Reina Smith, front left, with her husband Tony Allen, right corner, has a toast with a table of her neighbors at the Cloverhill Place political potluck, which is part of the statewide Voting Block NJ journalism initiative. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

By LINDA MOSS
moss@montclairlocal.news

On Cloverhill Place in Montclair, residents are apprehensive about the looming Nov. 7 gubernatorial election. They are part of a Democratic enclave, and they expect their party’s candidate, Phil Murphy, to win. Nonetheless, they are worried.

They question whether a wealthy ex-Wall Street executive will live up to his campaign pledges, if he will put the needs of his constituents ahead of any ties he has to the corporate world he came from.

They are concerned about whether he will funnel money back to pension funds for teachers, and how fully he will support reproductive rights for women.

And they wonder if Murphy will fulfill their hope that as the governor of a densely populated state with many representatives in Washington, he will lead the charge nationally against many of President Donald Trump’s initiatives, on issues such as immigration and health care.

“He could use his power so that family planning, women’s reproductive rights are not decimated across the country,” said Ann-Marie Nazzaro, a Cloverhill Place resident who is executive director of the Foundation for Women & Girls with Blood Disorders. “As a governor, and a governor of a dense and powerful state like New Jersey, use that bully pulpit for women’s issues.”

Those were some of the opinions voiced earlier this month during a political potluck dinner [full disclosure: the food was catered by Nauna’s Bella Casa] that Montclair Local hosted as part of Voting Block NJ, a New Jersey collaborative reporting effort. Roughly a dozen Cloverhill Place residents met to break bread and to discuss the gubernatorial race, forming the basis of the second of a series of articles by Montclair Local for the Voting Block project.

Its mission is to encourage civil political discussion and more informed voters in neighborhoods across the Garden State ahead of this fall’s gubernatorial election. Montclair Local is one of more than two dozen news organizations that is following a group of neighbors, in our case on Cloverhill Place, this fall as the race develops. The paper’s reporting partners include 15 hyperlocal and six ethnic-news organizations across the state as well as WNYC, WHYY, NJ Spotlight and The Record.

Ann-Marie Nazzaro raises her hand to make at point at the Cloverhill Place political potluck as Matt Knutzen looks on. Zachary Herring is in the background. Many people at the event said they support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy, but hope he will keep his campaign promises. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

For some attendees at the Oct. 1 Montclair dinner, which was videotaped, the state Democratic organization’s choice of Murphy as its candidate was distressing and disappointing, since they believe his bona fides are more befitting a GOP candidate. And the unhappy memory of Jon Corzine’s tenure as governor — Corzine was a Goldman Sachs alum like Murphy — was cited several times.

“We have been down the Goldman Sachs path before,” said Mike Peinovich, who is retired but formerly taught college and worked at Chase Manhattan Bank. “And it certainly didn’t work as well as we would have liked, and I’m just afraid that we’re going to be sold down the river once again. But the other option is to get Christie’s lieutenant governor, who has been a ‘yes’ person for the last whatever, and that’s not viable at all.”

The participants, some bringing wine to accompany their Sunday night meal, gathered at the 1907 home of James Cotter and his wife Mary Sok, both teachers. Among the members of this group in a progressive municipality dubbed “The People’s Republic of Montclair” by Governor Chris Christie, only one person, Reina Smith, a hospital administrator, said she hadn’t decided who she would vote for. She even discussed the option of not casting a ballot at all.

GUADAGNO NOT AN OPTION

There was clear consensus on one thing: The group has written off the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, who they consider damned by her ties to the unpopular incumbent governor.

“She’s promising to cut the real estate taxes,” Nazzaro said of Guadagno. “I don’t buy that. When you’re in for all those years and you’ve stood by someone… The mayor from Puerto Rico says, no matter what your position or [your politics], you’ve got to speak truth. I don’t think she [Guadagno] spoke truth. So for me, that’s kind of easy.”

