ELECTION 2019: A Painful Provocation of Memorialization in Franklin

Nonvoting residents of Franklin Twp.'s Middlebush section.
Franklin Twp. New Jersey.
Franklin Twp. New Jersey.

 

FRANKLIN TWP – Values of service and selflessness, humility maybe and sacrifice can find expression in the statues – or even chisled obelisks – that adorn a town, or so thought Councilman Rajiv Prasad, who in the aftermath of the gang killing of an African American teenager in 2007, began his designs for a Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, which would end up causing no end of local strife, hurt feelings, painful accusations of racism, and ultimately result in Prasad getting run off the council by his own party.

At the heart of the acrimony was a fight between Prasad and Mayor Phillip “Phil” Kramer, two alpha

Franklin Twp. Mayor Phillip "Phil" Kramer.
Franklin Twp. Mayor Phillip “Phil” Kramer.

males who proved unable to occupy the same space in one of New Jersey’s most diverse and complex municipalities, now at the center of a countywide power struggle in Somerset, with statewide political implications.

Having jettisoned Prasad and the councilman’s considerable political history, including an obvious, strong independent streak, Kramer runs now on a ticket he fashioned with the help of Somerset County Democratic Committee Chair Peg Schaffer and other Franklin Twp. party leaders.

“I expect the mayor to win in a landslide,” Assemblyman Joe Danielsen (D-17) told InsiderNJ last week, as the former Franklin Democratic Committee chairman – himself on the ballot next month – intends to accelrate his own campaign activities on behalf of the Democratic team, which includes former Franklin Twp. cop Darrin Russo for sheriff, and former Green Brook Twp. Mayor Melonie Marano for freeholder. If Marano wins, the county turns blue, and Governor Phil Murphy, rejected by establishment Trenton Democrats as a general election battleground war general, would be able to slamdunk one of his favorite narratives: progressive troop leader.

Franklin Twp. Councilman Rajiv Prasad.
Franklin Twp. Councilman Rajiv Prasad.

But the bitter political roots of Franklin strife bear closer examination as Schaffer and Danielsen, who rose to succeed Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula (D-17) almost in conjunction with Kramer replacing former Mayor (and now sitting Freeholder) Brian Levine, seek high voter turnout here (in a town with 20,000 registered Democrats among 72,000 countywide) over and above the lingering hairaising intraparty history of Kramer and Prasad.

A proud immigrant, international businessman, avid historian, and patriarch of one of five Indian families that settled in Franklin Twp. in 1977, Prasad met the equally upwardly mobile Chivukula at a local PTA meeting where the men forged a friendship and political bond. In the years after Chivukula went to the assembly in 2002, he helped advance Prasad to get to the local governing body in 2006 to continue serving Franklin as a voice for the Indian community, which now numbers 15,000 in the 70,000 population town. A Connecticut native, proud B-52 bomber pilot in the U.S. Air Force, and aerospace engineer and computer scientist, Kramer practices neurology, and secured a seat on the council in 2009. A fierce budget hawk, who has piloted Franklin Township to one of the best bond ratings in the state of New Jersey, he also has a reputation as a bit of type A personality: Captain Kirk on the bridge of the Enterprise to his fans, and Baby Trump to enemies.

The departure to countywide service of the eminently mild-mannered Levine, a Republican on an all-Democratic council and maybe the least offensive alternative to both power brokers pawing at the turf on either side of him, maybe inevitably sparked the Kramer-Prasad collision course. But while the former made a bid for the Franklin Township mayoralty in 2015, Prasad – and his Indian community allies – got behind Councilman Brian Regan. Kramer beat Regan in a screening, then packed him off to the sewerage authority, in part to nullify his future political effectiveness. For the record, Regan denied that precise formulation of events, noting, “Mr. Kramer had absolutely nothing to do with nor any influence on my decision to come out of [happy] retirement to serve at the Sewerage Authority,” he told InsiderNJ. For his part, Prasad stayed on the council. But the mayor, it is said, never forgot the councilman’s willingness to pick an opposing side. In fact, it wasn’t hard to notice in the sprawling and confounding Franklin Twp. that the mayor took notice of almost everything.

Hamilton Street, Franklin Township, New Jersey.
Hamilton Street, Franklin Township, New Jersey.

