In the second installment in this ongoing Voting Block series, we return to Long Valley to dig under the surface a bit and see what political issues the residents feel most passionate about. They were quick to let us, and one another, know. Voting Block is a collaboration of news organizations throughout the state and will continue to deliver insights and inside looks through the upcoming gubernatorial election.
Carol Grobels, the Democratic chairman of Washington Township, looked over at her neighbor, Republican Barbara Penella, in frustration, as Penella expressed her annoyance at what she sees as unnecessary and self-defeating regulations imposed by Washington, D.C., and Trenton. Penella was citing the fact that a friend felt it necessary to throw out a beautiful baby crib because it no longer met federal guidelines.
Grobels retorted “what if your child was the one who had his head between the slats.”
This divide is what our statewide project, Voting Block, is aimed at addressing. We don’t expect one side to convince another — just that participants try to understand where the other side is coming from. We’ve gathered about 10 from the hamlet of Long Valley, part of Washington Township in Morris County, who are willing to talk politics through the November gubernatorial election. News organizations from around the state are also collaborating on the project, includingradio in New York City, in Philadelphia, , and the , among others.
Grobels, who calls herself a liberal, said her reluctance to talk politics with friends or family has become the norm. She said she has no idea who her sister and her husband voted for in last November’s presidential election.
For many others across the state and the nation, the problem has become familiar. It has become increasingly difficult to talk politics with friends and family. People avoid certain topics and look for clues as to when they should stop talking about certain issues. And they find this troubling.
“Certain groups I can be absolutely open and honest with my opinions, but with some I have to couch it or try to stay away from the topic all together,” said Heather Santos, who grew up a Republican, has been independent most of her life, and registered as a Democrat to vote in the June primary.
For Democrat Neil Szigethy, a self-employed copywriter, the divide is symbolized by the wearing of the flag pin on one’s lapel, and the controversy that that began during President Barack Obama’s first election bid in 2008 when he was criticized for not wearing a pin.
“Some of that discourse is whether people on the left love their country as much as people on the right,” he said. “That’s one of the wedges that’s been going on for a long time. This past year for me has been most divisive in my life as far as politics. It’s been a horrible shame.”
The climate has made Laura Knipmeyer, a former pharmaceuticals executive who is now active in the community, fearful.
“My number one priority is to keep this discourse going,” said Knipmeyer, an unaffiliated voter. “I am really fearing for the state of our democracy. I think that we would not have the terrible problems that we have as a society if either political party were working the way they were perhaps 30 or 40 years ago. We just have to be willing to talk with one another somehow in a respectful manner.”
Even making that point sparked an exchange with Grobels. Lotito referenced a newscast that he said characterized Donald Trump as “the most evil man on the planet” and said he colluded with Russia to win the election.
“But he has colluded with the Russians,” Grobels cut in.
“I didn’t say that to go there,” Lotito said, dismissing that assertion and continuing, “The point is you’ve got to realize when you get into this argument, it’s not going to go anywhere. Why get involved in this argument? It doesn’t pay.”
Still, Lotito, a piano tuner, said he thinks the debate can be positive, adding, “The country always had this vitriol and to me that’s healthy because it’s people with ideas, people with concepts and principles, and the country moves forward.”
“As long as people are moving forward,” said Veronica Fernandez, who runs an electrical contracting company with her husband. That’s not something she necessarily believes is happening. “It’s just so intense now because people are just so stressed out in their lives and they just get into a narrative and think that’s the solution. It’s ‘what is the issue?’ You find out what stand your side takes and you fall in line. It’s like there’s no individual thinking.”
“They follow party, as opposed to personal belief,” agreed Santos. “They hype everything, on both sides. Everything is so heightened.”
And the discussion was “heightened,” at times, during two 90-minute get-togethers in the last month. As the conversation flowed it became clear to all that it was mostly national politics and issues that led to raised voices and members talking over one another. And it was clear people wanted to talk national politics, as one person or another would bring subjects back into the D.C. arena.
For instance, the three-day government shutdown and controversy over Gov. Chris Christie spending one of those days with his family at the closed Island Beach State Park turned fairly quickly to Donald Trump when Penella, 78, declared, “Trump is the man for the time.”
“The government is getting more and more oppressive and that’s why I think Trump being a businessman knows how to get things done,” said Penella, stating that regulations have gotten too burdensome and made life more difficult. “And of course everyone is rebelling. He’s a businessman. He’s got a pretty wife.”
