MONTCLAIR – Just how are elections going to work these days?
We’ll get an early indication next Tuesday when voters here elect a new mayor. Lawn signs around town give a semblance of election normalcy, but there’s nothing normal about politics in a pandemic.
For one things, voters won’t be “going to the polls.” They’ll be voting by mail. And candidates are not going door-to-door; they’re campaigning via mailed literature and Facebook.
With Mayor Robert Jackson not running again, the mayoral candidates in this non-partisan election are two council members – Sean Spiller and Dr. Renee Baskerville. They are also heading slates of council
A virtual debate between the candidates a few weeks ago produced general agreement, although Spiller came across a bit more comfortable with the status quo.
Spiller spoke of Montclair as the “envy of municipalities” across the state and supported a “smart balance” in regard to development along Bloomfield Avenue and near the train station. He said Montclair’s strength is its walkability, parks and restaurants.
Baskerville seemed a bit less bullish on the town, expressing concern with high-rise development that blocks out the sun. Saying that people moving to Montclair don’t want to live in a big city, Baskerville said it would be nice if the town landscape had a few more trees.
And then she got around to education, proclaiming that the school system has lost its top ranking in the state.
In some ways, education is a focal point here.
Baskerville is a pediatric and adolescent primary-care physcian who works with the East Orange school district. She is also a former member of the Montclair Board of Education.
Spiller is vice president of the New Jersey Education Association, long considered the most politically influential public union in the state. He had about $36,000 in his campaign account as of the 29-day,
pre-election filing report in April. Spiller’s fundraising included an $8,200 contribution from the NJEA political action committee and $2,600 from Marie Blistan, the NJEA president.
All this has prompted interest in this race from outside this spiffy town of 38,000.
A group called the Sunlight Policy Center of New Jersey issued a hard-hitting statement last month asserting that Spiller would face a major conflict of interest if he becomes mayor.
The meat of the attack is summed up below:
“As an elected officer of the NJEA, Spiller owes a fiduciary duty to NJEA members to advance and protect their interests. But if elected mayor, Spiller would also have a fiduciary duty to the citizens of Montclair, creating a massive conflict of interest.”
What exacerbates the issue is that unlike many other towns in the state, school board members in Montclair are appointed by the mayor, not elected by voters.
The thrust of the charge is simple. “Mayor Spiller” would be pre-conditioned to supporting high teacher salaries because of his day job.
Asked about this, Spiller made two broad points.
One was purely political.
He suggested that the Sunlight Policy Center is a right-wing organization with roots in the Christie era that is fundamentally dedicated to opposing the NJEA and the traditional public school system any way it can.
The reference to the former governor is an interesting one; who can forget the war Christie initiated with the NJEA just about as soon as he took office in 2010?
In an email response, Spiller added that, “I think my values are more in-line with our community than the Sunlight Policy Center.”
As an overview, it’s certainly true that Montclair is anything but a right-wing community.
Spiller also insists that as mayor, he would appoint independent, school board members and that he will be mindful of the taxes all residents have to pay.
“That means balance and every educator knows that as well,” he added.
This issue came up at last month’s virtual debate, but was not discussed for all that long. Spiller made the point he later reiterated about appointing “independent” board members.
Baskerville, who has not responded to requests for comment, said only that her job in East Orange poses no conflict of interest. When Spiller’s job with the NJEA was raised at the debate, Baskerville did not comment about it negatively.
If money is the key here, Baskerville is at a disadvantage. Her latest ELEC report said only that she plans to spend no more than $5,100 on the campaign.
We can’t leave finances without looking at a $1,000 contribution to Spiller’s campaign from Mike Duhaime, a Republican consultant to among others, Chris Christie.
Duhaime, whose clients are probably unlikely to play nice with the NJEA, said in a Star-Ledger piece last week that he and Spiller have a longstanding friendship. For the record, DuHaime lives not in Montclair, but in Westfield.
For what it’s worth, Spiller has been endorsed by outgoing Mayor Jackson.
In a release. Jackson said Spiller was instrumental in bringing about such successes as a 27 percent increase in property values, no municipal tax increase for four years and a Triple A bond rating.
Endorsements often have limited value. Politicians tend to think they’re more important than voters. But in an odd election like this one, having the mayor on your side probably doesn’t hurt.