Speaking His Mind: Chris Swenson Reflects On The Election

"Negative ads work and will be found in every campaign in the future," he says.


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.

Campaign retrospective:

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 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.

Anything else?

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.

Right of Center May 14, 2012 at 01:47 PM
I was trying to make an obviously ironic list. I guess I failed.
Right of Center May 14, 2012 at 01:48 PM
I agree. How dare the spend what is obviously our money on extravagant kitchens.
steve jones May 14, 2012 at 02:04 PM
People can spend their money anyway they see fit ROC. Just spare me the crocodile tears from the podium you decided to run for office the day your spouse came in and announced that you'd have to move if the taxes go up another $1,000, when everyone knows its bs.
CMFAS55 May 14, 2012 at 02:31 PM
there are a lot more people in town who can't afford to remodel their 80+ yr old homes and who can't afford an increase in property taxes. Just because you have a wealthier person or group running for office doesn't mean that they don't care about that large group of people who like living here, have a home and are struggling to keep it. There are a ton of homes with taxes above and below the $16,000 average where the people won't be able to afford more in property taxes and might find themselves forced to sell if taxes keep going up. Many of these people have lived here for decades and paid relatively little only to have seen gentrification make their homes worth significantly more over time and bring the taxes up heavily. And then there are those who CAN afford it but won't think it is worth the cost if services are being cut and taxes are being hiked at the same time. Your point on fear mongering is well taken, but it was 2012's fear mongering tactics that won the election. 2012 painted RPM as a tea party movement only out to help the rich whites. RPM was only saying we need to examine how we do things at all levels of gov't in Montclair and make decisions for the long-term. Ironically 2012 will be making bigger long-term decisions if they are able to develop the town more, but those decisions won't play out for many years and in the meantime they weren't saying they would cut anything to slow tax costs to residents.
OMG Montclair May 14, 2012 at 02:35 PM
I want to point out that Russo received over 3400 votes, the second highest in recent Montclair History, Jackson being the most popular, so this myth that Jackson was doing a favor for the machine is just silly. It was just smart politics
Right of Center May 14, 2012 at 02:39 PM
You must do well buying at auctions. Every bid is just a little more than the previous bid.
chris May 14, 2012 at 02:56 PM
Bottom line is I want to know what this slate is about. "investing in Montclair" is a code for more government spending. We don't need to invest, we need to budget. If they are talking about attracting businesses to come to Montclair, maybe offering more liquor licenses, that sort of thing, I'm all for that. But don't use taxpayer dollars to "invest" -- let it come from the private sector to generate more tax revenue. Wasn't Jackson our mayor before? What was his record then? I really don't know much about his past performance. Bob Russo was a nightmare -- the debit doubled under him 2000-2004. Hopefully these people get it - we HAVE to get the run away taxes under control.
Kevin May 14, 2012 at 02:56 PM
18 years ago my wife and I found a great home here in Montclair. After putting over 20% down we still had to take out a fairly sizeable mortgage. Over the years we also invested a few hundred thousand in updating kitchens, baths,heating & electrical systems etc. Now I am looking at a tax bill that far exceeds the original mortgage payments. Believe me, these tax bilss are not BS but a real and growing problem.
frank rubacky May 14, 2012 at 03:15 PM
OMG, just for the sake of accuracy, the following candidates received an equal or higher % of their At-Large vote as Russo. 1996: Jenkins, Schnarr (2 out of 5 candidates) 2000: Demming, Michaelson, Jenkins, O'Connell (4 out of 4 candidates) 2006: Michaelson (1 out of 5 candidates) 2008: Terry (1 out of 6 candidates)
montclairgurl May 14, 2012 at 03:21 PM
This slate will "invest" in Montclair, and our tax bills will go up. It's inevitable. I just hope that Jackson, who is keen on development (he's real estate developer after all) will have some common sense when it comes to planning. Right now, we are spending money to beautify a street that is about to be flanked by an assisted living facility and there's a big new Salvation Army building around the corner. Not the kinds of things that attract the kinds of retailers and businesses willing to pay high rents.