 

COWPUNCHING AT THE DOLLAR STORE

The cattle headed back from the creek, digging into the earth and moving in a collective moaning eastward cantor, in the direction of a barn and silo sitting on the horizon like the ghosts of Grant Wood. Behind the cows a tractor backed up traffic on Middlebush for a quarter of a mile, a farmer impassive at the head of a trail of rage-twisted New Jersey faces behind steering wheels above cradled cellphones. Not far from here on the street leading into New Brunswick, youth roamed amid vacant gas stations, beat-up barber shops, burned out Jamaican eateries, the local 99 cent store, nail salons and a parking lot anchored by Dunkin Donuts, KFC and Walgreens. The center of town features a rustic-looking bike shop, as if the paved paths in some of the region’s most ample deer herd-huddling parks were the central organizing principal of a town mostly deprived of walkable sidewalks and safe shoulders on its busy thoroughfares.

Tasked with finding the balance in its public spaces for Pop Warner football and cricket in a town with significant white, black and South Asian communities, the governing body – Kramer and Prasad chief among them – gives the appearance of a club of mathematicians struggling with a megillah that defies logic. Trees planted with all care cover streets of the grimmest neglect. The municipal building, mud brown in sparkling pre-Halloween sunlight, which housed alike the fledgling political careers of Chivikula and Levine, presents as a government learning laboratory for Rutgers grads who spilled into Somerset and carved out of the would-be wilderness a resemblance of suburban-something resonance.

When he ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2009, accountant-turned-local-Mayor Levine made a case for Franklin’s innovation corridor as a monster jobs and tax base, while standing in the town’s farmland assessed netherworld as a way of making the case for his unique, locally educated understanding of a mixed use town in so many triumphantly dysfunctional ways a bulldozed-from-all-angles microcosm of the Garden State.

Once a contender for drug-dealing capital of New Jersey, Hamilton Street has the unsteady, unfinished look now of an area coming into being, retail and residential projects slated for its scabby main drag and the environs, the name of legendary local pastor, DeForest “Buster” Soaries, already visible on one of the more impressive buildings, an older anchor to a new-look hood. Former Secretary of State in the Christie Todd Whitman Administration, Soaries once considered the gubernatorial candidacy of Levine.

“New Jersey politics is organized crime,” he said doubtfully.

Shortly after he made that observation, Chris Christie, incidentally, defeated Steve Lonegan, who had already forced Levine on a ballot signature challenge out of the Republican Primary.

No election resides in a vaccum.

In addition to the freeholder contest between Marano and incumbent Republican Pat Walsh, this year’s Somerset County control election features a race for sheriff, between Republican North Plainfield Police Chief William “Bill” Parenti and Democrat Russo, a retired police officer from Franklin Twp.

Russo used to patrol these streets. In 2007, he responded to a liquor store robbbery in progress on Route 27. A published report describes 30-year old Jamar Bradley of New Brunswick running out of the store with a gun in his hand when Russo shot and killed him. Parenti too in his own southeast Somerset town town has had to confront youth gun violence. This past summer, his officers arrested a 15-year old and charged him in the killing of 16-year old Altereek Johnson of Plainfield, who died behind the local QuickCheck. The case is reminiscent of then-17-year old  Xavier Bailey’s killing of Ammar Simmons, 18, on July 15, 2007 at a baseball field on Dekalb Street in Franklin.

Young men killing other young men with guns form a foundation of shared experience in North Plainfield and Franklin Twp.

As does political cross-pollination.

Confronted by Parenti in their Somerville debate about getting paid while on union time, Russo blamed retired Franklin Police Chief Larry Roberts, who, as it turns out, is said to be friends with Parenti and an adviser to his campaign for sheriff. A month removed from decision day, Russo’s smiling face now stares from a sign on the window of an abandoned Hamilton Street building that looks inches removed from a final wrecking ball.

Part of the gentriffication of Franklin Twp.'s Hamilton Street includes a monument to the retiring Reverend Pastor Buster Soaries of Lincoln Gardens.
Part of the gentriffication of Franklin Twp.’s Hamilton Street includes a monument to the retiring Reverend Pastor DeForest “Buster” Soaries of Lincoln Gardens.

 

THE POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF PEACE AND NONVIOLENCE STATUES 

All the incongruity, and with it an intensification of a sense of crime in part the consequence of neighborhood pushback against gentrification, in part the way it is, not to mention a national gun killing mood, led back to town hall and consideration of a Route 27-situated (mostly privately funded, on public land) peace and nonviolence memorial. There, two highly educated and prepared professional men, perhaps mutually unnerved by the contradiction of it all, or maybe always just standing in each other’s way politically, turned on each other. Prime mover Prasad wanted the township to get behind a memorial to help educate a population that seemingly had lost its way, and could no more speak to the specific actions, achievements and sacrifice of MLK than ancient history. He wanted statues to honor Dr. King – and significantly King’s mentor – Mahatma Gandhi.

Worried – in part about money but also about protocol, and lack of broaded-based input, Kramer didn’t quite like it.

