Never Boring Hawthorne Reborn Post Redistricting

Senator John Girgenti Photo Credit: Senate Majority Office.

Has the Passaic County borough of Hawthorne found its best fitting political home as a result of the new Apportionment Commission map?  Some politicos think so.  Having been part of the Paterson-dominated LD35 and for the last decade as the only Passaic County municipality in LD38, the new LD40 would bring Hawthorne into a collection of similar towns both in terms of population, demographics, and skewing redder than in mostly-blue LD38 and LD35.

The borough of Hawthorne is a predominantly residential municipality of approximately 19,000 people which has historically been Republican, with a Republican-majority government since its founding.  Hawthorne is also famous for Mayor Louis Bay II, who served as the town’s chief from 1948-1988 before the commission form of government was changed to its present strong-mayor-weak-council arrangement.  Bay is a significant figure in the history of municipal politics for his longevity and served for some sixty years with the New Jersey League of Municipalities.  Indeed, the Municipal Leaders Scholarship offered by the League bears his name.  Mayor Bay’s legacy can be found locally with his name on the library, where his portrait hangs; on a plaque in the sanctuary of St. Clement’s Episcopal Church where he prayed; his picture joins the other past mayors in the borough council chamber; and there is a bench on the library grounds dedicated to him.

Hawthorne, a town labeled in 2014 as the fourth “most boring” in the state by Motovo Real Estate, has been anything but, politically.

For most of its existence, founded in 1898, Hawthorne has been governed by what some might describe as a generally benevolent confluence of the philosophically parochial and operationally oligarchical.  Small-town New Jersey.  The Republican government is no longer the action wing of a patrician circle of chemical executives and redlining realtors, having evolved since the mid-90s into a more approachable middle-class operation that has begun to broaden its base and diversify.  From that democratizing transition of anointing Louis Bay every four years to holding elections that were legitimately of consequence, the Republican Party has maintained a constant majority presence in borough operations: the organic product of small-town political introspection, entangling family and business ties, along with a strong suburban pride that prizes harmony.  In many ways, Hawthorne sees itself as the kind of New Jersey town best suited for working class families that want easy access to the metropolis but are far enough away to enjoy quietude at home, safe streets, and embrace its many hometown activities.

Hawthorne has also had a peculiar relationship with the City of Paterson, its immediate southern neighbor, whose challenges frequently impact the smaller towns around it.  Paterson is the historic heart of the area once known as Manchester Township (today’s Hawthorne, North Haledon, Haledon, Prospect Park, and parts of Totowa), and Hawthorne is tied to Paterson through a strong fraternal emergency services mutual support relationship. Paterson provides Hawthorne’s Department of Health services, and many residents of Hawthorne have strong family ties and history in Paterson.  Politically, mostly-Republican-Hawthorne had been tied to Paterson—a Democratic stronghold—for decades as part of Legislative District 35.  However, the borough had Democratic Assemblyman and later State Senator John Girgenti as its hometown champion in the halls of Trenton power, leading the district in the legislature.  Girgenti had to balance the needs of the diverse communities in Paterson while still effectually representing Hawthorne and the other LD35 constituencies.  He was able to do so until redistricting a decade ago moved Hawthorne out of the Paterson-dominated LD35 and into the Bergen County aligned, still largely Democratic, LD38.  Having been left out in the cold by the Apportionment Powers-That-Be, Girgenti could either step aside, or uproot himself from his hometown to try to restart his political career anew.  Having served for some thirty years, he decided to retire.

The new political lines have shifted once more, as the Apportionment Commission rolled out a new map for the new decade.  Initially, the Turnpike and Parkway plans both looked to return Hawthorne to LD35 and reconnect the borough’s political umbilical cord to Paterson.  However, when the final product was agreed upon, Hawthorne found itself swept into LD40 instead.  The new LD40, which vaguely represents a seahorse on the map, is a more Passaic County oriented district, and one which is more Republican-leaning overall.  This presents new political opportunities and frustrations for the local-level parties, where new relationships can serve the political interests of Hawthorne in different ways.

Hawthorne’s mayor, John Lane, described a good relationship with LD38, as did the Hawthorne Republican Municipal Chairman, former mayor Richard Goldberg.  “They were very good people, very helpful,” Mayor Lane said.  “I’ve called Senator Lagana several times, he helped me out for the work that I was doing with the borough and I liked [the Assemblymembers] very much. Going to the 40th district, it is a different district, but I’m sure I’ll get just the same response from our new legislators that I received in the past for our residents whenever I would reach out to them for something.  It is a change, I’m looking forward to it, and I think it’s going to be a pleasure to work with them as I am currently working with our Senator and the two assemblypeople.  We were just the oddball as the lone Passaic County town in [LD38], but they did not treat us that way.”

