The cycle often appeared in isolation from the rest of the year’s campaigns and elections calendar, projecting its own archipelago of individual oceaned-off rumbles. But this time, the COVID-19 crisis created a wholly new political dynamic: May 12th municipal elections as a testing ground for every 2020 election that follows. What it means is this all vote-by-mail (VBM)-election in NJ towns as varied as Teaneck, Paterson, Atlantic City, Orange, Montclair, Irvington, and Belleville, would impact the Democratic Primary, rescheduled from June 2nd to July 7th, which would impact, conceivably, the scheduled Novemeber 3rd general election.
Everything this year tractor beams to the presidential.
Voters at this moment in select towns are filling out ballots mailed to them by their county clerks, tasked with returning them before 5 p.m. this coming Tuesday in a completely vote-by-mail election, ordered by Governor Phil Murphy as a way of keeping people inside through the pandemic, off the streets, and out of polling places. Instead of a one-day photo finish with the additional tally of vote-by-mail ballots, this election resembles the appearance every few hours of a dromedary clomping onto the horizonline, gradually coming into view and allowing itself to be counted for a slow-motion and unprecedented days-long exercise.
The question is, how’s it going?
If you ask Bellevelle Mayor Mike Melham, not well.
“I called for a Federal investigation,” said Melham, “and the inspector general and postal police are currently in Belleville conducting and investing into missing and undelivered ballots.
“The post office is just inept,” the mayor added. “The fact that we left democracy in the hands of the post office is just tragic.”
For full coverage of the Belleville municipal elections otherwise known as Mellham’s mid-terms, with a specific emphasis on the First Ward contest [Strumolo-Burke v. Mattia], please go here, but the mayor’s words may resonate beyond his town if others raise overlapping alarms about the VBM election.
Now, Governor Murphy is watching Tuesday and its aftermath.
He already rescheduled the primary to July 7th, but he has not yet made a final determination about the process of those elections (a decision could come by the end of this week).
Will the state at that point still be sufficiently haunted by COVID-19 to warrant another all-VBM election?
Or will Murphy listen to state Senator Ronald L. Rice (D-28), who at the very least wants a hybrid,
whereby voters have a chance to actually line up – socially distanced, if need be – to record their votes in person?
“If we can go to a liquor store and stand in line, we can go to polling place and stand in line,” said Rice, who throughout this COVID-19 crisis has emphasized the importance of enabling voters to actually go to the polls, despite fears of packing people in close proximity and intensifying the deadly virus.
“It’s probably the right thing to do,” the veteran Newark senator said in advance of Murphy’s primary postponement.
But “The legislative black caucus, people of color, and civil rights organizers agree that we don’t need to have a vote-by-mail election only,” said Rice. “If we do that, a lot of people won’t vote. We can’t get them into an aggregate to really explain it.” Based on the May 12th election to date – and for somewhat different, but related reasons – Melham would agree.
Ultimately, the decision the governor makes about how New Jersey will handle the June Primary elections – originally written about here – represents tightrope walk between health of the body politic and the always embattled and seldom invigorated health of democracy itself.
The echo of the primary election on the general is not lost on Democrats – who outnumber Republicans in New Jersey by one million – who fear the political consequences nationally if they blink. In short, if New Jersey doesn’t handle the process correctly, or flinches in the face of the crisis, sacrificing democracy for the sake of greater social distancing security, President Donald J. Trump could summon a case for catastrophic circumstances derailing the federal election, even if Trump may lack the option constitutionally.
Bearing down on Tuesday’s test-drive election at the moment, Murphy’s shoulders, in addition to the perilous health of the state, bear the health of the state’s elections. Whether he can resolve both of those challenges simultaneously is a delicate and essential test befalling only those who resolve – even in the worst, most trying times – to protect representive democracy.
We’re watching the developing arc of history in our hometowns, and how it may finally influence the maintainence of the Trump v. Joe Biden election in November.
That’s the long game.
In the short-term, Atlantic City must decide whether it wants to continue with a mayor and council form of government or go to a city manager form. InsiderNJ’s exclusive coverage on Tuesday’s election can be found here.
For an in-depth InsiderNJ consideration of how this immediate election cycle impacts the mayors of the respective towns – Small included – please go here to read The Political Implications for Each Mayor in Key May 12th Towns.
Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh is on that list, too. Like Melham in Belleville, the mayor of the third biggest city in New Jersey faces a mid-term election.
InsiderNJ considered the big canvas of Paterson’s historic COVID-19 election here in a piece titled Paterson: Density, Destiny and the Fighting Family of Eddie Cotton.
We also examined those key wards where incumbents face challenges in the following pieces:
Be sure, too, to take a look at other dynamics, including Paterson-based Passaic County Freeholder T.J. Best examining options for his hometown, the mayor cautioning against a too-fast business opening, and Ward 6 Councilman Al Abdel-aziz vowing to work with the Murphy administration to get more COVID-19 testing for Paterson.
We also have the most up-to-date numbers.
In another May 12th political theater, InsiderNJ considered the town of Teaneck, where from the
beginning Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D-37) has been alert to the implications of what happens in her hometown on the national general election.
“Without a democracy, the rest of this is almost not worthwhile,” Teaneck diehard Weinberg told InsiderNJ. “We live in a free country. I am confident we will be able to pull this off.”
And be sure to read about the town’s election in the following InsiderNJ piece:
Like Hameeduddin, Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson is retiring at the end of his term this year. In his place, Councilman Sean Spiller and Councilwoman Renee Baskerville are vying to lead the hip Essex County town.
Fred Snowflack wrote about that race in two subsequent pieces:
In the City of Orange, Mayor Dwayne Warren wants a third term.
We considered the dynamics of that local contest and the guts of Councilwoman Donna K. Williams, whose mother died from COVID-19, who herself battled off a hospital bed to pursue her challenge of the mayor in:
But just as Belleville Mayor Melham expressed his own VBM misgivings (above), Orange also seemed even less politically alert than usual.
“As of yesterday, the County had only received 2,400 ballots from Orange,” said city council candidate Ed Marable. “That’s out of almost 14,000. There’s something wrong with this picture.”
We could not get past this election cycle without finding a ward race in Irvington to cover and this time it was the east, with incumbent Councilman Paul Inman trying to fend off challenger Sean Evans:
InsiderNJ also broke down the Newark School Board election, relocated by Murphy out of April to May 12th.
Along the way, we wrote about elected officials in Brick City early refusing to observe social distancing measures.
We routinely covered the mayor’s COVID-19 briefings.
We wrote about Rice’s consideration of a National Guard option for Newark.
But mostly dived into the School Board collision dynamics with:
There were other pieces, many in fact, we wrote along the way, going back to the earliest stages of this municipal cycle, on the day we got back from Atlantic County and sat in a bar in Bridgewater writing about the spillover from that convention down there when a bar brawl broke out. It felt like a fight at the end of the world, with two bloody guys getting dragged off each other and the woman with one of them – an undocumented worker evidently – pleading in tears for management to please lay off that call to the cops.
It turned out to be nothing, or a compressed spasm of chaos – compared to what came next, when soon after, the governor returned from cancer surgery and began announcing the deaths, daily, and New Jersey’s response, increasingly toughened as we sustained casaulties.
We all lost someone.
Some came close to death, or left us too soon.
InsiderNJ shared its thoughts on the crisis early:
to name a few.
We marked the passage of one we knew:
and took a walk in the reopened parks of our embattled state:
Along the way, other towns not participating in this specific May 12th cycle intruded on the drama with their own upchuck of idiocy, notably here:
Of course, the cycle wouldn’t be complete without a late avalanche of Bridgegate pieces, broken down by our own Bob Hennelly:
In the end, even through the worst and persistent heartache of this crisis, we would come back to see and suffer ourselves – to paraphrase the great Theodore Roethke – in another election, in this case one purportedly nonpartisan with a deadline on May 12th, and even through the deadness – unaided by COVD-9 – that pervades our largely unnoticed elections amid so much complacency – we would find ourselves forced to consider the meaning of what goes down on Tuesday, with a particular national-sized responsibility.
Today Teaneck, tomorrow Trump v. Biden; today Atlantic City, tomorrow the mechanics of a primary, which would fit into the general election foundation of Trump v. Biden, or so it appeared, and what vitl, imperfect processes occured now could only be repeated in a larger-scale election, if indeed they accomplished one critical, sacred thing within the ongoing drumroll of death and a downbeat economy: the emphatic and authoritative will of the people.