Monday, March 11, 2013

The sad state of democracy in Hackensack

This noble sentiment hangs next to the front door of a registered voter on Clinton Place in Hackensack. Unfortunately, he wasn't at home on Sunday when I came calling with a petition I wanted him to sign to help me get on the ballot for the City Council election.


This afternoon, I filed 280 official nominating petitions that I hope will get me on the ballot for the May 14 election, when Hackensack voters will choose five at-large City Council members.

In the past 5 weeks, I have been ringing bells, knocking on doors and approaching people on the street and in coffee shops, markets and even in a bar.

I wore a large red name tag and carried petitions and a 1-page green platform with the goal of improving residents' quality of life while holding the line on property taxes.

The apathy level is high and in many cases, the intelligence level is low. And now that it's over, I'm exhausted.

Go away

People were "not interested" or said, "I don't get involved in that." 

A man who lives in the house on the corner opened his door around noon on Sunday, said he was busy and slammed the door in my face before I could get a word out.

Others said they didn't have time to look at my petition or platform. 

Even though it is a non-partisan election, many people wanted to know if I was a Democrat or a Republican. 

"I don't sign anything," "I never sign anything" and "I'm not signing anything" were frequent responses when I asked for a voter's street address, signature and printed name.

Others took my platform and said they wanted to study it before signing a petition, and that I should come back later.   

Shallow reporting

Even though I spent 29 years at The Record as a reporter, copy editor and food writer, I knew nothing about the process when I picked up the petitions from City Clerk Debra Heck.

She said I need a minimum of 210 individual petitions or 1% of the 21,000 registered voters in Hackensack at the last general election, but that I should gather at least 250, because people who sign may not be registered or be registered in another town. 

An official petition of nomination.

I'm not 'organized'

Under head Assignment Editor Deirdre Sykes, The Record covers municipal and school elections reluctantly, boiling them down into so-called boxes of several paragraphs unless they are contested.

In recent years, The Record has never followed a candidate who was trying to get nominating petitions signed.

A few weeks ago, I e-mailed my platform to Staff Writer Hannan Adely.

Her byline had appeared over  9- and 10-paragraph stories about two groups of 5 candidates in the Hackensack election that were published on Jan. 25 and Feb. 3 -- before either slate had filed petitions.

But she said she wouldn't be writing a story about my candidacy before today's filing deadline, because I am not part of an "organized slate.

She gave me the phone number of her assignment editor, Steve McCarthy, but he never returned my calls.  

I love Hackensack

I met a lot of nice people, and some of them took extra petitions and got them signed by other registered voters. 

Many voters signed my petition without hesitation, because, as one women said, "Everyone deserves a chance to run."

And I saw more of Hackensack and its quiet neighborhoods than in all the years I worked and lived here, including many beautiful, well-kept homes.

A 491-page list of voters by ward and district under a 30-page key that shows which streets are in which wards and districts. The registered-voters list is a confusing jumble of names, addresses and apartment numbers, with voters' names alphabetized by ward and district. But each side of a street can be in a different ward and district, and Prospect Avenue and many other streets also are divided. In Hackensack, there is a Poor Street and a Pink Street, and one voter's address is on Route 17. I know two people named Ross, but they don't live on Ross Avenue. 

I started gathering signatures in early February by going to the ShopRite in Hackensack, where I found only 7 city residents among 40 shoppers I approached.

At the Giant Farmers Market between Main and River streets, only one woman said she lived in Hackensack, and this was after approaching a couple of dozen other people.

At Lazy Lanigan's, a bar on Main Street, I couldn't find anyone from Hackensack a few hours before the Super Bowl began, and Bel Posto on Prospect Avenue wouldn't allow me to solicit signatures from its brunch customers that Sunday.

One morning, I got several signatures at the Dunkin' Donuts on University Place, but an employee asked me to leave, claiming customers said I was bothering them.

On Saturday, at the Dunkin' Donuts on Passaic Street, my petitions were signed by four people I later couldn't find on the registered-voters list, and one man who asked to read my platform before signing left while I was in the bathroom.

I saw him driving away in a large, black SUV With Texas plates.

The candidate in a reflective moment last Tuesday across the street from the Johnson Public Library on Main Street, where he couldn't find anyone to sign his petition.

I stopped at the Starbucks almost every day for coffee, and it beat the Dunkin' Donuts on two scores: better brews and more signatures from registered voters.

One day I called Starbucks headquarters from the Essex Street shop, and spoke to Joshua in customer service about getting a second Starbucks on Main Street, near the Bergen County Courthouse.

He mentioned his parents live on Hamilton Place in Hackensack, and are members of the Green Party, but wouldn't give me their last names or address, even when I told him I am running for office and needed their signatures.

Then, I found out there are only 6 Green Party members in Hackensack, and gave up the idea of tracking them down. 

Jews v. Jews   

I received a warmer welcome at a Baptist church and at two mosques than I did from my fellow Jews at Temple Beth El on Summit Avenue, an aging congregation that struggles to get enough people for Saturday morning services.

A painting at Temple Beth El in Hackensack.

Rabbi Robert Schumeister and President Mark Zettler wouldn't allow me to ask for signatures at a Purim celebration I attended one Saturday night.

Zettler said, "I don't know you."

At Mount Olive Baptist Church on Central Avenue, Pastor Gregory Jackson introduced me to the congregation at two Sunday services, but asked me to stand outside to get signatures.

The powerful choir at Mount Olive Baptist Church.

At Minhaj-ul-Quran on Vreeland Avenue and the Bergen County Islamic Education Center on Trinity Place, managers and members welcomed me and helped me gather signatures two Fridays in a row.

During a book fair at the Nellie K. Parker Elementary School, I drove over around noon, but two employees and a man who might have been the vice principal wouldn't sign petitions.

The man told me I couldn't stand on the sidewalk, but had to cross the street, even as he conceded that restriction probably wouldn't stand up in court.  

None of the condominium or co-op high-rises that line Prospect Avenue would allow me to solicit signatures, but my wife and teenage son found a rental building that did allow them to knock on tenants' doors.

Often, a husband or wife would sign, but most of the time, the spouse was in the shower, taking a nap, away on business or didn't want to sign.

And then there were people who just wouldn't open their door. 

I reach my goal 
But I finally got the process down to a science when I paid the county superintendent of elections 5 cents a page for a second list of registered voters, this one by street.

My request for the list was delayed by about a week when the office's computers broke down.

Then, when good weather finally arrived, I was able to stroll down a street and knock on the doors of only registered voters, and my count of good petitions increased steadily.

I was even able to concentrate on homes with 3, 4, 5 and even 7 registered voters, but at most I found only two at home at the same time.

A man who lives a few blocks away left me three signed petitions in this envelope.

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