Prasad added Mother Teresa.

Kramer was tentatively thrilled.

Then the West African community piped up.

So they threw in Nelson Mandela.

It looked like a go at one point, but in a work session the mayor supposedly again expressed his doubts, which Prasad took to be racist, motivated, he said later in public by that part of Franklin’s population that doesn’t want “colored statues in town.” That accusation prompted the mayor to hit back with all political force, countering that Prasad himself – who would reach out to King’s Georgia-based relatives for a repudiation of Kramer – was a racist for making the charge.

The peace and nonviolence memorial had laid the groundwork for all kinds of havoc.

West African leaders who spoke at a local council meeting last year in favor of expediting the project emerged from church later to find their cars inexplicably ticketed. Someone called the AG’s Office. In the ongoing fight, Prasad’s fellow council people sided with the the mayor, out of fear, the councilman’s allies maintain. The governing body censured Prasad for – among other charges – trying to get Township Manager Robert Vornlocker to “fix parking tickets for parishioners at a township church,” according to local reporter Bill Bowman. Prasad’s allies maintained it was all political retribution, despicably motivated by a control freak mayor intent on crushing a political rival and fearful of a project not immediately servicable to his own base, which did not bear his exclusive fingerprints.

“I can’t express how sad and angry your actions have made me,” Kramer, quoted in Bowman’s story, told Prasad. “What bewilders me — in a town that prides itself in diversity — is how you have committed actions which threatens the harmony of that diversity.”

It devolved from there, and the councilman prepared to challenge the mayor in the 2019 Democratic Primary.

The party talked him out of it, not before they endured another scrap over the vacancy created by Shanel Robinson’s January 2019 move from councilwoman to freeholder. The mayor wanted School Board Membr Ed Potosnak, whom Prasad saw as too politically aligned with the mayor. Schaffer – long employed as the town tax attorney, going back to the Levine years – intervened with another name, Crystal Pruitt, chief of staff to Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16), who just last month would, incidentally, end up in an apparently unrelated public spat with Potosnak, who, in his role as executive director of the NJ League of Conservation Voters, would withhold an endorsement of Zwicker. In the ongoing low boil of Franklin, Prasad backed Pruitt as an alternative to Potosnak, apparently with the understanding that the party would protect his own 2019 reelection bid in the face of the ever-ready-to-get-even mayor. It didn’t happen. Kramer instead opted for newcomer Sivaraman Anbarasan – an Indian American – to join the local ticket topped by himself and complemented by Pruitt and veteran Councilwoman Kimberly Francois.

Some Republicans hope the feud metastasizes in time to check Democrats’ Somerset stampede. Perhaps feeling the squeeze of Donald J. Trump nativism, Walsh in conversation eagerly notes the diversity of the Republican Party’s Franklin ticket, led by proud (African American) Marine Beverly Briggs-Lawson, and filled out by another military veteran, Alhaki “Noah” Fofanah, a West African who fled town hall – and the Democratic Party – in disgust over the actions of the mayor with regard to the peace and nonviolence memorial. But like almost everything in Franklin, it’s complicated. Democrats in both Kramer’s and Prasad’s camps laugh off the suggestion of any serious GOP incursion in the overhwhelmingly Democratic town.

Although the Prasad-Kramer war radiated beyond the confines of an insider pushing and shoving match, the party of Trump carries little political weight here (in the 2016 presidential election, Clinton received  21,375 votes to Trump’s 7,818, according to Somerset Clerk Steve Peter), and the challengers from an organization run locally by Bob LaCourt, one of Kramer’s close friends, base maintenance conduit, and even a card-playing buddy, hardly look like world beaters. Nobly devoted to diversity but opportunistically and preposterously affiliated GOP in Trump times, and up against Kramer’s apparent chokehold on a diverse Democratic Party team, the Republicans give off a decidedly roadkill vibe. “Democrats led by Assemblyman Danielsen at the top of the ticket and Mayor Kramer are on fire in Franklin,” Marano told InsiderNJ at this morning’s street fair in Somerville. Undettered by the piercing angles of the peace and nonviolence fight, game Kramer-ites even welcome the presence of Nov. 5th opponents as a way of galvanizing their anti-Trump-all-the-time base in the face of supposed opposition.

Briggs-Lawson, GOP candidate for Mayor of Franklin Twp.
Briggs-Lawson, GOP candidate for Mayor of Franklin Twp.

But Briggs-Lawson, a mom who went into the Marine Corps in 1985 and got recalled for Desert Storm, an ammunitions and explosives expert, said the Democrats in her 3-1 advantage town can do little more than point an anemic finger at Donald Trump.  “My issue is the transparency of the townsip,” the opposition candidate for mayor told InsiderNJ. “There are a lot of backroom deals and their answer is, ‘Well, if you knew what we knew.’ That’s the point. We don’t. Trump is all they have.”

