It’s a hot summer night and people are trickling into the social hall of Princeton’s Engine Company No. 1 fire station on Chestnut Street, just off Nassau. At first just a few people claim the 70 or so empty chairs facing a table set for a panel discussion. Then — as if a bus arrived — the trickle turns into a flood. Chairs fill up. There’s urgent chatter. Some people — including me — grab a seat along the bar running down the opposite site of the room.
And while the bar is closed, this is still all about a party. Here it’s about the Princeton Community Democratic Organization’s (PCDO) session about getting engaged with politics. But elsewhere it’s about Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, and Green Party members getting together. It seems that everywhere in our region, the desire for political action has gotten hot — thanks to the recent national election that has brought home loud and clear that citizens need to get informed and involved.
But as demonstrated by the number of questions and comments at tonight’s session — and from what I hear from family members, friends, colleagues, and even those engaged in politics — the getting isn’t always easy and sometimes can feel overwhelming.
So how do you start delving into federal, state, county, and local politics?
“It is hard,” says Scotia MacRae about getting good political information. As the head of the PCDO and the past director of constituent services for former Congressman Rush Holt, she has an inside track.
“It’s like being a detective,” she says, putting the approach into context before giving a peek into how a regional congressional office works. “In any congressional office there are two sides,” she says. “One is constituent services. The other thing is the legislative office. The constituent services are usually in the home office. So if someone called about a bill we would refer them to the leg office in Washington, D.C.”
Right away it gets a bit messy. Congress is actually two houses: the Senate and House of Representatives. The former are called senators. The latter are called both congressmen or congresswomen or representative. Nevertheless, they are the elected officials who initiate and vote on the bills that become laws.
So how do you get involved? Several ways, says MacRae. Start by getting informed about proposed bills or existing laws. It’s as easy as a phone call. “If you talk to a constituent service person, they’ll go out of their way to help you,” says MacRae. “The problem with the legislative (division) is you don’t always get an immediate answer — unless it’s an issue that is really hot and everyone’s calling.”
The other ways is to start sleuthing and using the Library of Congress website, www.Congress.gov. “That’s the place where you can find out about bills. We all went there ourselves. You have to figure out where a bill is.” That includes being introduced into a committee where it is still being discussed, or being advanced and prepared for a vote.
“Knowing the process takes a little while because it is very detailed — but everything is a process,” says MacRae. “You (then) know who to call and to whom to protest.”
Asked for an example, MacRae says informed and organized people can affect change and mentions Congressman Leonard Lance (R-NJ 7th District) and his reluctance to join the opposition to the recent health care bill. “(Citizens) went to his office and told him why they objected to the (recent) health call bill, and he got lots of calls and lots of action. So when people get together it has a special effect.” (Lance ultimately voted against the bill.)
Other ways of getting your voice heard is to communicate with the office. “It is probably better to put your thoughts in writing, rather than call. If you call you often get an intern. So it is probably best to write it. It sounds like it is easy to send e-mail, but it isn’t. There is so much security on (the House of Representative’s) website. It just doesn’t just go through because the house is closely guarded because of hacking. It is best is to write a letter or send a fax,” says MacRae.
What doesn’t work, she says, “are the pre-written or prepackaged postcards. It isn’t personal, like writing your own letter and mailing and faxing it, signing, giving an address and telephone number.”
She then adds, “The worst thing to do is nothing. The next worst thing is to call and be abusive. We did get people who would swear, and we would tell them if you can’t tell me your position in a civil manner that I would hang up.”
The frustration, she says, is that each congressional district represents an average of around 711,000 voters, and “you can’t always get back to people in a timely manner.”
Then there is help outside the office. “The League of Women Voters has a good deal of information. They’re always up on the legislation. I think every voter should have a League of Women Voters’ handbook.”
#b#In the Assembly: Reed Gusciora#/b#
Several hot days later, New Jersey Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) is in a meeting room in his West State Street office in Trenton and talking about getting informed.
“When I first started it was the Trenton Times, Trentonian, and Star-Ledger,” says the Trenton resident who was first elected to office in 1996. “Today it’s Facebook, Twitter, NJ.com. Then there’s the political blogs — Politico.NJ. So there’s actually more to follow. People in politics tend subscribe to the media they’re most comfortable with. Conservatives like Fox, liberals MSNBC, and the middle like CNN. Elected official have to watch all them because we want to know what others are thinking — ‘fake news’ or not.”
He then admits he has difficulty staying abreast of it all. “We have staff and interns watching. Elective officials interact with one another and have discussions with one another.”
Asked how a citizen can stay up to date on bills, which are generally introduced in the New Jersey State Assembly and arrive in the State Senate in a senator-sponsored companion bill, he says he does it the same way as a citizen. “I go to the legislator home page and press in a topic or search key word.”