Tell it Straight May 14, 2012 at 03:31 PM
Hall of fame BS Karen Turner said, and i Quote ''My husband turned to me and said, if our taxes go up any more, we can't stay'' We can't stay? Two kids at MKA a family membership at Bradford swim club and a membership at Montclair Golf club.How do you say those things during a campaign with a straight face?
Kevin May 14, 2012 at 03:54 PM
How dare they choose to spend their money in a fashion they see fit for their family! Really, the nerve!
montclairgurl May 14, 2012 at 03:55 PM
I don't know what their financial situation is. But I do know someone who has 4 children in private schools here, and he and his wife both earn good salaries. Their tax bill is over $35k a year and they think it's not worth it anymore and are looking to move. It's not so much they "can't" afford it, it's that it doesn't make financial sense to stay.
Louis Fontana May 14, 2012 at 03:56 PM
Why is this thread is still going? Since it is: "Not having a full, more diverse slate hurt us." Absolutely correct. This was an obvious flaw when RPM's slate, or mini-slate, was first announced. In particular, not running a candidate in the 2nd Ward, Montclair's largest ward, was a mistake. And to state the obvious: no Jewish or African-American candidates on the slate. "They had a professional campaign run by seasoned political operatives who know what they are doing." Echoing what others have written here, RPM's campaign manager, Larry Kopp, is himself a seasoned political operative. On Kopp's company's website, past clients are listed as including Eliot Spitzer. As such, I don't think this point rings true. "Maybe Fried is right and we should move the election to November." Please, no. These supposedly non-partisan elections are politically charged as it is -- in May. If you want to move the election to November to generate higher voter turnout, you might as well make it Democrats v. Republicans. Some would say we just saw that anyway.
chris May 14, 2012 at 04:12 PM
Someone needs to do an interview with Jackson & the rest of the new council and get it straight from their mouths - what is the plan now? How do they plan to get the tax problem under control? I knew were RPM stood & liked their approach. "Investing in Montclair" is NOT an approach to getting taxes under control.
Shelley Emling (Editor) May 14, 2012 at 06:57 PM
Am hoping to do just that Chris..
OMG Montclair May 14, 2012 at 07:22 PM
For the sake of accuracy, let's use actual voters, Russo was number 4 and 7 since 1996 2012 • Jackson 3,842 1996 • Schnarr 3,481 • Farley: 3,455 2012 • Russo 3,454 2008 • Terry 3,301 2004 • Michaelson: 3246 2000 • Russo 2937 • Jenkins: 2839 • O’Connell: 2682 • Michaelson 2644 2012 • McMahon: 2,640 2000 • Demmings: 2562
Laura May 14, 2012 at 07:57 PM
Mr. Jones, we'll see where our debt is four years from now. We're screwed if inflation raises our rates on our interest payments. Servicing our debt accounts for 20% of our budget now, imagine if interest rates double, certainly a possibility historically speaking. What will we do then? I'm nervous, because people like you don't like to look at facts. Montclair is at a crossroads, either we deal with it now or we kick it down the road, but we're going to be in TROUBLE if we don't make changes. I've seen how Jackson has performed in the past, don't think we can afford to make those mistakes again. Mr. Jones, ignorance is bliss.
frank rubacky May 14, 2012 at 08:07 PM
OMG, I'm not trying to take anything away from Mr Russo's victory, but I am challenging your characterization. Not to look at the pool from which he received these votes is wrong. It's like looking at pure number of unemployed. Your method would give 1st place to President Obama for having the all-time highest number of unemployed Americans. Yet, I would argue that the Depression would have that distinction on a percentage basis. I suspect you will hold firm. While I agree with you that Mr. Russo is the 4th all-time vote getter since 1996, I doubt he will list this fact on his resume.
frank rubacky May 14, 2012 at 09:07 PM
And just in case Mr Russo reads this, I recognize that he is probably the: - only elected official to serve in 3 separate decades - only elected official to be elected in 3 different capacities (Ward, At-Large, Mayor) - biggest all time vote getter under Montclair's Faulkner Act form of government. And that is pretty special and deserving of recognition.
Adam May 14, 2012 at 09:21 PM
We all would like to hear their plans. During the campaign, we heard Jackson talk about the "Bully Pulpit" as a way to effect what he wants. We heard develop our way to fiscal solutions at the train stations, all owned by NJ Transit. We heard let the staff do their work. Is this the extent of their plans?
OMG Montclair May 14, 2012 at 09:46 PM