The Republican said Prasad mishandled the statues. If he had done it the correct way, she argues, maybe it could’ve been done, but she says based on what she observed, the council went behind people’s backs, and though the veteran councilman howled racism, as a citizen she found herself entertaining the same enduring question.

“What else are you doing what we don’t know about?” she wondered, as she said she looks at a town that doesn’t merely show a case of hard-edged transition on its worn streets, but a pervasive dangerous funk. “Small businesses are closing and we are losing so much of what Franklin is,” Briggs-Lawson said. “Everybody’s going to be fighting for parking. My husband was born and raised here. I grew up in New York, and when I got here 22 years ago, Franklin was the country. There was not a lot of traffic here. But in the last ten years, it’s like, ‘Where did all this trafic come from?’ And there’s now apparent plan to widen the roads.”

She says the shootings go on, the crime seems intractable at times – at least with the leadership in now town hall, in her opinion.

“Police used to have a task unit, a substation where they’ve put up those new buildings, and they kept most of that at bay,” said the GOP candidate for mayor. “A lot of that – the youth in colors – can be changed, but I dont think they’re thinking about it over there. By the third year, I think the mindset becomes “I’ll just try to stay here.'”

And blame Trump, she said.

Fielding a team at all in Franklin could prove a GOP miscalculation in the broader context of Somerset, where a local contest on the other side of the county, in Republican-leaning Bridgewater, will provide election results watchers with yet another focal point.

In the larger context of county control, it could all be moot. For even if the determined Walsh hangs on and wins next month in a lowturnout election, Democrats on the ground in Franklin are almost certain their own old reliably civil-to-a-fault Republican mayor turned freeholder will not be able to withstand the onslaught next year. In a cruel twist of fate, Central Jersey’s mildest man since Leonard Lance must run on a ticket headed by a dangerously buffonish president in the eyes of most Franklin voters; while four homeless bronze statues remain in Prasad’s possession.

Franklin Twp.'s 9/11 memorial at the municipal complex.
Franklin Twp.’s 9/11 memorial at the municipal complex.

 

A VERY FRANKLIN POSTSCRIPT

Franklin Twp. lost six people on 9/11 and their faces fronted by an eyebeam from Ground Zero stare out of stone harvested from the local Traprock Quarry. Immediately obvious is the diversity of those who perished in that horror almost two decades ago. Members of the most easily identifable Franklin communities underscore reality – and a fundamental part of town pride.

Even the memory of the town’s namesake, founding father Ben Franklin, has intensified local squabbles here, in a town of statues – including the largest of Buddha in the western hemisphere – and memorials past, and the politically short-circuited Prasad hopes, future.

At the local Dunkin Donuts on a Saturday afternoon, a man with his chin on his chest sat barely upright on a stool near the door. A man in a Reagan-Bush T-shirt entered the place, ordered a tea. Left. A man outside evidently on a cellphone screamed in Spanish, enraged.

Moments later, the man on the stool slid off and hit the floor hard.

Red eyes squinted back, barely seeing. “I’m ok, bro,” he slurred, as a stranger’s hand helped him back onto his stool. A gang of tough-looking youths was walking across the parking lot in the direction of the donut shop.

When the council reconvenes next year, the discordant Prasad will be gone, though his dream of a peace and nonviolence education center apparently undiminished, even if he has to rely entirely on private resources for a memorial in a town already chock full of them. In front of Town Hall, gleaming black obelisks rise honoring servicemembers from each of the country’s wars, going back to the origins of the country. A minute man. A union soldier. A World War II G.I. They’re all there in this initmate, timeless circle of heroes. The eye meets the gaze on the iconic likeness of a B-52 bomber pilot etched in stone as the emblem for those who served during the Cold War. The man looks familiar. Indeed, a closer examination of the name tag on the uniform over the chest pocket reveals that of a formidable town hall presence: “Phil Kramer. USAF.” Erected before he got elected to the highest local office here, when he worked with the local VFW post to fashion a proper veterans’ monument, the piece nonetheless honors the favorite in pursuit of a second term, next time absent a competing old-school voice in the same chamber, who now sits upon the throne, otherwise known as mayor of the Township of Franklin.

"If you seek a monument to me, just look around," said Christopher Wren, words that might well apply to Franklin Twp. Mayor Phillip "Phil" Kramer.
“If you seek a monument to me, just look around,” said Christopher Wren, words that might well apply to Franklin Twp. Mayor Phillip “Phil” Kramer.
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