After two summer block parties devolved into shouting matches over politics, WNYC brought in an expert.
Jessica Baen, a fellow at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, offered to help Voting Block, a project of WNYC and other news organizations across New Jersey. It's an attempt to create civil conversations across the political divide and also get to know a group of voters about what they are thinking of the gubernatorial election in November.
A trained facilitator, Baen proposed the neighbors on Hillside Terrace in West Orange discuss how they felt about the first two discussions, and suggested the neighbors practice with a listening exercise.
That was met with confusion and disbelief. They preferred to see themselves more as good neighbors than political rivals.
"Even if we find some of the opinions to be too strident, too hard-edged or not to our liking, I'll still respect the person that's making the opinion," said Bill Jaglowski, who lives on the block with his husband, Kevin Clark. "It's given me a greater appreciation for living here than I had when we first started."
Almost everyone agreed. "I have a better understanding of why people really voted," said Linda Ward. "You know it makes sense to me. Not that I think it's right but it makes sense."
But then Arun Vardlamani spoke up. The self-identified independent said it was well and good to talk about being nice and moderate in political debates but he wanted none of it.
"No, no. I cannot respect a person who voted for a treasonous guy," Vardlamani said, talking about his neighbor Len Mrozak, a Republican who voted for Donald Trump. "I love the fact that you have a fantastic lawn. You're a good citizen out here but politically, how can I have respect for someone who voted for Trump? I mean, come on, give me a break!"
The rest of the neighbors, about 15 in all, were uncomfortable and called on Vardlamani to treat his neighbor with respect. Mrozak called for more civility, from everyone.
"We’ve got to get the hate out of these discussions, at the high level and at our level," Mrozak said. "Making ad hominem attacks on someone doesn’t do it."
But Vardlamani tried to explain, he wasn't attacking the person, he was attacking just one part of the person — Mrozak's choice to vote for Trump. Baen asked the neighbors what were they trying to accomplish and what would a successful gathering look like. That led to a discussion of whether this group, which has gotten together at WNYC's invitation three times, could actually be productive, and do something rather than just talk.
We were there to talk about the New Jersey governor's race and the fast-approaching election on November 7. But the residents of Hillside Terrace had little to say about Republican Kim Guadagno and Democrat Phil Murphy.
"Everyone is talking about Trump, I don't think anyone is talking about the governor's race," said Phyllis Salowe-Kaye, our party hostess and the executive director of the group Citizen Action. She pointed to a recent poll that found only 43 percent of voters said they knew enough about Murphy to form an opinion of him; it's even lower for Guadagno.
Despite the tensions over Trump, everyone at the block party could agree on one thing: they would cast a ballot in November. It was even suggested they launch a voter registration project in the neighborhood.
This story is part of the Voting Block series and was produced in collaboration withfrom The Center for Investigative Reporting, the and . To read all the stories in this series and see the full list of reporting partners, visit . You can submit your questions to New Jersey gubernatorial candidates .
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