Montclair's Election: A Tea Party Type Tax Revolt In A Liberal Bastion? Or A Reaffirmation Of Its Liberal Values

NJ.com — Thursday, May 10, 2012

By John D. Atlas / NJ Voices

Tuesday's New York Times reported that Montclair's local mayoral race had national implications because its election symbolized a Tea Party type tax revolt in a liberal bastion. The Times painted a picture of pitchfork carrying liberals tired of profligate spending and growing public debt, yelling "we aren't going to take it anymore," and ready to elect tax-cutting, service-cutting conservatives. With two liberals running for mayor, the Times reporter, Kate Zernike, speculated they would split the liberal vote and the conservative slate, led by Karen Turner, would win.

On Tuesday the town rejected the conservatives and elected the most liberal slate, which garnered nearly 50% of the vote. The slate includes an African-America for mayor and two public employee union leaders for city council. The election may still have national symbolic implications but in the opposite direction Zernike thought reaffirming its progressive roots

Montclair, my hometown, is a place where many progressive residents strive to translate America's fundamental values of equality, fairness, and community into everyday lives. In one of the most racially and economically segregated states in the country, the residents struggle to be a place where tax-payer supported busing makes sure that blacks and whites, rich and poor mingle in public schools. It's a place where gays and interracial families are embraced and there's strong support for subsidizing a Pre-K public school.

Turner's supporters argued that this "Montclair exceptionalism" is simply too expensive.

The campaign manager for Turner's slate was the field director for the extremely conservative 2009 Republican primary candidate for governor. He later worked for Americans for Prosperity, the group backed by Koch Industries that has supported the Tea Party movement and politicians hostile to public employee unions.

Not only did the most liberal candidates win, but the two liberal slates together won 70% of the vote, a landslide victory over Turner and her slate. There may be a Tea Party, but it's a very small party.

This does not mean that Robert Jackson, the new Mayor, doesn't have his worked cut out trying to maintain Montclair's exceptionalism. Nearly all residents believe high property taxes are forcing the middle class and poor out that and something must be done.


So what can he do? He can eliminate waste, streamline the bureaucracy, try to consolidate services like police dispatching and trash collection with other towns, increase revenue by broaden the tax-base with new commercial office buildings. He might be tempted to cut pre-K programs, parks, and libraries, but we shouldn't nickel-and-dime our way to fiscal sanity.

Cities and suburban towns that want an economically integrated population have little control over their financial fate. Their problems are not caused by local decisions but reflect larger cultural and political trends. The only way to preserve Montclair's character is by changing state and federal policy. Unless Montclair's leaders play a strategic role in building a movement for state and national progressive policies, we will end up on the losing side of battle where residents fight among themselves about how to spend the relatively few discretionary dollars we have in our annual budget.

The mayor and city control only 20% of the overall spending, have a slight influence over the school budget, and none over the portion of property taxes that pay for county costs. Trenton pays only 4.3 percent of the Montclair school budget compared with 25 percent in 1981. The reality is that there's very little fat in Montclair's budget. Any cuts will come at the expensive of our families, our children, and our neighborhoods will inflict pain and suffering.

Even a relatively affluent town like Montclair is not immune to the major political shocks that have hurt the larger economy. Because our local problems are mostly due to forces outside our town, such as a lack of jobs that pay livable wages, inequality, and decades of discrimination, integrated towns like Montclair had to partner with the state and federal governments to subsidize schools, housing and create jobs.

But beginning with Ronald Reagan's election in 1981, the globalization of the economy, and the growth of a conservative movement, federal and state governments walked away from that alliance and all but abandoned cities and older suburbs like Montclair. Thing got worse after decades of governments cutting taxes for corporations and the rich and cutting services for the poor which were not only unfair but resulted in widespread unemployment and the persistence of poverty and penalized towns like Montclair.

Unless we can renew our partnership with Trenton and Washington, Montclair's future will end up with the kind of mindless finger-pointing that characterized the Tuesday's municipal election.


The Occupy Wall Street Movement has provided Jackson and Montclair's civic leaders an opening. For the first time in four decades the nation is no longer just asking how do we empower corporate America and unleash the unfettered free market? How do we reduce deficits and how do we the cut the safety net for the poor and cut taxes for the rich.

Now we are discussing: why is there so much poverty? And what can be done about the concentration of wealth and power by the top 1 %? How are we going to end corporate control of our government and get the government on our side?

Our new leaders need to join with activist groups the NAACP, New Jersey Citizen Action, the Time to Care Coalition and the Center for Women and Work at Rutgers University and even the Occupy Wall Street Movement and organize and support statewide coalitions to make sure that Trenton and Washington once again partner with Montclair and our other cities.

Since we in Montclair can make very limited progress on its own to improve our schools and services, increase affordable housing, and reduce crime, Jackson need to help Montclair's resident and others to connect the dots between what happens in Montclair and what is happening statewide and nationally and take action.

If Jackson and his slate want to make much of a difference in Montclair he will have to become a voice in the halls of power in Trenton and Washington. But we can't expect him to do it on his own. We need to strengthen a grassroots movement for social justice that puts prosperity ahead of austerity.

We need to join hands, lobby, and even march to Trenton with activist groups like Blue Wave, and progressive politicians like State Senators Ronald Rice, Loretta Weinberg, and Nia Gill. Together we could lobby Trenton for a tax on millionaires, which could provide a school funds that promote integration.

We could lobby in Trenton and Washington for an increase in the minimum wage and the Earned Income Tax Credit, which will help hard working families in Montclair and others across the state to help them pay the rent. We could fight for state and federal financial incentives for consolidating local services, dramatically reduce the reliance on local property taxes to support schools and to provide more aid to towns like Montclair and NJ's devastated cities. This kind of local-state-federal strategy could be the savior for Montclair as a model city and also help revitalize cities like Newark, Jersey City and Camden.

Top Top | NJCA Homepage | NJCA in the News