“That’s not why we’re rebelling against him,” Grobels chimed in. “He’s a horrible businessman. He went bankrupt three times. He stiffed all of his contractors.”
“He created tens of thousands of jobs, hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenues,” said Gregg Forsbrey, a first-term township commissioner and Republican.
And then they started talking at once.
Lotito: “The guy’s, like, phenomenal. He doesn’t own a company, he owns 500 companies.”
Grobels: “And all the people that got ripped off by Trump University?”
Penella: “OK, would you want us to keep going on the way we are? The way we are going, we are either going to be a socialist nation or …”
The discussion moved into the benefits, or detriments, of socialism and then to one’s assertion that Obama had been leading the country into Marxism and then to another’s statement that at least then all citizens would have healthcare.
Another contentious topic that people kept coming back to involved environmental regulations, oil pipelines and clean energy, with speakers’ positions following those often argued by the major parties: the Republicans said environmental rules are overkill that stifle businesses, while the Democrats said new pipelines are potentially polluting and do little to create jobs or help the economy.
But throughout the discussions, as things got especially heated, someone would ask a question or make a comment that brought the talk back to their community and the tone would change almost immediately.
“You’re talking about civil discourse, look how quickly we can get back to talking to one another,” noted Forsbrey after he brought up the subject of heroin overdoses and how the use of Narcan has saved eight lives in Washington Township so far this year and quieted the room.
“You’re never going to reconcile differences between Clinton and Trump voters,” Lotito said. “National issues are divisive. They’ve always been divisive. I think they will get even more divisive. Local stuff, we’ve got great things. We come together as a community.”
Fernandez agreed: “It’s like we’re all good on the local level.”
The group was also interested in Forsbrey’s telling them about the township’s budget struggles and the high costs of running the government — a fire engine costs $450,000, a police car about $45,000, and the tab for paving a mile of road is about $500,000. They were also engaged in discussing the elementary and regional high schools’ budgets.
There are some bigger issues the group agrees on: One is that property taxes are too high and must be addressed and another, related, is that New Jersey has too many school districts and needs to dramatically shrink that total number to save money and begin to lower property taxes.
The question of health insurance, the efforts by Congress to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, and what New Jersey’s response should be if that happens turned the atmosphere contentious again, at first. And then, it somehow became the answer to a question George Collins, a Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat, had asked earlier in the evening, “How do we get to the middle and how do we get things to be better together?”
Declaring health insurance the most important issue to her, Fernandez suggested everyone in the nation, not just senior citizens, should be covered by Medicare.
“I’m tired of the insurance companies and big pharma,” she said. “I’m tired that we can’t negotiate drug prices. I’m tired of them making their billions of profits and taking it offshore and not paying taxes on it, and with the tax credits that the insurance companies get I really think and people don’t like to say big government but I really think we can get it right.”
“But then they’re going to raise taxes,” Lotito said.
Forsbrey, an electrician by trade who said he received charity care after he was seriously injured, unable to work, and wound up living off federal disability, said he does not believe health insurance is a right. “I believe in private charity,” Forsbrey said, and Penella added, “It works so well.” “How can you have public education and not have healthcare?” Fernandez asked. Then she told how she pays almost $2,000 a month for “silver” level health coverage, yet a single emergency medical visit for one of her children still wound up costing close to another $3,000.
Penella was surprised, saying, “That’s a mortgage payment.”
Collins made the case for a Medicare-for-all program. He said Medicare is the most efficiently run healthcare program, with overhead expenses taking up no more than 4 percent of total costs, compared with commercial insurance that spends a significantly greater percentage of about 17 percent. Allowing people to buy into Medicare would provide competition for private insurance companies.
“I think we would see costs come down and we would get closer to universal coverage,” he said.
The idea embraces ideals both parties believe in. For Republicans, it encourages competition among insurers, and because it requires individuals to pay for coverage it’s not a handout. For Democrats, it would provide a potentially more affordable way to provide health insurance to the masses.
“Something we can all agree on!” Fernandez exclaimed.
“Everybody call their congressmen tomorrow,” Penella said. “Everyone call their senators tomorrow.”
With healthcare solved, the block’s second gathering ended with the members breaking into three smaller groups talking more privately among themselves. Each of those smaller groups contained at least one Democrat and one Republican.
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