In the Nov. 7 elections all 120 seats in the New Jersey State Legislature were up for grabs, with many local mayoral and town council races also featured on the ballot. Many of these elections had a direct impact on Princeton or neighboring municipalities. We decided to ask our politically inclined columnists to reflect on the recent elections and chronicle a race, ballot, or result that they found particularly impactful.
Princeton connections pay off as Zwicker romps to re-election
By Vincent Jiang, Columnist
Democrats across New Jersey had a good night last Tuesday, but it was a particularly good night for incumbent State Senator Andrew Zwicker (D), who won re-election by defeating Republican challenger Mike Pappas. The race in the 16th Legislative District (LD-16), which includes Princeton, South Brunswick, and parts of Hunterdon and Somerset County, was a rematch between the two Central Jersey candidates, who had first squared off against each other two years earlier in the 2021 general election.
This time around, Zwicker substantially improved his margin of victory, with preliminary results from The New York Times indicating a blowout 56 percent to 43 percent win compared to a narrow 52 percent to 48 percent win in 2021. Simultaneously, incumbent Roy Freiman (D) and newcomer Mitchelle Drulis (D) were elected to the New Jersey Assembly, securing an all-Democratic delegation to Trenton for another legislative term.
In addition to serving as state senator, Zwicker also oversees science education programming at the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and he has previously served as a part-time lecturer in the Writing Program and a faculty advisor for first-years and sophomores in Rockefeller College. Those Princeton University connections paid off in the form of a small army of undergraduate students from Princeton College Democrats, who knocked on over 1,000 doors over the course of the fall semester in four canvassing efforts in order to help keep LD-16 in the Democratic column and return Zwicker to Trenton with a strengthened electoral mandate.
LD-16 has traditionally been a Republican-leaning area. Jack Ciattarelli, the Republican gubernatorial candidate who gave Governor Phil Murphy a run for his money two years ago, had served several terms in the 2010s as an assemblymember from LD-16. However, the district has shifted towards Democrats in recent years, particularly as abortion rights became a more salient issue in state politics. Pappas’s staunch opposition to abortion, even in cases of rape and incest, became a repeated target of attacks in the final weeks of the campaign. Republicans hit back with a message emphasizing lower property taxes and parental rights in education, but it wasn’t enough to prevail against a strong statewide Democratic performance.
And perhaps that’s a second way in which Democrats’ “Princeton connections” are paying off — or rather, their increasingly strong performance with highly educated voters who are disproportionately likely to vote in midterm and off-year elections. Increasingly, the Obama-era narrative that Republicans win in low-turnout elections and Democrats win in high-turnout races seems to be completely reversing, as educational polarization has totally reshuffled the two parties’ coalitions. Zwicker’s win not only reflects the work that Princeton undergraduates pitched into the campaign, but is also a microcosm for how highly educated voters as a whole are realigning across the nation.
Vincent Jiang is a columnist and a junior majoring in the SPIA Department. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The electoral enigma of education
By Wynne Conger, Contributing Columnist
The campaigns of candidates in local, state, and national elections should reduce their focus on contemporary hot-button issues. In recent years, America has witnessed an upsurge in provocative rhetoric, perhaps most notably on the topic of “parental rights.” The phrase “parental rights” has risen to prominence as a recurring and schismatic presence across the political stratosphere. Among Republican Party representatives and senators, it has become a dog whistle indicating a desire to obstruct instruction on sex education in secondary schools. The term makes frequent appearances in partisan debates, digital propaganda, and even legislative rhetoric in the new GOP-endorsed 2023 Parents Bill of Rights Act, which aims to expand parental access across all institution curricula. However, in the New Jersey 2023 elections, its presence was evidently unwelcome. Democratic candidates like Sen. Vin Gopal (LD-11) of Monmouth County were able to capitalize on this sentiment among New Jersey voters.
Earlier this year in June, Republican challenger Steve Dnistrian to Gopal argued that “Democrats … are insisting that parents not be part of the discussion if kids express questions about being LGBTQ.” Four months later on Nov. 7, Dnistrian lost to incumbent Gopal in the State Senate District 11 general election. Gopal’s win was significant for a number of reasons: despite the competitive nature of the moderate district, Gopal won by 20 points, and his victory allowed ticket mates Margie Donlon and Luanne Peterpaul to flip two Republican seats in the state assembly. Along with a plethora of other Democratic candidates, Gopal credits his success to the central issues of his campaign: promises of tax relief and abortion access. In his opinion, his challenger’s focus on the “petty issue” of parental rights detracted from his campaign’s prospect of victory. As Gopal states, “Voters did not want to hear about … attacks on our teachers and saying inappropriate things are happening in our schools … They want to talk about the issues that matter.” As opposed to the bipartisan tendency to incite voters with contentious issues, Gopal’s focus on substantial and long-term issues more accurately reflects the wants of American voters.
Wynne Conger is a first-year and prospective SPIA major from Bryn Mawr, Penn. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
‘Ed the Trucker’ Durr comes to screeching halt in state senate race amid outlandish comments
By Brian Hegarty, Contributing Columnist
With the victory of former Democratic State Assemblymember John Burzichelli, Republican State Senator Ed Durr was ousted from representing New Jersey’s third district after only one term. Durr, a truck driver with no prior political experience, mounted a nationally famous upset over then-Senate President Stephen Sweeny, a Democrat whom Durr himself described as “the second-most powerful person in the state of New Jersey.”