The webpage — www.njleg.state.nj.us — is where any citizen can find more about a pending bill, its co-sponsors, and status. Has the bill been approved by a committee? Scheduled for a floor vote? Approved and now awaiting the companion bill in the Senate?
To understand how an idea or movement becomes a bill, Gusciora gives two examples.
The first is Assembly No. 2071, a bill developed to help artists revitalize urban areas. “I believe the arts play a major role in revitalizations projects. It is the artists, gays, and musicians who help revive cities,” he says. “Trenton has developed a strong arts community. (But) artists had trouble staying in their environment and getting started. They want to get self-sustained until they can sell their art work. They need a place to call home and create studio space. So (the art colony bill) would help supply funding and get them off the ground.
“The legislation got a lot of interest. During a regular session, it was introduced and assigned to a committee. It passed the tourism committee last year. It is eligible to go to the floor.”
Although the bill is not moving forward and the state’s budget is less flexible at the moment, he believes the legislation can continue — although it would have to begin again and then be approved by the State Senate. Yet he is used to the long process and feels that the more discussion by both houses and parties, the better the bill.
Another example is a bill that became law allowing the operation of craft distilleries in New Jersey. While Gusciora was the prime sponsor, the idea wasn’t born on West State Street. “One of my constituents, Ray Disch, said, ‘You guys (state legislators) did a great job with restaurants, why don’t you do it with distillery?’” Disch was referring to legislation allowing restaurants to brew beer and open as brewpubs.
Disch had lobbied for that legislation back in the 1990s and its passage paved the way for Triumph Brew Pub on Nassau Street. More recently Disch thought that the approach could be used to produce small spirit distilleries — such as Disch’s Sourland Mountain Spirits in Hopewell.
About the process of turning anyone’s idea into legislation, Gusciora says members of his office write a first draft and give it to the New Jersey Office of Legislative Services, where it is translated into legal terms. After it is introduced during an Assembly session, the speaker will assign it to a committee. If it is passed by the assembly it then goes to the State Senate, where a senator introduces a companion bill. “(Senator) Shirley Turner (D-District 15 in Ewing) and I interact daily. Usually if I introduce something, she’ll introduce it in the senate.”
There is often bipartisan cooperation. “I’ve gotten involved with Nancy Munoz (R-District 21 in Union) and had legislation about child marriages. She put in a bill that I joined on and it moved through the legislative action and it sailed through both houses. The governor vetoed the bill.”
Acknowledging that the general public can get confused when a bill is introduced with great fanfare and then fizzles away, Gusciora says it isn’t a bad thing. “You want to let people know where you stand (on issues). It plays an important role in the way people are following government.”
And while there is sometimes unclear media coverage and hearsay, Gusciora says that if someone really wants to know what laws there are, “Go to the legislative homepage and do legal research.”
There community members will find the most up-to-date information, bill numbers, and ways to give public comments at committee meetings, attend legislative sessions, and monitor legislative sessions online.
“Often people will also contact (the office) to see if there is a law, and we’ll do the research,” he says.
Cautioning that change and bills can take a long time, Gusciora says the process is influenced by party ideology, the budget, time, and the unknown. When asked to give an example of the latter, he refers to the recent July 1 State of New Jersey shutdown. “The governor was determined to hold the legislature up. Then there was the Christie picture on the beach. And then he said he was going to cut a deal.”
“But,” he adds, “if it is an emergency, it’s a roll of the dice to solve the problem now.”
#b#County Freeholder: Mercer’s Sam Frisby#/b#
Meanwhile temperatures are rising at the Mercer County Administration Building in Trenton. It’s the July freeholder meeting, and chair Pasquale “Pat” Colavita says rumors about airport renovations are steaming up residents.
Mention the county to most local citizens and the response is going to be divided between “I don’t know what they do” or, as MacRae puts it, “(The County of Mercer) is huge, and people don’t realize it. There is the county college, county parks, county road, country bridges, and sports facilities.” And its 2017 budget is $323 million.
Trenton-based Freeholder Sam Frisby agrees that understanding county government can be difficult, especially since there are variations in New Jersey.
During a discussion at the Trenton YMCA, where Frisby is executive director, he says, “It depends on what county you’re in. Some counties, the county freeholders are the strong body, they actually run departments. There is no county executive. We have a county executive (Brian Hughes), so we are the body that holds the purse strings. But implementation of work comes from the executive branch. When the streets need to be cleared, that’s the executive.”
Linking it to state and local levels, Frisby says, “We’re the legislative body; we’re the city council for the county. People usually come to us because the county road is an issue, or the airport is an issue, or a physical body belongs to the county.”
