne who was a good friend of mine—would win by 85 percent of the vote.”
He continued. “But now, knowing that Rahway’s votes could make the difference in a national race and make the difference as to whether or not we keep the majority in Congress or not. We had a rally here a few weeks and and the residents are really motivated because we can make that difference. This is a Democratic town. We know it falls on us and I kind of like that because Rahway would like to step up to the challenge.”
Giacobbe concedes that there is a drop off in voter engagement in non-presidential elections.
COUNTERING OFF-YEAR DROP OFF
“Now, that is a challenge,” he said. “People get motivated for the Presidential races but a majority of the public is not into politics as much as we are. They don’t understand the importance of keeping your party in power in the Senate and in Congress. The reason why President Obama was not able to move as many initiatives was because he only had two years with a Democratic Senate and Congress and then he lost it for the rest of his term. I say to people that President Obama could have come up with a cure for cancer and Republicans would have said he was over populating the world.”
In the last election for Governor just 34 percent of Rahway voters turned out, voting overwhelmingly for Gov. Phil Murphy. In that contest fewer than 7,000 Rahway voters cast a ballot, down from 14,000 who turned out for the Biden Trump contest a year earlier. In 2018, when Rahway was still in the 10th CD just under 9,000 voters made a pick for Congress, just 53 percent of Rahway’s registered voters.
In the Trump Clinton 2016 contest 68 percent of Rahway’s 17,600 voters cast a ballot. While in 2020,
with Biden challenging President Trump, the same percentage of Rahway voters turned out but the actual number of voters registered had grown to 21,000 voters. That burst in registration translated into over 2,000 additional votes being cast in 2016 then when Clinton carried New Jersey but lost the election to Trump.
Giacobbe believes the most effective way to reach voters in 2022 is with a grass roots-person to person approach.
“We can send out a mailer but odds are they will leave it on their kitchen counter and never look at it again but if you knock on the door and spend five minutes speaking to that individual—I can’t even describe how much further that goes,” he said. “It’s all about having a personal connection. It’s the same with town halls and answering people’s questions.”
A recent Rahway forum that featured Malinowski drew over 100 people and Giacobbe said the incumbent took every question constituents had.
“The questions [at the Malinowski forum] were on infrastructure, flooding stuff like that and there were concerns about the Republican agenda and what the Democrats are going to do to make sure we get the vote out,” Giacobbe said. He added that voters wanted to know how Democrats were going “to make sure we are moving toward initiatives that help address income inequality and the wealth gap.”
The start of the 2022 campaign comes as Rahway grapples with the ongoing challenges of COVID which killed 125 residents. In September of 2021, as the city was battling the pandemic, it was hit with ten inches of rain in a matter of hours from Hurricane Ida.
Giacobbe said he knew first hand of cases of Rahway residents struggling with long haul COVID and that as a local elected official he saw first hand how a lack of access to healthcare contributed to the toll that COVID exacted particularly in communities of color.
“The access to healthcare is not as readily available as it should be when you are talking about the pandemic and you are talking about the people that suffered the most where the people who did not have the ability to have access to healthcare,” he said. “It’s a national issue. We can all the way back to the Obama administration for the Affordable Care Act. I am glad something passed, but it wasn’t enough for me personally but there should have been a public option. There should have been more oversight and demands on the health insurance companies.”
He continued. “I will advocate and work with any Senators or members of Congress who want to push this initiative forward because the need for it on the frontlines.”
As a municipal official, Giacobbe says he had seen first hand the disconnect between the federal government and the realities that local governments confront when they have to deliver vital services to their residents amidst something like a flood. In the immediate aftermath of Ida’s torrential downpour, Rahway and the rest of Union County, that was also inundated, was left out of the initial FEMA disaster designation.
“We worked with Elizabeth Mayor Chris Bollwage and we all sent the same message ‘hey you guys that run everything—you got this one wrong,” recalled Giacobbe. “I saw parts of Rahway flooded that I had never seen in my 42 years on this earth.”
A few days later Union, along with Essex, Hudson, and Mercer were added to FEMA’s formal disaster declaration.
Giacobbe believes that local improvised responses to challenges like how to keep vital municipal service running amidst a once in a century mass death event could have national application providing immediate relief to families struggling to make ends meet if applied.
A case in point would be how his administration met the considerable challenge of ensuring that Rahway’s 400 municipal workers for whom remote work was not an option had access to free quality childcare while they worked.
“We had to deliver essential services for our residents and we understood we could not do that unless we provided childcare to our workers, the majority of whom could not afford your $1,500 a month for childcare services— so we worked with the Rahway Community Action Organization through their JFK Center to provide it,” he said.
Giacobbe believes that providing free quality childcare to working families, as is done in other nations, would be like boosting their incomes $1,500 a month.
“It frustrates me because there are things like this that we could do immediately—right now— and we would see a positive effect on low and middle income families” while at the same time growing the economy, Rahway’s mayor reasoned.