Editor's Note: The story has been updated to include a comment from a third board of education candidate.
BRIDGEWATER, NJ - Ever since an email sent solely to members of the county Republican Committee endorsing two of the candidates for the board of education was leaked on social media, there has been an outcry among residents disappointed to see party politics thrown into the election of a governing body that is supposed to remain non-partisan.
The leaked email was written by Mayor Matthew Moench, endorsing two of the board of education candidates and informing the committee members of which candidates identify as Republican.
“As a resident of this town, I am fully entitled to have an opinion on the board of education, and am fully entitled to support the candidates as publicly as I want to,” he said. “Everyone has that right.”
A petition was started Friday morning calling for the removal of politics from the school race, and, as of the evening, already had 99 signatures, with residents commenting that politics has no place in a board of education, where candidates do not run in affiliation with any political party, and are placed on the ballot by a random draw of their names.
“I am deeply concerned that partisan politics are being brought into the board of education election,” said Jessica Levitt, one of the candidates for board of education. “As an actively involved parent who has regularly attended meetings for years, I couldn’t tell you the party affiliation of all the current members. It is irrelevant to their ability to work together successfully with collaboration and respect. It is important that the board be independent from other government bodies and act with transparency and accountability for all the people of Bridgewater.”
Board of education candidate Scott Mihalick said he also believes the board should remain non-partisan.
"While anyone is free to endorse anyone else, it is unfortunate that endorsements are apparently being offered based on party affiliation, ironically in the same correspondence that seems to agree that the BOE elections should not be partisan," he said. "It is also curious to me that I was implicitly labeled as being affiliated with a particular party, which is not the case."
Moench said he informed the members of the committee of his endorsement because he believes it is in the long-term interests of the school district and the students to have those two individuals on the board.
“I stand by the email, I am not apologetic or ashamed of it,” he said, although he noted that it was not intended to be released to the general public, only those members of the Republican committee.
“The fact of the matter is that there are candidates who are affiliated in some respect with a party, and that’s a fact that I communicated to the other party members,” he said. “Whether it influences other voters is up to them to decide. I support Republican candidates at all levels of office, and will continue to support Republicans being elected to public office.”
Moench said he believes that party affiliation is not the sole determinant as to whether someone would be a good member of the board of education, but he generally agrees with the philosophies of other Republicans, who believe in certain governmental principles that the board of education does have to consider, particularly with regard to budgets and other similar matters.
“Being Republican doesn’t mean you are the best for the board of education, but for me, it does provide a starting basis,” he said. “It’s a starting place, but not the end place.”
Board of education candidate JP Levin said he believes political affiliation is only important in terms of values.
“I believe that what is important is not official political affiliation, but what that affiliation means in terms of a candidate’s values,” he said. “In my case, I ran for borough council in Bound Brook as a Republican and have since retained my Republican voter affiliation. That does not mean I support everything the party stands for, nor that I support all of the party’s nominees. However, I do believe that my party affiliation reflects certain values I hold, especially transparency, accountability and responsibility.”
In terms of the board of education election, Levin said, these values apply to the quality of education, leadership of the schools and financial underpinnings of the district.
“I would encourage voters to look at the candidates’ records and their core values,” he said. “Now more than ever, it is critical that elected officials at every level of government are guided by their core commitments and values.”
Moench said the email was sent to a limited scope of people, and he did not anticipate it being spread among all residents of Bridgewater.
“At the end of the day, the reality is that anyone who runs for office, they are candidates and public members too, and they can vote a certain way for any number of reasons,” he said. “There may be people like myself who consider party affiliation when they vote for board of education.”
“But the public has to ask the candidates about where they may stand on each specific issue,” he added. “I don’t speak for the candidates on each item, but I know I feel more comfortable when I know that I am being represented by other Republicans who share a basic approach to government.”
With regard to board of education decisions that are not centered on budget or other similar governmental matters, Moench said partisanship would most likely have no effect there, particularly when it comes to curriculum and school programs.
In addition to the email, residents expressed concerns on social media Thursday when some received a robocall from Moench endorsing the same two candidates for board of education. Moench said it was paid for by Build a Better Bridgewater, a continuing political committee, which, much like a PAC, has the ability to spend funds on behalf of a candidate, issue or other political matter.
Build a Better Bridgewater, which Moench said he is not personally a part of, was set up by private individuals and is not affiliated with any of the board of education candidates or other local politicians.
It was created to support candidates and issues when it sees fit to do so. Moench said it was not created for this particular board of education race, but has decided to take on supporting the two candidates he has endorsed.
In the current political climate, Moench said, he understands the concerns from residents regarding throwing his support behind board of education candidates in what is supposed to be a non-partisan entity. But, he said, at the end of the day he is still a Bridgewater resident with children in the school district.
“I take an extreme interest in everything that impacts the lives of residents,” he said. “For a variety of reasons, one of which but not exclusively is party affiliation, I believe these two candidates have the best ideas that will serve our residents moving forward. Every resident has a right to vote or not vote for the candidate they choose, and to criticize elected officials.”
And although not calling the other two candidates by name, Moench in the email alluded to their affiliations and comments they have made on their Facebook pages regarding far left policies.
In this climate where everything is posted on social media, Moench said, people do have to be careful what they do and say online, whether as an elected official or citizen in town. He said it is important to remember that what someone writes online is always out there.
“I also think social media is often used as a form of cyber bullying,” he said. “When someone expresses an opinion they don’t like, the approach is to try and bully on Facebook.”
But, Moench said, despite the fact that the email was leaked even when it was only meant for a specific group of eyes, he doesn’t regret the sentiment nor take back the endorsement.
“People don’t like what I have to say, so there is an attempt to keep me from speaking again in the future by trying to pile on the comments in an effort to dissuade my free speech rights,” he said. “I don’t adhere to that. People can speak their opinions, which includes me as a private citizen, and I will continue to do so without remorse in any election where I have an opinion on a candidate for any reason.”
Board of education candidate Barry Walker declined to comment.