The board of freeholders also introduces and passes ordinances that have an impact on the community. Asked for an example of how citizens affected the creation of an ordinance — or county regulation — Frisby brings up the airport — an ongoing hot point for area residents. “The community was instrumental when planes could fly in our airport. Because our airport is in the middle of the community, the residents appeared before the freeholders.”
Frisby says “When the community comes, and if it’s something we can control, we will respond if we can. We want it improve quality of life, not challenge it.”
To illustrate a quality of life problem that hasn’t been addressed, Frisby points to a county road running past an elementary school in Hopewell. There are no sidewalks, traffic is heavy, and community members have asked that the speed limit be reduced for safety. Frisby says the freeholders agree but adds, “We can’t set an ordinance because it needs to be approached by the county engineer” — who in turn follows state and federal traffic standards. “We keep pushing, they did a study, and the study allowed them to reduce it from 55 to 40.”
While the county may provide funding for county institutions — for example Mercer County Community College — the board of freeholders does not run the institution, but if need be serves as a liaison to governing bodies.
Frisby says concerned or motivated citizens can bring their thoughts to a freeholder meeting, posted on the county website: www.mercercounty.org/government/board-of-freeholders. Or, he says, “Write a letter or e-mail us directly. I had a (Trenton) resident with some issues where the high school is being built, where the air quality is a problem. I was able to act as a conduit between the resident and the state and get an air quality control study.”
Thinking about how people can get politically involved to change their communities, Frisby points to opportunities beyond attending a meeting. “People who want to get involved and want to see change have to get involved on more levels. People aren’t getting involved with the school board or as a county committee member. People can get involved so we can make the right choices before people get in office. People (need) to get back to our civics lessons in school. It’s critical. If we keep thinking more and more what government will do, and what happens we raise taxes and people get angry.”
As an example, Frisby mentions his past work as a City of Trenton employee. “When I was head of parks of recreation, we would have families saying, ‘When are you going to start a soccer program?’ But in most communities it’s the recreation department that will reserve the fields and it is the parents who run the programs. There is work we need you to do on your own. We need to find those things out and act on them.”
He then adds, “I am working with a couple of groups. We are trying to work with the school boards to see how we can bring civics back to our school along with the Amistad curriculum,” a state legislative initiative that examines the history and contributions of Americans of African ancestry.
#b#The Municipal Level: Jim Carlucci#/b#
If all politics is local, the ultimate hotspot is at city hall or the municipal building. It is also the most accessible.
Community activist, former Trenton political candidate, past Community News Service editor, and regular Hamilton Township Council meeting attendee Jim Carlucci is the go-to guide to help one warm up to local politics.
Carlucci says one of the most useful ways he got informed about Trenton’s actions was “being put on the distribution list for council meeting agendas/dockets. (It) was very useful in not only learning how the ‘system’ works, but for becoming aware of what was being ‘planned.’”
“Attending the meetings was also instrumental in gaining a better understanding of how things work (or supposed to). Particularly, I found the Tuesday ‘workshop’ meetings where docket items were explained and council members questions answered added to my comprehension of matters pending.”
Carlucci’s responses to a series of e-mailed questions and some face-to-face discussions show that participation is not always easy but involvement helps keep the democratic process alive.
He says some of the problems he encountered were that “administrations often don’t introduce items to the council for vote until the ‘night of’ thereby circumventing the opportunity for the governing body and/or the public to learn about and mount a possible opposition to proposed legislation. These ‘walk ons’ often involve contracts for professional services or other questionable expenditures. The administrations have also (frequently) abused the closed or executive session rules in the Open Public Meetings Act.”
He says one of the most productive ways to address or overcome these situations was by “familiarizing oneself with the Open Public Meetings Act (sunshine laws), the Open Public Records Act, and the applicable Municipal Charter Laws (the Faulkner Act in the case of Trenton and Hamilton).”
Yet the most useful thing, he says, is “attending meetings frequently and speaking out on topics in a clear, concise, and non-accusatory way is great for building one’s credibility with elected and appointed representatives. Then when something comes up you stand a better chance of having your suggestions heeded.”
Asked about the best civic practices to get information and engage, Carlucci says, “I developed relationships not only with elected officials but with appointees and staff. At least publicly, I was almost always given respect and information requested; one-on-one, I often had candid, if not always productive, conversations with government officials. And over the years I developed a network within city hall that helped feed me info and tips and such.”
Looking back at Trenton and at the political climate today, Carlucci says that citizens need to be “way more selective about who they elect. The residents must inform themselves of the laws and procedures and must not be afraid to challenge public officials. After all, they work for us!”
Back at the Princeton meeting, MacRae is talking about the gubernatorial and legislative elections heating up over the next few months and says to the audience with fiery conviction, “The only way to affect change is to get involved, get informed, and vote.”
Frisby shares another thought, “My mother always taught me that if you don’t get involved you don’t have the right to complain.”
But both are saying the same thing: Get involved.