LD40’s assemblymembers, Christopher DePhillips and Kevin Rooney, are both former mayors.  Lane was happy for that on a professional level.  “They are both Wyckoff mayors,” Lane said, “And [LD38 Assemblywoman] Lisa Swain was the mayor of Fair Lawn.  There are a lot of mayors there, they know the operations of a municipality for sure.  I think that’s very helpful to us, as mayors, that they’ve been there, they’ve walked in the mayors’ shoes, and they know local and state government.  I think that helped us in LD38 and it is going to help us in LD40.”

Assemblywoman Lisa Swain praised the relationship that existed with Hawthorne in LD38.  “I’m going to miss Hawthorne.  They are my neighboring town since I live in Fair Lawn.  I did have a good relationship with Hawthorne, and I was there quite often at their events.  It’s sad to lose a town that you’ve developed a good relationship with, but I’m going to be welcoming my new towns, and I’ll be looking forward to meeting my new constituents and doing what I can to earn the trust of those people.”

As for the new political lines drawn and what that meant on a partisan level, Swain thought that it might be a good match for Hawthorne, a town which has been and remains on the reddish side of purple.  “With the additional towns in District 38, it makes it slightly more Democratic and Hawthorne does lean Republican, so maybe they’ll be more comfortable in a more Republican district,” Swain said.  “But I find in every town there are people of all persuasions.  Just because people are registered in one party doesn’t mean that they vote that way.  I tried to look at every town independently.  We tried our best to do everything we could for Hawthorne, especially during the pandemic and there was so much going on.  We helped them out when we could.”

Pete Oneglia, Hawthorne’s Municipal Chairman (and General Manager of Insider NJ), felt that Hawthorne Democrats had a unique opportunity within the new district.  “It would have been beneficial for Hawthorne to have been returned to LD35, but the silver lining is that we will be with these other Passaic County towns.  There is an opportunity to be part of the conversation in choosing strong Democratic legislative candidates next year with our Democratic counterparts in other towns, including Woodland Park and Little Falls.  These are two towns where Democrats have a strong track record of success, have led by example, and Hawthorne Democrats are working to do the same.  Notwithstanding the obvious partisan lean of the new LD40, it is exciting to be paired with those towns in addition to other Passaic County towns within the district that have strong Democratic organizations.  With the growing Democratic base in Hawthorne, we have a lot to offer the Democratic Party towards our LD40 goals.”

“Legislative District 40 is a strong Republican district, so I think that’s a great thing for Hawthorne,” former Mayor Richard Goldberg, Hawthorne’s Republican Municipal Chairman said.  Goldberg has a strong personal friendship with Swain and the two frequently appeared at borough events together, regardless of party differences.  Goldberg said that he also has long established relationships with LD40’s legislators which would benefit the borough.

Goldberg had run for LD38 Assembly in 2011 along with running mate Fernando Alonso.  They were unsuccessful, with the incumbent Democrat Concetta Wagner and Tim Eustace coming out on top.  Goldberg refocused his political attentions on running successful mayoral re-elections and was Hawthorne’s second-longest serving mayor, after Louis Bay.

Had Goldberg won, he would have immediately restored Hawthorne’s leadership role in a legislative district, following the departure of Senator John Girgenti.  But it was not to be.

Insider NJ spoke with Girgenti to get his thoughts on Hawthorne being passed to a new district for the second time.  “I think the Republicans are better served by being in the new 40th district, as opposed to being where they were for the last 10 years.”  Girgenti said that the suburban nature and demographic characteristics of Hawthorne would put it more in line with some of the other towns that make up the new LD40, standing in contrast to the City of Paterson.  “It’s a whole different area than when I was there a number of years ago.  So, I think with Hawthorne being pulled into the 40th district, it at least has a lot of similar populations like Oakland, Wayne, and Totowa.”

Girgenti was optimistic that LD40 would suit Hawthorne well.  He also acknowledged that for Democrats, the weight of Republican numbers would inevitably make it more difficult to win elections.  Nevertheless, Hawthorne, as a small town among other small towns, would be able to exert greater political influence as far as the political parties are concerned, having moved out from the long shadow of Paterson and Bergen County.  Regarding the former LD35, Girgenti said, “From a political aspect, if you wanted to run for office in the district, it was very difficult to be a small town that was swallowed up by the rest.  Now at least you have a lot of similar towns.”

The former senator said that during his time in office representing LD35, even though he was from Hawthorne, the district itself was dominated by Paterson.  The new political arrangement levels the playing field for smaller municipalities like Hawthorne in some respects.  “It would be tougher to run in LD40 as a Democrat,” Girgenti said, “but it would make an opportunity available to people who live, for instance, in Hawthorne, if someone wants to run for office.  They would have a better opportunity to run now—they could win the nomination.  It would be an opportunity, at least, but the win would be difficult.  But it could be doable.  When I first ran for office years ago, there were two Republicans and a Democrat and then it became all Democratic.”  Girgenti said that he was not sure such a flip could take place in the new LD40, but someone from Hawthorne would, in his estimation, have a better shot at getting onto the state-level stage now that the borough will be moved out of the Bergen-oriented LD38 district.

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