Despite making campaign promises that they support, at the dinner there was a collective sense of disappointment, and suspicion, about Murphy, a former top Goldman Sachs executive and ambassador to Germany during the Obama administration.

“Part of the lack of interest, particularly in this gubernatorial race, is that again the Democratic candidate was the guy with the most money, who came in early and it was a relative shutout of some of the candidates that other people might have wanted to have seen,” Cotter said.

James Cotter, a teacher, says one of his top concerns in the gubernatorial election is the future of teachers’ pensions. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

He added that Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop pulled out of the primary quickly, and State Assemblyman John Wisniewski and “our own Jim Johnson,” a Montclair resident, lost to Murphy in the primary. Several members of the group, including Peinovich, said they voted for Johnson in June.

“There’s this general malaise about, here we have another, wealthy, connected Goldman guy who’s going to march into the gubernatorial race,” Cotter said. “I’m going to vote for him. I’m excited to get Christie out by rail and trail, but I would love to have seen a real progressive, a voice from the left, that could have transformed the race into something that would have reflected what I’m hoping is going to happen in 2020.”

Smith and her husband, Tony Allen, a week prior to the dinner attended a town hall meeting that Murphy held in Montclair.

“It was a big turnout,” said Allen, who runs an organization called the Student Diplomacy Corps. “With him, when you hear his name what first comes to mind is he has this background as a real corporate raider. But it was a good session the other day. He’s very personable. He seems to be a very dynamic individual so he seems like a strong candidate. And he’s certainly saying a lot of the positive things for turning New Jersey from the laughingstock of the country with the current governor to something that is more respectable.”

Tony Allen, left, listens as his wife Reina Smith speaks at the political potluck. Both discussed attending a town hall that Phil Murphy held in Montclair. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

Smith agreed that Murphy made a great personal impression, but said, “I am trying to understand how someone from his background, from a particular corporate culture, brings the respect and sensibility and just average-person perspective that we need for the governor’s office in New Jersey.”

COMPANY GUY?

Lili Knutzen, a psychotherapist, expressed the same concern about wealthy candidates, those with corporate backgrounds, seeking elected office.

“One of the things that we’re seeing happening politically here with our last presidential election and now this upcoming gubernatorial election is that it’s now a pay-to-play, right, and that’s what we all need to really wrap our head around,” she said. “And I think that’s where we’re disheartened, because it’s really hard to believe when someone is saying something on the campaign trail that they really are going to follow through for the people.”

Zachary Herring, the 20-something son of Kate Greenfield and stepson of Harry May, was Murphy’s biggest critic and a cynic about the state’s political process.

“This race has already been lost, and it is because nobody woke up in Trump’s America,” Herring said. “Nobody wanted to look into these people before they voted. So people voted for this guy because he was the Democrat, and people told them to vote for him, and now we don’t have any options. Phil Murphy is a liar … People are calling him out on everything and he has this big smile on his face ’cause he knows it’s the truth.”

Murphy has promised to impose a so-called “millionaires’ tax,” levying it against the state’s richest residents. He has also committed to funding Planned Parenthood and has spoken out about immigration issues. At the Montclair town hall, he said reviving the state’s stalled economy is his No. 1 priority.

The Cloverhill Place group talked about its qualms about whether he can actually walk the walk, and if he doesn’t how they can then hold him accountable. Some said it wasn’t an issue of accountability but whether, if elected, Murphy could muster enough support for his initiatives.

A dozen people gather around the table for the Oct. 1 Voting Block potluck, starting with Reina Smith, left, William Milczarski, Mary Sok, Mike Peinovich, Ann-Marie Nazzaro, Matt and Lili Knutzen, James Cotter and Kellice Swaggerty III, right side of table. Montclair Local Editor Kevin Meacham, right, moderates the event. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

“There’s so much idealism involved in politics,” said Kellice Swaggerty III, a photographer. “I can make promises to you, and the promises that I make to you are going to be promises of words and what you want to hear. Now let’s just say you believe me, I’m elected to office. Now once I’m in there, do I have the power to carry out what I promised you? … I can’t. It would take the decisions of other people beyond myself to be able to put through what I had promised.”

