As a candidate on the campaign trail here in Monmouth County, I am struck by the level of divisiveness seeping from our national discourse into races for local office.
Two weeks ago, I stood with my running mate Jeff Cantor at the Democratic Party booth at the county fair in Freehold. I offered a handshake to passing residents and did my best to make a case as to why I believe I should be elected Monmouth County Surrogate.
Two hours in, I was speaking with two voters and caught sight of a man walking slowly by. I did not think much of it, except 10 minutes later there he was again. Stepping out front, I extended my hand and introduced myself.
“I don’t vote for Democrats,” he said. “Just confirming that you don’t display the American flag.”
For a moment, I did not know what to say. Recovering, I replied, “Well, Colonel Jeff Cantor and I both served in the Army and deployed to combat zones. We swore an oath to protect the flag. Is that patriotic enough?”
Mumbling, the man moved on. Jeff pointed out that we were both wearing shirts with American flags embroidered over our hearts. Returning to the booth, I was bothered.
A short while later three college students rushed to our table. One of them, a young man from Manalapan, said, “Thank God, we found you, we thought only the lying Republicans were here.”
This is unacceptable.
Granted, we are collectively coming down from two weeks of high-octane political conventions, and these are just two examples from my own experience. However, I cannot help but draw a connection between the breakdown of civility on the national level and the polarization of our politics here in Monmouth County.
Differences of opinion are necessary in a healthy democracy. Beginning in 1981, President Ronald Reagan ushered in a conservative revolution that reoriented American politics and policy for a generation. That did not stop him from forming a cordial working relationship with House Speaker Tip O’Neill, a liberal whose politics were shaped by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
These two giants of the political right and left battled by day, but set aside their differences once the vote was called and the matter settled. They could relax in each other’s company, enjoy drinks and share stories of family and friends.
Reagan and O’Neill disagreed on almost every major point of policy. And yet somehow they managed to not call one another the “devil.” They did not level personal insults that degraded the tone of debate or the offices that they held.
The same can be said for this year’s county-level elections. There are eight individuals running for sheriff, surrogate and two freeholder seats. I feel safe in writing that while the opposing sides in this race may disagree on matters of policy and direction, we do not hate one another.
We are not defined by Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Instead, we are defined by a shared love of community and a shared desire to serve our constituents.
It is easy to get caught up in the hurly-burly of the season and even easier to forget that, here in Monmouth County, there are Democrats, Republicans and Independents with honorable intentions. There is no need to yell at one another. No requirement to question an individual’s patriotism or character.
Far more important than our politics, we are neighbors first. We fly the national colors, volunteer in our communities and care deeply about the future of Monmouth County.