More Seek Office Without Party Support
By John Burton and Joseph Sapia
Those seeking elected office don’t always fit neatly in the traditional political party molds — just ask Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, or going back a few years, Ralph Nader.
Some choose to go independent, which is the case locally this year.
Across Monmouth County, there are more independent candidates seeking elected office than last year. That number is not a dramatic increase – there are 15, as opposed to 10 last year among the county’s 53 municipalities – with a number of those independents running in Two River communities. (Previous years’ totals were not readily available from county elected officials.)
“Let’s face it, in the real world, they – Republicans or Democrats – they spend more time securing their positions than they do doing their job,” said Jacob Hoffmann, who is running for re-election this year as an independent candidate for Atlantic Highlands Borough Council, after spending nine years as an elected Republican.
This year, along with Atlantic Highlands, which has two current incumbents, both former Republicans, seeking another term as independents, there is Holmdel, Middletown, Red Bank and two independents running in Sea Bright’s race.
In addition to the Two River towns, independents are attempting to stake claims among Allentown, Roosevelt and West Long Branch’s governing bodies; in Howell an independent is challenging the political party candidates for the mayor’s office.
Last year the only independent seeking office among the Two River municipalities was incumbent Sea Bright Mayor Dina Long, a former Democrat who won re-election in November 2015, running unopposed. Long dropped her party affiliation after being criticized by county Democratic municipal chairman Vin Gopal, who chafed at Long’s endorsement of Republican Chris Christie’s gubernatorial re-election bid, as Sea Bright continued to recover from the effects of Super Storm Sandy. Gopal demanded, and got, Long’s resignation as Sea Bright’s Democratic committee chairmanship.
This doesn’t necessarily constitute an actual trend, and as far as he’s aware there hasn’t been research looking at it in New Jersey, observed Ben Dworkin, director of the Robovich Institute for New Jersey Politics, at Rider University, Lawrence. It should be observed over a course of a few years “to see if whether the independent candidates coordinate among themselves, see if any of them win and what they do if they win,” Dworkin recommended.
“The Republican and Democratic parties in Monmouth County are going to remain vibrant and competitive for the time being,” Dworkin said.
The proof of the parties’ vibrancy was apparent for the June 7 primary election, observed county election officials. The county’s Board of Elections, superintendent of elections/commissioner of registration and clerk of elections became overwhelmed on Primary Day with large numbers of unaffiliated/independent voters looking to switch to one of the major parties to be able to vote in the party’s primary. Election officials attributed the bustling activity to the polarizing and attention-grabbing presidential primaries.
Officials said 1,100 voters cast provisional ballots on June 7 in the county. Provisional ballots are used when there is some issue with voters’ eligibility. By comparison, in the last two presidential primaries in 2008 and 2012, only 53 and 124 provisionals were cast, respectively.
This year because of the large number of provisionals, it will take county officials until after the July 4 holiday for the time-consuming process of verifying and tabulating those votes.
Clearly on the national level an independent candidate has yet to make an appearance or pose a threat in the presidential race. And on the local level, “It’s usually people who want to have an impact, who have name recognition in their towns,” observed John Weingart, associate director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics, at Rutgers University.
Making that difference was the motive all of the independents spoken to expressed.
“I think what you’ll find is that independents are people who aren’t politicians, who aren’t interested in money or power and are more interested in doing the right thing for the town and the people,” said Cindy Burnham, a Red Bank borough councilwoman, who was elected as a Republican three years ago and is now running as an independent.
Francine Campis, a first-time candidate (and currently still a registered Republican) for Holmdel Township Committee said she’s running as an independent “because I believe that is the best way to represent all people.”
Campaigning and winning under a party’s banner, Campis explained, “You become too concerned about the party,” as opposed to what’s best in a non-partisan sense, and candidates find themselves running against someone or something. “And that’s not my intention,” she said.
“I’m not a big believer in, you do this because the party does this,” said Atlantic Highlands Borough Councilman Louis Fligor, who is running with Hoffmann as independents. “That’s wrong. I worked for the residents and I never varied from that.”
Fligor has been a member of the governing body for 15 years.
Fligor and Hoffmann in Atlantic Highlands and Burnham in Red Bank have a similar story. They, as incumbent Republicans, came into conflict with the municipal party organizations and wound up severing ties.
In Fligor and Hoffmann’s case, it occurred with Fligor challenging the party establishment to seek the GOP nomination last year for mayor, when the Republicans had already named their candidate. Hoffmann supported Fligor’s last year’s primary bid. “I was accused of not thinking Republican,” Hoffmann recalled, “and that’s the furthest thing on my mind, to think either Republican or Democrat.”
“I don’t always go the way people want me to go and I want to do what’s best for the borough,” Fligor said. He acknowledged, “Personally, at this point the local (Republican) chair and I don’t agree and I’ll leave it at that.”
Burnham got into a very vocal and public feud with the Red Bank municipal party chair and became increasingly strained with her three fellow Republican council members. That resulted in the municipal committee members not endorsing her for the party line on the November ballot.
But Burnham insisted she’s always been more independently leaning than a team player, as Fligor and Hoffmann had expressed. “I’ve seen Democratic majorities and I’ve seen Republican majorities,” she noted. “Both of them come and go and both of them are the same.”
Kevin Birdsall, one of the two Sea Bright independents seeking borough council seats, is new to the political game. Still a registered Democrat— “As November approaches I’ll have to change,” he said — he decided to go this route after a conversation with Long, the independent mayor. Given Sea Bright’s traditionally Republican leanings, especially in a presidential election year (which usually means a higher voter turnout), Long suggested Birdsall run as an independent to have any chance of winning. “To be honest, I really don’t care about the political parties,” he said. “I care about what’s best for the town. If I get elected as an independent, that’s great.”
Burnham sees a possible lasting trend here. “I think people are starting to get it,” she offered. “I think people are starting to see that when you’re elected by a party you have to go along with that party’s agenda, whether you totally believe it or not.”
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