“These are such good points, writ large during Obama, because look at the hope we had and then he was hamstrung all along the way,” Nazzaro said.

The Republican party has achieved what Swaggerty alluded to, according to Peinovich.

“I think what Kellice is saying is that one of the reasons we have political parties is because the only way you get things done is if you get a lot of like-minded people — at least similarly minded people,” Peinovich said.

James Cotter, left, Mike Peinovich and Matt Knutzen share a laugh at the potluck, when was held at Cotter’s home on Cloverhill Place. Their block is very tight-knit, with an activist tradition. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

“And what the Republicans have been able to do in the last say 10, 12 years is to bring in a whole bunch of people who were never actually engaged in politics before, with all kinds of what I consider somewhat alien issues that just seem to be undermining everything that I believe in. But there are enough of them now that they can influence.”

DISORGANIZED DEMOCRATS

By contrast, the Democrats don’t have such solidarity, according to Peinovich.

Nonetheless, he said, “One of the reasons you vote for a Democrat — even if you really don’t love him or like him or maybe even believe him — is because you do know that at least there’s going to be some people around that candidate who are going to attempt to enforce what [he supports].”

Cotter said that it is all about coalition building, adding that the activist Cloverhill Place/Grove Terrace Block Association has rallied neighbors to oppose projects in town such as the proposed redevelopment of Lackawanna Plaza.

“Scale up, and you can build a coalition at the county level and at the state level, and grassroots at the national level,” Cotter said.

Harry May, left, Kate Greenfield, Billie Gleissner and Kellice Swaggerty III shared a meal and their thoughts at the potluck. NEIL GRABOWSKY/FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL

With that Greenfield, a retired teacher who now works part-time at a Manhattan school, compared Murphy to Montclair Mayor Robert Jackson.

“Even if Phil Murphy in theory takes a good stand on a lot of political issues, even in our own town, like we knew that the mayor was a developer,” she said. “But we really didn’t know, obviously, we didn’t know what that meant when we voted for him, how much development was going to happen in town.”

On the macro or national level, the Cloverhill Place group said it wants a governor who will team up with neighboring states such as New York and Connecticut on issues that have a regional impact, like reviving plans for Access to the Region’s Core, or ARC, the Hudson River tunnel project, which Christie pulled the plug on seven years ago.

Meanwhile, the state’s infrastructure is ailing and its economy is lagging, according to Sok.

“He [Christie] made a big stand, you know, ‘I’m not wasting New Jersey taxpayer money,’” she said. “We were in an economic recession. That would have created jobs for people.”

PENSION WORRIES

Allen recalled that at his town hall Murphy said that there hasn’t been coordination between New Jersey’s state and federal representatives.   

“If he was able to create kind of a working effort, coordination, to kind of push back on the federal executive branch in particular, but also the do-nothing Congress, that could be very interesting and could be kind of trend-setting,” Allen said.

The state’s pension system, and its funding, has been problematic for years, and is making headlines now. It is high on the list of concerns that Cotter and Sok, both teachers, have.

“Teachers have been dutifully putting into their pensions for their entire careers,” Cotter said. “We have deferred compensation all through our careers to engage in public service. … And if the people of New Jersey voted in those that would actually fully fund the pension, as teachers fully fund our pension, we wouldn’t have it as an issue. It’s one of the two top issues for me.”

Matt Knutzen, who is director of humanities and social sciences research at the New York Public Library and Lili Knutzen’s husband, asked about Murphy’s resolve on that issue.

“So do we think that Murphy is going to be the person who is actually going to be, to actually uphold, the pension fund?” Knutzen asked. “Do you think he’s going to actually pull the pension funds out of hedge funds?”

Sok answered, “I think that is an issue. … The pension fund is losing money because of the hedge funds.”