Frank, You make a good point about percentages, but what I really was trying to point out that this argument that Jackson had to take Russo as a favor, as if he was damaged goods does not make sense. Whether you base it on the actual number of votes or percentage of each election, Russo has delivered the votes. BTW, I did not vote for the guy
frank rubacky May 15, 2012 at 02:58 AM
OMG, Never gave any credence to EssexCoInsider. The classic format of his "3-step case" and a pseudonym that begs for credibility made me dismiss the post outright. I did think you voted for Russo, but I like to think it didn't matter to me either way. I didn't vote for him either. What are the odds?
Val May 15, 2012 at 11:48 AM
The Turners do not belong to Bradford. Please stop with the insults. The woman and her slate sought to improve life here....not destroy it. Whether you agree with their ideology or their proposals, you must acknowledge that they truly care about our shared community. Let's focus on the bigger debate...Presidential election coming up.
ninja May 15, 2012 at 01:28 PM
wow, three consequences that 19th century politicians could have warned you about
A. Gideon May 15, 2012 at 03:32 PM
"The woman and her slate sought to improve life here" Is this a theme? I was last night at an event for the local BigBrothers/BigSisters organization. There I ran into someone that I learned was a member of "Junior League". I remembered some of the attacks against the Turner slate mentioning this, so I asked about it; I'd never heard of this league before. It turns out that this is - from my recollection - a group of volunteers that acts to serve the community in several ways. What struck me about this is its similarity with the PTA. That in turn begs a question: How is it that groups like this can be part of a negative campaign? How did participation in groups like this become a negative, to be treated with scorn? Active in the community? Volunteering time to help people? Well, that clearly makes someone unfit for public office. How can that possibly make sense? ...Andrew
notroc May 15, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Well, thanks for playing along for the election then, Andrew. Why didn't you look it up on Wikipedia, like good RPMers would. This admission puts your prior commentary in a new, even more reckless light, methinks.
CMFAS55 May 15, 2012 at 07:03 PM
The PTA, Jr League and any other volunteer organization in Montclair (made up of people who are "givers" of time, knowledge and money) are wonderful to all the "takers" until people invovled in such groups come out and support something that make the takers in any way fearful of losing things they have grown to feel entitled to. Then the takers point fingers about the givers and their organizations and call them "elitist" and out to destroy the town. It's a bunch of garbage but that was the M2012 playbook and it was executed well. Moms who volunteer for the PTA or are part of the Junior League were painted as awful human beings who only care for themselves and are out to force black and lower income people out of Montclair and make the town the sole possession of the country club elite. I don;t think that the voting public bought too much of that rhetoric (most town people aren't on these sites), but the posters on here who vocally outraged by the PTA ad or by Turners memebership in the Jr League fit that mold.
A. Gideon May 20, 2012 at 04:30 PM
"It's a bunch of garbage but that was the M2012 playbook and it was executed well." There's an interesting piece on "hit politics" in today's NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/bruni-of-bile-and-billionaires.html It doesn't specifically address attacks on people with the audacity to volunteer within the community, but it does address interested parties and partisans willing to put aside truth for "hyperbole". I wonder if the attacks on volunteers is more specific to Montclair somehow. "I don;t think that the voting public bought too much of that rhetoric" Given how references to the PTA and such morphed into "country clubs" and "tea parties", I'm not so sure of this. Let's not forget the "tea party" comment in the NYTimes article the day before the election, where either Cary Chevat had a quote used out of context or he was repeating the "tea party" lie (it's not clear which of these occurred). The article ends on a positive note: "But there are clearly voters out there who are interested in turning down the heat on our political discourse." It's too bad that Montclair appears to be moving in the opposite direction. ...Andrew
tryintosurvive May 20, 2012 at 05:32 PM
I can't read it as I have chosen to give up on reading anything from the NY Times. There are too many better sources for unbiased information.


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