Crediting Trump’s unexpected rise to the White House as inspiration for his campaign, Durr found success in 2021 by capturing headlines with a gaudy persona, but his recent loss suggests that building momentary acclaim with flashy remarks is not a viable strategy to ensure lasting political success. The same antics which once helped Durr rise as a Republican figurehead have now turned GOP candidates from other districts against him and seem to have constructed a swift political downfall.
In a 2020 Facebook post on abortion, Durr claimed that “A woman does have a choice! Keep her legs closed.” In March of this year, he told Politico that he found his words crude and that “I’m not a perfect man. As far as I’m concerned there’s only one perfect man, and they crucified him, didn’t they?” Yet, when asked about the post by NJ PBS on last week’s Election Day, he responded, “That’s a lie, ‘cause I didn’t do it … that was not me.” As for who made the post, he said, “I don’t know … I’m not concerned with the whole past because that was before I was even a senator.” These comments have led to a slew of Democratic TV ads against him and forced Republicans to distance themselves from Durr.
Durr is no stranger to controversy. In a tweet from 2019, he called Islam “a false religion” and its prophet, Muhammad, a “pedophile,” and in 2021, it was reported that a post from Durr’s Facebook account “compared COVID-19 mandates to Jews being exterminated in the Holocaust.” Durr’s erratic rhetoric, when placed in direct competition against Burzichelli’s decades of lawmaking experience, might have ensured an abrupt political collapse. In an era where inflammatory remarks get disproportionate media attention, we can clearly see that divisive and inflammatory remarks, while perhaps momentarily eye-catching, do not necessarily lead to sustainable political success.
Brian Hegarty is a first-year from Milton, Massachusetts and can be reached at email@example.com.
Democrats kept control in Trenton, but are they bringing anything new to the table?
By Preston Ferraiuolo, Columnist
Last week’s statewide elections brought victory for New Jersey Democrats, who held onto majorities in both houses of the State Legislature. In the words of Democratic Governor Phil Murphy, it was a “big night for Democrats.” Statewide, there was a looming concern that Republicans would gain seats or even flip one of the houses — something that hasn’t happened in 20 years. GOP candidates campaigned on President Joe Biden’s rising unpopularity, as well as national “culture war” issues like the discussion of gender identity and sexual orientation in schools. Democrats, in response, defended their side in the “culture wars,” adding vocal appeals for abortion rights. October brought further fears of a GOP takeover with Democratic Senator Robert Menendez’s indictment and the resulting loss of public confidence in N.J. Democrats.
However, N.J. Democrats’ worst fears never materialized. The party gained seats and solidified its control in Trenton. But that raises the question: what now? Democrats have held a majority in Trenton for the past 20 years. This latest campaign cycle focused not on policy issues and what the Democrats can do to improve life in the Garden State, but was instead a defensive campaign. Both sides stoked the fires of division without offering much change.
What will Democrats bring to Trenton this time that they haven’t already? New Jersey faces lower GDP growth (almost half of 2021), environmental concerns, and aging infrastructure like the New Jersey Turnpike, which can’t keep up with the state’s growing commuter population. Did Democrats bring these issues up on the campaign trail? Of course not. They focused on sound bites to beat down their Republican challengers. Unfortunately, the 2024 national elections are again likely to be centered around the “culture wars.”
Therefore, New Jersey must urge its legislators to do their jobs to create policy that improves the lives of the residents (and college students) of the Garden State. Trenton influences many aspects of our lives at Princeton, from environmental regulations to public safety policies to, of course, our beloved Dinky. Democrats in Trenton: what are your plans to help Jersey this term?
Preston Ferraiuolo is a sophomore from Brooklyn, New York, intending to major in the School of Public and International Affairs. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
School Board faces a challenging road ahead in the wake of a turbulent year at PHS
By Thomas Buckley, Contributing Columnist
This year’s local elections saw the most recent blow struck in the ongoing battle in the protracted fallout over the dismissal of Princeton High School Principal Frank Chmiel ’98 in March. Chmiel’s departure ignited a fierce debate in the local Princeton community that ultimately led to the resignation of Superintendent Dr. Carol Kelley in October. On Election Day, voters elected Adam Bierman, a Kelley opponent, and further unseated Michele Tuck-Ponder, the only School Board member to vote against accepting Kelley’s resignation.
Besides dismissing Chmiel, parents had criticized Kelley for allegedly “spen[ding] hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds on outside consultants [who] are pushing ideological agendas.” Particularly controversial was the district’s employment of Dr. Eric Milou, an advocate of “detracking,” or keeping students with different ability levels in the same classes. Local parents have consistently argued that such a policy unfairly disadvantages high-performing students and sparked a vigorous debate over what constitutes “equity” in Princeton Public Schools. This fight is situated within the broader context of similar battles across the country as parents, teachers, and administrators wrestle over the future of education. The new School Board must move beyond intensely personal drama and get down to the business of education.
With Chmiel likely to sue the district for wrongful dismissal, this saga will likely remain front of mind for many of our neighbors in the Princeton community. The School Board will have the challenge of replacing critical local leaders while attempting to preserve continuity for Princeton Public Schools and its students. To succeed, the School Board must move beyond the personal and work for the good of the district. With the specter of the last six months hanging over them, that is certainly easier said than done.
Thomas Buckley is a sophomore from Colchester, Vermont. He can be reached at email@example.com