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Sitting Down for a Peaceful, Post-Election Conversation in Long Valley

Members of our Long Valley Voting Block agree to disagree, exchanging rancor for rational debate

George Collins
(From left:) George Collins, Heather Santos, Neil Szigethy, and Barbara Penella

In the fifth and final installment of this ongoing Voting Block series, we join our Long Valley voters after the election, to find that argument has been replaced by cordial conversation; Voting Block is a collaboration of news organizations throughout the state. Follow this link to read the first and second, and third, and fourth articles in this series.

Cordially and calmly, Democrats and Republicans in Long Valley sat down for a post-election discussion that had none of the rancor and raised voices of their first meeting five months ago.

The Republicans, who had backed Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, were not terrified at the thought of Democrat Phil Murphy’s win. And the Democrats who voted for Murphy were, at best, looking forward to what the next four years might bring to New Jersey.

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“I’m hopeful,” said Neil Szigethy, a Democrat. “Maybe there will be a return to some civility in New Jersey. Maybe our brand as New Jersey will go up.”

While these partisans have not changed their positions on any hot-button issues, they found themselves discussing politics in pretty much the same tone as they talked about the sudden change in the weather as the group gathered for a last official meeting at the Long Valley Pub and Brewery in the heart of their rural community last Thursday. In this, their fifth meeting, they even gave the opposition some credit, or at least some sympathy in their Monday morning quarterbacking of the race.

Tom Lotito
Tom Lotito

Conservative Tom Lotito said he thought Murphy’s campaign ads at the George Washington Bridge, the site of a week of politically motivated lane closures in September 2013 that turned into a scandal that plagued much of Gov. Chris Christie’s second term, were “effective.”

Szigethy said there was little Guadagno could do, “tied” to Christie for the past eight years.

Messaging mistake

Lotito said the Republican made some mistakes with her messaging. For instance, the campaign sent out a flyer declaring Guadagno supports giving gun owners the “right to carry,” but did not do a mailing about her plan to reduce property taxes.

“I’m pro-gun,” Lotito said, “but you’ve got a state that went for Hillary Clinton and you send this out?”

Heather Santos chalked Murphy’s win up as much to the changing political winds in the state as to his message or, as some political pundits asserted, to a backlash against Donald Trump.

“We go back and forth,” Santos said, noting that while New Jersey is considered a blue state, voters have a tendency to switch between the parties for governor.

Most of the voters said they chose a candidate based on his position on issues like healthcare and taxes. Barbara Penella said she voted for Guadagno because of who she is.

“I wish she had put out more about herself,” Penella said. “I really did like Kim a lot. She accomplished a lot in her life. I think she is an honorable person.”

Not enough talk about ‘fiscal conservatism’

Penella said she was disappointed that there was little talk during the campaign about “fiscal conservatism” and cutting back government spending. She lamented the $125 million library bond question, which passed with the support of almost 60 percent of voters.

“We are all for libraries, but even if you are for it, can you not step back and say, ‘How can we afford it?’” she asked.

“That was the toughest vote for me,” said Szigethy.

“I voted no,” added Lotito.

As for the next four years, there was not a lot of enthusiasm on either side.

No more ‘bullying’

“I don’t think there’s a lot of excitement,” said George Collins, although he added that Murphy has had a laudable “track record” post-Wall Street and it would be nice to stop the “bullying” that has marked Christie’s tenure.

“I’m just hoping Murphy gives me something, anything, cut the tax on ice cream,” Lotito said.

“I suspect we are going to be very sorry, but I hope I’m wrong,” Penella said. “It happens over and over. We just don’t get things in the proper fiscal order.”

Laura Knipmeyer
Credit: Tom Franklin
Laura Knipmeyer

Laura Knipmeyer, the group’s lone independent, was unable to make this final meeting, but spoke later about the election. She wound up voting for Murphy, but with little enthusiasm. She had delayed making up her mind, hoping to base her decision on how each of the candidates answered queries she had sent to get their views on putting limits on campaign spending and overturning the Citizens United decision that allows unlimited spending on elections by corporations, unions, and other “independent” groups. She was “disappointed” neither candidate responded, and so then chose the candidate with whom she agreed more often.

Still, it was a “difficult” vote, particularly given her passion for trying to curtail campaign spending and his having spent by far the most money during the primary — $22 million from his campaign account and $5 million by two political committees supporting him.

“I thought he was by far not the best candidate in the primary from the Democratic party field,” she said.

Legalizing pot a problem

The group expressed concerns, as most have in the past, about the possibility of Murphy legalizing marijuana. All three Democrats who attended urged the new administration to exercise caution.

Santos said she fully supports a robust medical marijuana program, but would like to wait for another state to do a good job with full legalization so that New Jersey could follow “a model that works.”

“The whole legalization of marijuana bothers me,” Sizgethy agreed, adding that Oregon has seen an increase in traffic accidents. “Maybe there’s some step in between.”

“The federal government still says it’s illegal,” Collins said. “That has to be solved first.”

Szigethy said he would like to see Murphy quickly reverse Christie’s defunding of Planned Parenthood clinics.

Penella said she is concerned that Murphy may make New Jersey a sanctuary state for undocumented immigrants.

“Compassion can be a foolish thing if it is not handled properly,” she said.

The immigrant issue

This brought probably the most contentious discussion of the night, but rather than talk over one another, Szigethy waited for Lotito to finish, and vice versa, as they made their points on the issue, which had become a pivotal one in the gubernatorial campaign.

Lotito said there needs to be proper vetting of immigrants before they enter the United States so people “do not fear walking down the street.” Szigethy said the term “sanctuary state” is not a legal one, it just means that police will not do the job of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, but “anyone who commits a really serious crime will be locked up.”

Collins used the exchange to point out how far the group has come since its first meeting. They had even briefly veered into a debate about Trump without raising their voices.

“I think people know enough about one another now,” he said.

Knipmeyer said the Voting Block experience was very useful in helping her gain confidence in talking politics with people who have opposing views.

“I think I will be more likely to talk with people who maybe before I was a little too scared or too angry to engage,” she said. “There are some people I will be more willing to engage on overturning Citizens United.”

Keeping the conversation going

The five Long Valley voters who chatted at the pub last week said that getting together to talk was highly worth it and several want to keep the conversation going.

“I was sad thinking that this is going to be our last meeting,” Santos said. “It’s been beneficial.”

“It doesn’t have to be the last meeting,” Lotito said. “We can still talk about things in the future. Maybe we should all go to a township committee meeting together.”

“That’s a great idea,” Collins said.

“It is our responsibility to go to those meetings,” Penella said.

The members talked about getting involved in other local committees or advisory groups, as well, saying this is the best way to get people talking to one another again and help bridge the political divide.

“That’s a baby step toward bringing back rational discussion,” said Collins.

“It has to be grassroots up,” agreed Santos. “I think that’s the way it’s got to happen.”

For her part, Knipmeyer plans to continue her civic activism, including working to get a 28th amendment to blunt the Citizens United ruling to the U.S. Constitution passed.

“I am going to continue to work on improving the process and getting voters out to participate,” she said.

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