The political climate in the lead-up to the 2017 election has become so divisive, particularly as it relates to immigration and sanctuary cities, that experts say it has emboldened some to overt displays of racism and xenophobia. This is exemplified not just by anonymous mailers that were circulated in local Edison and Hoboken elections, but also by a heightened sensitivity to anything that could be perceived as intolerance.
Fliers distributed anonymously in mailboxes around Edison carried the phrase “Make Edison Great Again,” and included photos of two school board candidates of Chinese-American and Indian-American descent, Jerry Shi and Falguni Patel, with the word “Deport” under their pictures. The fliers also read “Chinese and Indians are taking over our town!”
In Hoboken, fliers were distributed on cars attacking Sikh mayoral candidate Ravi Bhalla. They featured an image of the candidate wearing a turban underneath the imperative: "Don't let Terrorism take over our town!"
While candidates on both sides of the aisle in Edison and Hoboken have denounced and condemned these anonymous messages, the fliers are a reminder that these attitudes exist in the state.
New Jersey is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the nation, with Edison being one of the most diverse and populous townships. According to the most recent census data, more than 48,000 of Edison's approximately 102,000 residents identify as Asian. A total of about 45 percent of the town's residents are reported as being “foreign born.”
Amol Sinha, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the ACLU, said racism in tense political competitions is nothing new, but these recent examples have been more vitriolic and emboldened at the local level than in the past. Sinha ascribed it to a trickle-down effect from the 2016 presidential campaign and the policies enacted by the Trump administration, including the travel ban restricting those from Muslim-majority countries from entering the US.
“What we’re seeing is a top-down perpetuation of hate and fear that is now infiltrating local elections,” Sinha said.
Sinha said the growing diversity in the state paired with the intolerance in the federal government culminated in such mailers. He said that as minority communities continue to expand in places like Edison, diverse candidates will naturally begin to run for elected positions since they want to represent their communities. As more minority candidates seek office, Sinha said, they become targets for racist or religious attacks.
“It’s alarming to see the growth and the diversity of New Jersey, which was once a point of pride, be used to advance hostility or diminish the progress the state has made,” Sinha said.
On a personal note, Sinha added, as a South-Asian American growing up in the United States, he often struggled with a sense of belonging and identity. However, he said he never once questioned his “belonging” in New Jersey.
“It’s scary,” he said, “I’m a civil rights attorney, I’m secure about my rights and my ability to contact the right people if something goes wrong. So if I am feeling vulnerable, I can only imagine what people who aren’t as equipped feel.”
Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, confirmed that this election year has seen an increase in the intensity of such personal attacks on candidates.
“We do observe an uptick in the intensity of language used this year” Clarke said. “I think it is fair to say that campaign appeals that have appeared in more recent times have included more racial cues.”
Clarke noted that some of the campaign appeals in 2017 are “naked in their animus and their level of racial hostility.”
Clarke, Sinha, and others trace that hostility directly back to the 2016 presidential election and the policies the Trump administration has promoted since taking office, including the president’s travel ban andcharacterizing Mexican and Latino immigrants as “rapists, drug dealers and murderers.”
What’s more, the racial rhetoric isn’t limited to the federal and local levels. In the state gubernatorial race, Republican candidate Kim Guadagno has made the issue of immigration and sanctuary cities a center of her campaign, and she’s come under fire for athat was denounced by Latinos, legislators, and union leaders as “fear-mongering” and racially insensitive. The ads take issue with the idea of “sanctuary communities” and falsely accuse opponent Phil Murphy as “having the back” of a convicted killer and undocumented immigrant.
Despite many instances involving state and national Republican parties, Clarke made a point to say that this is a nonpartisan issue. Scott Novakowski, associate counsel for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice echoed the sentiment.
“I certainly have not seen fliers this explicitly racist in the past and I do think it's an outgrowth of the 2016 campaign and the language and the policies being advanced by the administration,” Novakowski said. “It’s a sign that this type of racism is being normalized, which is incredibly troubling and makes it that much more important to push back.”
For some, the fear of “normalizing” racism has led to heightened sensitivity and a sense of being on guard.
Long Valley resident Neil Szigethy recently noticed what he called “anti-immigrant” signs in his community paid for by the Sussex County Republican Committee, placed next to signs for Veronica Fernandez, a Democrat running for Washington Township Committee. The signs as well as several Facebook posts read, “no sanctuary state” referring to communities that harbor undocumented immigrants.
While the signs themselves aren’t hate speech, as Szigethy saw it, their placement next to the candidate with a Latina-sounding name may have implied a xenophobic sentiment.
“It brings a level of negativity and hatred in our community that I don’t want to see here,” Szigethy said.
He expressed concern that what he called “divisive” national political tactics were taking root in his close-knit neighborhood. Both Trump and Guadagno have spoken out against the “sanctuary city” designation. Regardless of whether or not the sign placement was intentional, Szigethy said the insinuation that Long Valley might be reflecting “nasty” political tactics bothered him.
“It hasn’t changed the way I look at my community but I’m honestly disappointed,” Szigethy said. “We are a melting pot and we should celebrate that. I’m hopeful that after this election no matter how things turn out, that we can work together we have as concerned residents. Maybe I’m naive, but hopeful.”
Unfortunately, since the mailers distributed in Edison and Hoboken were done so anonymously, there’s not much the state can do.
Joe Donohue, the deputy director of the New Jersey Election Law Enforcement Commission said ELEC is restricted in its abilities to investigate. He said ELEC cannot control the content of political mailers, but can only enforce the requirement that every mailer has a disclaimer at the bottom noting who paid for it.
Under the current law, Donohue said, all school board candidates are required to label communications, but independent committees in the general election that spend under $1,600 are not required to report to ELEC.
When ELEC receives a complaint regarding the lack of a disclaimer or attribution, they can officially begin an investigation. That said, Donohue was unable to confirm or deny that there is a current investigation open with regard to the Edison or Hoboken mailers.
Such mailers could come under the purview of the Middlesex or Hudson county prosecutors, who could then take up a case. In Middlesex, Novakowski and Clarke both emphasized their calls to the local authorities, state attorney general and prosecutors to pursue investigations into the mailers. Clarke said she believes that it is possible that state and or federal laws have been violated.
Andrew Carey, Middlesex County prosecutor, released a statement shortly after the mailers were first circulated: “the racist message shocks the conscience and is highly offensive." He wrote "in order to support the community, our detectives, along with those from the Edison police department and other agencies, are examining the facts surrounding the mailing. It has yet to be determined as whether or not a chargeable bias or other crime has been committed.”
Jennifer Stringfellow, a spokesperson at the Division of Elections, also acknowledged the existence of the mailers but said in an email: “The Division of Elections is aware of both mailers, the matter is being reviewed by the appropriate authorities and we have nothing more to add at this time.”