No End of Issues – and Campaigns and Elections Stagnation

Elections are contests.


Elections are contests.

Unless one on the teams fails to show up.

Missing in this in this year’s contest in Sussex and Warren counties are the Democrats.

After the June primary, and unless some of the write-in candidates who generally received three or fewer votes choose to run, 17 of 22 Warren County towns, and  15 of the 23 Sussex County towns with general elections (Newton has non-partisan local elections)  will not have contested elections for local offices in November.

In Warren County, 16 of the local elections lack Democratic candidates, and one lacks a Republican candidate to face a Democratic incumbent.

In Sussex County, 14 local races lack Democrats, and in two towns, Republicans are fielding a candidate for mayor against a Democratic incumbent, but no candidates for council seats.

Worse for Democrats, in the local own party committee races in most cases the majority of the open seats drew no candidates. In one of the larger towns after the primary, there were no  Democrats listed for any of the 21 local district posts and no write-in candidates. It’s hard to build a party when the people who have the keys to the front door can’t be found.

True, the Republicans also failed to fill every open local committee seat, but in the majority of cases, the incumbents – curiously, often husband and wife teams – at least showed up.

It’s hard to hold a two-party election with just one party.

Do it often enough and stagnation sets in. No new ideas are raised and even when projects surface that need completion, incumbents without challengers feel no compunction to get things done is a timely manner.  Too expensive, don’t you know. It needs study.

The Democrats will challenge Republican Assembly incumbents in the 23rd and 24th Districts, there is a challenger to the single GOP Warren County Freeholder seeking re-election, but they have to back a Green Party Candidate in Sussex where there are no Democrats on the county freeholder ballot.

Yes, the two western counties have been for years, along with Morris and Hunterdon counties, a fertile Republican pastureland for state Assembly and Senate seats, Freeholder  boards and generally town councils.

Further, the political landscape changed little even as the counties’ populations grew in the decades long suburbanization of New Jersey.

Sussex County added 100,000 residents between 1960 and 2010, and Warren County, 45,000.

During that time Republicans measured two to 2.5 times as many registered voters as Democrats, even as both parties trailed the number of unaffiliated voters.

But now the two counties are showing population erosion. Sussex lost 2.9 percent of its population since 2010, the U.S, Census reported, and Warren lost 1.6 percent.

Scholars and planning experts point out that this population shift is part of a re-urbanization movement across the state, and business leaders say that the new workers from the millennial generation – the suburban kids of the Eighties and Nineties– want to live and work closer to their jobs, entertainment and shopping, so they are setting up operations in cities and older suburbs.

What is also driving that shift:  State dollars in the form of tax breaks.

Are there not projects and proposals in Sussex and Warren counties that deserve consideration for such backing? Or in a more  crude political sense: Are there no political friends in need of a boost?

When you are an unchallenged incumbent, you don’t need to speak about such things. It’s easier to go with the flow — blame the Democratic Legislative majority for ignoring the needs of rural New Jersey; blame the Highlands Act; blame high taxes (which is an odd position since as the majority party for years in Warren and Sussex, the GOP has had more to do with setting tax rates than the Dems); blame someone other than the person in the mirror each morning for maybe not taking the regional fight to work with you every day.

So, since no one is raising these issues, here are some talking point that someone might ask an incumbent about.

Both Newton and Phillipsburg have proposed important redevelopment plans that could change the nature of both towns for years.

Newton has a new master plan that calls for the bold remodeling of its downtown into a Morristown or Somerville type county seat with new residents, businesses  and shops. It’s the type of plan seen in the old eastern suburbs, the old town center concept that would help the economy of the area greatly and brighten Sussex’s seat of government and commerce. It’s a project of scale that will need county and state government support to work with private developers.

In Phillipsburg, a New Jersey developer has proposed  4 million square feet of warehouse and other space at the former Ingersoll-Rand site, empty and underused for nearly three decades. It’s the type of project that with county and state aid drops out of the sky across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania.

To make it work the Phillipsburg developer is going to need help with an exit off state Route 22 and a railroad spur.

Someone raised their voice and kept it raised for transportation spending in the two counties. Workers need shorter commutes, since most of the residents of both counties work elsewhere —  and the option of public transportation. Newton officials are awaiting the Andover station on the Lackawanna Cut-off line so they can use it as a draw for new residents. And someone keep the push for transit service to Phillipsburg (and Easton, Pa.) on the front burner.

Public transportation is a draw. Mount Arlington has benefited from the addition of a NJ Transit station and when Midtown Direct service was put in place out to Dover, property values along the rail line in each town increased.

Then there is this: When I moved to Warren County 20 years ago, one of the worst intersections was at Route 519 and 57. Too narrow, no turning lanes. An unsafe bottleneck.

Twenty years later it is still the same. And according to the regional transportation planning authority, it could be at least five more years before the intersection is rebuilt.

Note to candidates: When your county is bleeding jobs and population, five years might be too long.

With the upcoming arrival of larger freight ships in the ports of New York and Newark, there is a need for a more efficient freight-rail system. One project on a list provided by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is a new rail siding in Sparta. Shippers will send goods to Allentown, Pa. by rail. Some of those goods get shipped back to New Jersey. Why not ship them to Sparta first? Who knows what could grow from such an effort.

Another rail project that has had economic potential is the effort to lower a rail line in Phillipsburg. New railcars in use are taller and wider than the old ones. (And they don’t manufacture the old ones anymore.)  The rail line in question is too short and too narrow for the private owner of the rail line to offer the use of  the new cars to its customers.  The lack of action on this small project –a recent estimate put the cost of lowering the rail line under the existing bridge in the range of $3 million – promotes inefficient use of the line and has customers threatening  to move if they can not get larger shipments by rail.

As with all these proposals there is cost, but the cost of doing nothing is greater.

I don’t really care who steps up to tackle this stuff, but someone needs to.  Stop complaining about the Highlands Act and create a find to pay property owners for land that was  supposedly taken; work with the state to find a reliable and untouchable source of funds to keep Lake Hopatcong clean so it can add value to the regional economy; find a way to promote the non-profits and businesses who lead the cultural, entertainment and historic aspects of the counties’ economy: The owners of Sussex Miners baseball team, the historic societies, the rail line operators in Phillipsburg who drawn thousands annually for train rides, the Lake Hopatcong Commission. Pass proclamations, resolutions, cut ribbons – anything to attract attention. Someone do something.

Elections have consequences; in Warren and Sussex counties this election, so far, has silence. No End of Issues – and Campaigns and Elections Stagnation