It’s hard to lose an election. But it’s a lot worse to lose democracy. That’s why we’d like to thank the Dems on Your Side slate for running against the entrenched political machine in Piscataway’s primary: Bill Irwin for Mayor, and Kamuela ‘Nikki” Tillman, Laura Leibowitz and Ralph Johnson for Council.
The final results may look lopsided, with the incumbents likely winning 63%-37%. But this machine hasn’t been seriously challenged in 20 years. Mayor Wahler’s team had a treasure chest of at least $89,000 in corporate campaign money and outspent the progressive slate by roughly 5-1. Wahler and Co. ran on a party line headed by Biden and Booker, a ballot design that marginalizes local challengers, used only in New Jersey. (Research about how the NJ only ballot design undermines democracy is available here.)
Despite the stacked deck, the Dems on Your Side accomplished some impressive gains. They doubled voter turnout, even without in-person campaigning. They increased the number of people in our community voting for an inclusive and open platform for change. They organized the town vigil for racial justice that brought together over 1,000 residents. They started the Neighborhood Aid Network, which continues to help families during the pandemic.
They raised important issues in weekly livestream forums: the property tax assessment scam, the environmental dangers of truck depot development, the need for a youth center and community investment. They were available to voters, while Mayor Wahler and his team ducked debates and hid behind surrogates.
The Dems on Your Side put the need for open government front and center. And while the machine prevailed, this election did not ratify the Mayor and Council keeping their meetings closed to debate, their resolutions and agendas unposted, their boards stacked with cronies, their advisory commissions token or dormant. This election did not say it’s OK to raise municipal taxes while pretending you’re not, or give away school revenues in PILOT tax breaks to developers. This election did not approve of the corporate money and patronage jobs that fuel the machine.
And the election certainly did not endorse the machine’s attempts to punish challengers, like their recent effort to remove Council candidate Ralph Johnson from his school board seat, for absences incurred as a first responder in the Covid pandemic!
This election did show that more and more residents are becoming aware of how Piscataway is run as an insiders’ club. It showed that more and more voters recognize that new leaders are needed, who will stand up for democracy and move forward in changing times. Yes, we Democrats will all band together to defeat Trump in November—and a growing number of us will hold local Democratic officials to the same standard.
So while the Mayor and Council incumbents celebrate their victory, they should keep in mind that Piscataway’s issues aren’t going away. And neither are we.
Justice and democracy are always worth fighting for. As the late civil rights hero Congressman John Lewis said, “Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.” We are not afraid.
Join the Piscataway Progressive Democratic Organization (PPDO). Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to get involved, find us on Facebook and Instagram @pwayprogressives and Twitter @pwaydems, or online at www.pwayprogressives.com.