They might not see eye to eye on everything, but one thing residents of a close-knit, diverse neighborhood here in Westwood do agree on: Politicians don’t care about them.
From the local level on up, they say, they feel disconnected from the men and women elected to represent them. Their concerns, they feel, are not being heard.
“Forever it’s been that way. It’s worse now than ever – locally, state, and federal. I think it’s getting worse because of ego,” said Joseph Abou-Daoud, a 42-year-old registered Republican who lives on Palisade Avenue.
Abou-Daoud and five of his neighbors are participants in the Voting Block, a statewide collaborative reporting effort intended to encourage civil political discussion and more informed voters ahead of November’s gubernatorial election. As part of the project, The Record and NorthJersey.com, along with WNYC, WHYY, and others, are reaching out to diverse groups of neighbors in communities throughout the state, holding events and discussion groups as the race between Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno and Democratic candidate Phil Murphy continues.
The six Westwood neighbors, a mix of Republicans, Democrats and nonaffiliated voters, have been living for more than a decade together on Palisade Avenue and Westwood Boulevard – quiet streets that run parallel between the Hackensack Meridian Pascack Valley Medical Center and Pascack Brook County Park.
For The Record’s second installment in the Voting Block series, the six met last week for an evening of food, wine and political discussion. Over the course of about two hours, the conversation ranged from the state and local issues most important to them — property taxes at the top of the list – to their disillusionment with politicians and what it would take to restore their faith: political leaders who are willing to actually sit down with them and listen to their concerns.
As for the governor’s race, most said they didn’t have enough information to form an opinion.
“I honestly don’t know anything about it,” Michelle Paolacci, a 48-year-old Republican, said. “I couldn’t even tell you who’s running.”
Lisa McKoy, a Democrat, said she knows little about Guadagno other than that she’s the lieutenant governor. Based on literature she had received from the Murphy campaign, she figures she would support him.
According to a Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday, a majority of the state’s registered voters feels the same way. Roughly 60 percent said they didn’t have a favorable or unfavorable opinion of Murphy and Guadagno, though most – 53 percent – said they would vote for Murphy anyway. About a quarter said they would choose Guadagno if the election for governor was today.
Robert Burroughs, by contrast, feels he knows exactly what the candidates’ priorities are – and he doesn’t like them. “Legalizing marijuana – that’s what their primary concern is,” Burroughs, 80, said of the candidates. Burroughs, a nonaffiliated voter, has lived on Palisade Avenue for 61 years and is the town’s former police chief.
Guadagno and Murphy have said they favor the decriminalization of marijuana, but the Democratic candidate has gone further to say he favors legalizing the drug for recreational use, with sales taxed by the state.
“We have a drug problem in this country that is second to none,” Burroughs said. “They could care less what happens to the populace.”
In addition to a lack of information, Abou-Daoud said voter disinterest in the race reflects a feeling that elected officials don’t care about them. He is disillusioned – he says he had high hopes when Gov. Chris Christie came into office but that, in the past eight years, the governor has proven himself to be like every other politician.
“Christie started off looking great. But the governor wanted to move on – clearly, he ran for president – and he failed,” said Abou-Daoud. “Now he has no clout. And, at some point, he was revered as one the best governors in the country, to becoming one of the worst.”
Because of his experience with Christie and other politicians, Abou-Daoud says his trust in elected officials has eroded.
He’s not alone. A Gallup poll that came out last year found the number of Americans who say they trust their political leaders had dropped more than 20 points in the last decade, from 63 percent in 2004 to 42 percent in 2016.
The problem, says Abou-Daoud, is that politicians no longer take the time to meet the people they represent.
“That’s where politics has gone wrong. They don’t care enough anymore to come to your door and talk to you,” said Abou-Daoud.
He cited longtime Westwood Councilman Peter Grefrath, who has been in office since 1995, as an example of a politician who still goes door to door and continues to get reelected.
“People still vote for him because he’s the guy you’re seeing when he’s handing you his flier and saying, ‘This is why you should vote for me,'” Abou-Daoud said.
So, what would motivate this group to vote this November?
“A visit from each candidate. If both candidates go to my door, I will go to the polls,” said Ross Goldflam, 48, a registered Democrat who lives with his wife, Stacie, and two kids.
“As a registered Republican, if Kim decides not to come to my door, but Murphy does…I think he sways me enough to vote Democrat because he had the courtesy and time to sit down with me and my neighbors and my community and make me feel like I matter,” Abou-Daoud said.
Michelle Paolacci and McKoy said they would settle for a town hall meeting in Westwood or neighboring River Vale, if not a knock on their door.
If he had the opportunity, Abou-Daoud said he would ask the candidates what their biggest concern is to make the state better.
Paolacci’s husband, Joseph, however, said he would want to know what was least important to them.
“You have 20 things on your list, what’s at the very bottom?” he said. “Is it schools? Is it me?”
Regardless of the candidates’ answer, Goldflam asked his neighbors, “Would you believe them? Would you believe they would be able to execute it?”
Abou-Daoud said yes: “I think they have to. It (the state) has been ruined so badly, but they have to do something to start it going in the right direction.”
But for any politician trying to win his vote, he had a piece of advice: “Tell it like it is, accomplish what you can and show the people that there are politicians who actually want to make a difference.”