Third Ward losing candidate Chris Swenson—who has worked on Democratic campaigns for the US Senate, Congressional seats as well NJ Senate and Assembly races—answers a few questions now that the local election is over.
What are your first thoughts with the election now behind us?
I congratulate the entire Jackson slate and Bill Hurlock for their victories. My hat’s off particularly to Sean Spiller, who worked hard and deserved his win in the Third Ward. I congratulated him on election night. Both he and Jeff Jacobson are good guys. All the new council members have a difficult time ahead of them and will need a lot of help to get Montclair to a better place. They should know a lot us are willing to pitch in.
My other thought is I no longer have to wear that stupid blue jacket with my name on my chest that I wore for the entire campaign.
What were some of the highlights of the campaign for you?
Despite the outcome, I have never enjoyed working on a campaign so much. It was really a grassroots effort that came together in about 10 weeks, managed mostly by volunteers. I met and worked with some very dedicated and talented people I didn’t know before. The moms were terrific and created such a positive atmosphere to work in. I have never been a part of a campaign where there was so little swearing. I basically joined the slate from a hospital room in Texas where my own mother was dying and this was almost like therapy for me. Karen, Peter and LeeAnn were terrific to work with. We really were a unified slate and I am proud to have been part of it.
Why do you think the Jackson slate won so convincingly?
Not having a full, more diverse slate hurt us. They had a professional campaign run by seasoned political operatives who know what they are doing. Is this the Essex County machine? Elements of it for sure. Having said that, you still need strong candidates at the top of the ticket to win. Jackson was certainly all of that. The race in Orange where the County machine backed Mayor Hawkins, who lost, shows that candidates do matter. The Jackson slate’s messaging was disciplined, they knew how to get their vote out, their use of street money was very effective, it’s not illegal to pay people from out of town to come in and leaflet, and the negative ads were coordinated and extremely effective. I think we had a harder time getting the message out that fiscal mismanagement is hurting our values, social programs and those with the least resources in town. The negative ads drowned us out. I think the New York Times article, which was astoundingly biased and misinformed, turned a close race into walk.
What particularly about the New York Times piece was inaccurate?
There’s no reason to go back over all details, it would just be sour grapes. What I will say is this: the reporter was from Montclair covering an election in her hometown which the Times normally doesn’t allow for a local election. At least it didn’t when I was a stringer there a hundred years ago. I think the reporter had a story line in mind then went out to make the data fit that story line. Happens all the time though usually it’s not dropped in on Election Day. Quoting Cary Chevat as if he were a neutral activist to get the words “Tea Party” into the story boggles the mind. He helped put the Jackson slate together and had already endorsed him. Even with all the other inaccuracies in the story, that was the key inflammatory line. Again, I don’t think this determined the outcome, but it was probably worth 3-4 points of the victory margin.
Do you think, as Mayor Fried has suggested, that being on the RPM slate hurt you?
It doesn’t matter because I wouldn’t have run on any other slate just to win. You have to stand for something and this is where I stood, with RPM. Sean worked hard and deserved the win. I could have run with Jackson, but chose not to primarily because it didn’t feel right to hook up with the County Dems for the campaign. Mayor Fried, whom I consider a friend, seemed a little wacky on Election Day. I was standing next to him when he was interviewed and said essentially that only conservative activists vote in these May elections. That was almost laughable.
Do you see any long term lessons from this campaign?
Three consequences come to mind. First, going door-to-door is much more important than putting forth good policy ideas on the blogs. Jeff Jacobson was an outstanding candidate in the third ward. Extremely smart and articulate, I thought he killed Sean and me in the one debate we had. I think his job prevented him from going door-to-door as much as Sean and I did. He campaigned primarily through the blogs and he finished third. I hope Jeff stays involved; the town could benefit from his knowledge.
Second, negative ads work and will be found in every campaign in the future. We held back against Jackson on some negative mail pieces because as a group we just didn’t it think would be right. We got hammered with the Jackson campaign’s coordinated attack pieces and the dubbed robo calls with Karen’s voice. The next time around I don’t think anyone will hold back. Four years from now if you want to run you had better have very thick skin because it will be very nasty.
Third, the county machine is more effective than I thought. I think we are better off as a non-partisan town but I don’t think we will remain that way for long. It was moms against the machine and the machine won big. What you have to be worried about now is whether any favors are owed. Watch to see whether county elected officials make calls to push their favorite insurance agents, lawyers and engineering firms on the BOE or town. Hopefully this won’t happen.
The most disappointing aspect of the election is that the turnout is still stupidly low. It was almost exactly the same percentage as last time. Maybe Fried is right and we should move the election to November. I’m not sure you can keep them non-partisan and do that, but broadening the base of voters would be better.