Friday, September 23, 2005

Political Wars May Stimulate Voter Participation

This is Plainfield: “Democrats hold a slight edge in registered voters over the Republican Party in Plainfield. Increasingly, the city has supported Democratic candidates in state and national elections, while the two parties remain quite competitive in local elections. From 1974 through 1981 Plainfield has had a Republican mayor but a Democratic majority on the council.”

Actually, that was Plainfield in 1982, the last year the League of Women Voters was able to produce its informative “This is Plainfield” booklet. A scant generation later, registered Republicans are outnumbered 8 to 1 by Democrats and more than 7 to 1 by voters who don’t belong to either party.

It is against this political backdrop that the drama of Mayor Al McWilliams’ party change - two terms as a Democrat and now hoping for a third as a Republican - is playing out. Having angered Union County Democrats, McWilliams was denied the party line and had just days to put together a slate of “New Democrats“ for the June primary.

He lost to the Regular Democratic Organization candidate, Sharon Robinson-Briggs, and in the summer issue of “Positively Plainfield,“ the quarterly publication of the Special Improvement District, McWilliams talked about moving on.

After detailing his accomplishments over eight years as mayor, McWilliams wrote, “As we all move forward on the journeys of our lives, I leave this honored office of Mayor knowing that Plainfield is in a better place now than it was when I came into this office.“

But after GOP mayoral candidate Cheryl Arana withdrew on Sept. 13 ,the GOP invited McWilliams to fill the vacancy and he accepted. Since then, he changed parties and the GOP submitted his name to Union County Clerk Joanne Rajoppi, but she rejected it on Wednesday, Sept. 21, the last day to fill a vacancy. On Thursday, the GOP won a judge’s approval to hold up printing of Plainfield ballots until both sides can be heard in court Wednesday to argue the constitutionality of the so-called “sore loser” state law that Rajoppi invoked in rejecting the filing.

Whatever comes out of the fray, it has put a sharp focus on Plainfield politics.

McWilliams says he wants to run as a “fusion” candidate to represent Democrats, Republicans and unaffiliated voters who share his vision for Plainfield. On Primary Day, more than 1,300 unaffiliated voters became Democrats just to have their say in the RDO/New Democrat battle. GOP County Chairman Phil Morin argues the “sore loser” statute’s specific prohibition on party changes for municipal candidates means the city’s 11,000 or so non-Democrats will be denied a chance to choose McWilliams for a third term.

Among the plaintiffs in the GOP case are two unaffiliated voters. McWilliams said they are part of a coalition that collected names of people who would support him. He said the coalition was “something that grew up on its own,“ and called it “quite heartening.“

If the turmoil does no more than get lots of people involved in city politics, it could still be a plus for Plainfield.

In 1982, the LWV booklet listed 42 voting districts. Now, due to voter apathy, that number has dwindled to 34. That means voters were once able to choose a male and female representative in each district for a total of 84 grassroots elected representatives and now there are only 68 City Committee seats for each party.

When Chairwoman Sandy Spector spoke of an “overwhelming majority” of GOP City Committee members favoring McWilliams, she was right. Of 27 members, 23 came to Monday’s meeting and 20 voted “yes” to select him. In 2006, the Republican Party Municipal Committee reorganizes and with any luck, may find more people willing to run for committee seats or local office as a small step toward bipartisan balance.

If the mayoralty goes to Robinson-Briggs or Bob Ferraro, citizens riled up by the McWilliams issue may be more inclined to demand accountability from the winner. And if McWilliams is able to run and wins, he will have to live up to the hopes of the diverse coalition that wants to see the city move away from never-ending political wars and on to a collegial approach to solving the city‘s problems.

As of Sept. 23, the city had 1,160 Republicans, 9,210 Democrats, 8,755 unaffiliated voters, 70 declared Independents, one Constitution Party member and three Libertarians. The General Election is Nov. 8. Voters, start your engines.

--Bernice Paglia