SUMMIT, NJ - Those looking in Summit for local political intrigue, a slew of 'vote for' Letters to the Editor, dueling candidates' statements, a candidates' forum, or even a yard sign -- other than a few, scattered placards for state assembly races -- are climbing up the wrong hill as, with just under one week to go before voters head to the polls November 5, the election vibe in the City is seemingly nonexistent.
Much of the meh can be chalked up to the fact that the outcome of every one of the local offices up for grabs has essentially already been decided, as all five 'races' -- if a campaign with just once candidate can be referred to as a 'race' -- are uncontested. The position of Mayor along with four Common Council seats feature just one lone candidate, with 2019 marking the first time in 20 years that there has been but only one individual running for mayor.
In addition to the Mayor of Summit, Common Council seats in Ward 1, Ward 2 and At-Large well feature but one candidate. Three of the five -- Mayor Nora Radest, Ward 2 Council Member Steve Bowman and Council Member At-Large Beth Little -- are incumbents who will all win reelection. Radest and Little are Democrats, while Bowman is a Republican.
The only candidate running for the Ward 1 seat -- currently occupied by Republican Mike McTernan -- is Democrat Danny O'Sullivan, and the only candidate seeking the Ward 1 seat -- currently occupied by Stephanie Gould -- is Democrat Susan Hairston.
One political observer described Summit as essentially currently operating in an environment akin to that found "inside the eye" of a storm, which the National Weather Service describes as, "...a relatively calm, clear area approximately 20-40 miles across."
How this freedom from choice will affect voter turnout is yet to be seen, but several individuals running for and-or currently in office point to similar reasons behind the lack of at least enough individuals from each political party to offer residents a voting choice.
When asked by TAPinto Summit about the dearth of candidates and what that says as it relates to Summit's degree of political engagement, Radest said, "tt would be pure speculation as to the specific reasons why we are having an uncontested election. On a positive note, an uncontested election could be an indicator that residents believe the city is well run at the moment. We strive to communicate everything we are doing and planning in the city and constantly solicit public comments. On the other hand, an uncontested election could be an indicator of voter apathy, or something else."
Current Council President David Naidu, who was reelected for a second term in November of 2018, said, "I believe that having multiple points of view competing in the marketplace of ideas is a good thing for a community. I also believe that representative government should be comprised of people with different backgrounds and life experiences in order that everyone in the community can feel that there are people who understand what they are going through."
Naidu added, "Having said that, how do you convince people to run for a job that requires them to spend substantial time away from family, that doesn't pay, that may require investment of their own money to get the job, that opens you to criticism by your neighbors, and for which you should not get any personal benefit? That is what we are asking people to do when we ask them to run for local office. So, it's not surprising that most rational people say, 'thanks, but no thanks'."
Naidu does not feel that the lack of folks tossing their hats in the ring indicates a level of citizen apathy or that people in the community are apathetic to what happens in the community -- or that debate about issues is lacking -- citing what he called "ample engagement" on issues such as Full-Day Kindergarten.
Naidu concluded that, "What I take away from having uncontested elections this year is that there is no pressing need for changing the direction we are headed at a municipal level."
For his part, Bowman agrees, telling TAPinto Summit, "My general sense is that many citizens of Summit are confident on how Summit is being governed. Uncontested races will not encourage debate, however we as candidates will now need to engage the residents of Summit. The incumbents, Mayor Radest, Councilwomen Little and myself are always available to meet and talk with citizens, now more than ever we need to continue the campaign traditions of door knocking, listening posts and engaging with residents, so we can better meet the needs and interests of Summit today and in the future."
As to the fact not enough folks have personally entered local political arena by, themselves, running for office, Bowman said, "It says so much about what is going on locally, at the state level and federal level. One aspect is that residents have busy lives with many already volunteering on City projects, school, local sports, local non-profits, that asking more to be an Elected Official may be a big ask. Campaigning for these roles can be an activity beyond many comfort level. State and Federal politics are different animals than serving locally.. We see each other at the gym, grabbing coffee or buying groceries. It is a civil environment unlike what appears to happen in Trenton or DC."
Bowman added, "Mayor and Council live and work together, plus we are living in the community we serve, and while we may not always agree on how we address the needs of Summit we historically discuss alternatives in a respectful manner. The divide is not always by party either. Local politics is about the town of Summit, addressing our concerns such as: safety, road conditions, trash collections, parking and at what cost."