Fixing Teaneck's flawed campaigns
Voters and candidates alike routinely express dismay at the level of discourse in local campaigns. Despite preemptive measures designed to curb the excessive negative campaigning that characterized past elections in Teaneck, this year's Council race has proven no exception.
As residents field last minute robocalls and prepare to go to the polls, the atmosphere has again turned toxic, perhaps most noticeably in the furor surrounding candidate Joseph Steinberg and his loud detractors. Regardless of who wins or loses Council seats this year, the electoral combat will have reopened old wounds and inflicted new ones, not only upon the candidates and a handful of involved residents, but upon Teaneck's already dysfunctional political culture.
Of course we know by now that another spiteful season of electioneering will draw to a close and we'll collectively lick our wounds while our municipal leaders return to the more mundane task of governing. Still one cannot help but wonder if we in Teaneck are doomed to repeat this cycle endlessly. The costs can be high. It seems that each successive campaign diminishes social cohesion, and there is little doubt that the tenor of our local politics dissuades many qualified individuals from volunteering or continuing to volunteer their time and talents. Perhaps equally damaging is that in the aftermath of these bitter struggles, we are left with a factionalized Council. It may not be divided along party lines, but it is just as sharply divided as any partisan municipality's governing body.
This would be far less unhealthy than it is if candidates for office were pursuing a vigorous but contentious debate on the pressing issues facing our town. But they are not. This campaign, like many of its predecessors, has been more about the company the various candidates keep or what interest group they identify with than it has been about what the candidates actually want to do once elected. While expressing near unanimous support for tax stabilization, better labor relations and disclosing no actual plans to help us get there, the candidates and their advocates have kept us focused on other questions over the past several weeks, including:
-Is Steinberg a pawn of controversial Council member Barbara Ley Toffler?
-Do Elie Katz, Adam Gussen and Yitz Stern have significant ties to disgraced political boss Joe Ferriero?
-Are Helen Schlereth and Robert O'Neill running to represent residents or public employees?
In a similar vein, Joseph Steinberg has repeatedly reminded the voters that he has a child in the public schools and Gayle Helfgott has written a cryptic (and vaguely offensive, if I understand it correctly) letter to the Suburbanite seeking to dispel the preconceived notions one might have about her communal affiliations based on certain assumptions one might make about her. To the untrained eye, these claims seem basically irrelevant in establishing one's credentials for office, but in today's Teaneck, these oblique references are key to defining one's candidacy and identifying as a suitable candidate for a particular demographic.
Naturally, we the voters have adopted some common techniques to cut through the fog. We spend several weeks every other spring studying whose lawn signs are found together in each neighborhood's lawns, parsing candidate letters to the Suburbanite in search of certain code words and catchphrases, and then devising complex voting strategies for our favored candidates that we urge upon our friends and neighbors.
It's less important to assign blame for this political farce and its harmful side effects than it is to find a way to avoid repeating it. Future candidates for public office should not forswear negative campaigning, but affirmatively promise to tackle real issues and offer substantive policy prescriptions in the course of the campaign. This year, Yitz Stern assures us he has a "real plan" to limit future tax increases, but offers no details as to what it is. Joseph Steinberg claims to possess a strong record on fiscal issues and superior business acumen, but tells us nothing about what he hopes to do as our Councilman. Even the one "issue" discussed by the candidates, i.e. the $10,000 Council approved audit of the defeated school budget is not a real issue but a red herring, another little hint as to who the candidates are and with whom they symbolically stand. When voters are left to guess about what a candidate will actually do once elected, it is not surprising that the campaign period turns into an exercise in labeling.
Voters and the media have a responsibility to enforce this discipline upon the candidates if they will not do it themselves. Candidate forums can be a great venue in which to do this, but their reach is limited to those who can and do attend, and in any case this year they disappointed. The blogosphere is well positioned to take up the slack, but is also subject to hijacking by those with an ax to grind. So, after a long hiatus, I have come back to lend a hand. Welcome back to Teaneck Blog.