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As Downtown NB Grows, So Does Its Potential Impact on Elections

Number of Registered Voters in Downtown District Has Almost Doubled Since 2004
Teresa Vivar
Teresa Vivar lives on the outskirts of the city's booming downtown. She can't vote yet, but in a few years, she will be able to Tom Franklin

This article is part of a statewide series called Voting Block, which is a collaborative reporting effort to encourage civil political discussion and more informed voters in neighborhoods across New Jersey ahead of this fall’s gubernatorial election. 

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—As New Jersey prepares to elect a new Governor on November 7, the Hub City's booming downtown boasts more residents than ever before, giving the neighborhood a chance to flex its political muscle in a way that it has never done before.

It's a muscle that's still growing, but one the potential to grow even more as additional apartment buidings are erected in the area surrounding the city's main train station.

In places like Hoboken and Jersey City, "downtown" voters proved to be a key part of coalitions that helped to oust entrenched political machines.

But whether the Hub City's downtown will actually flex its muscle this year remains to be seen: While the number of registered voters in the area has sharply increased in recent years, the number of votes cast has not seen a noticable bump. 

District 1 of New Brunswick's Fifth Ward (5-1) stretches from the Easton Avenue Apartments and Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital down to Route 18 and the Raritan River.  It includes most of what is home to most of the city's traditional downtown, an area that people are increasingly calling home.

But where exactly "downtown" New Brunswick begins and ends can change with new developments, and indeed it has spilled out  to include "The Vue" and "The Yard," which are located in 6-1, "The Heldrich," located in 4-1, and "The Aspire," located in 5-3.

Meanwhile, 1-2 and 1-3 include a number of large developments that some would consider downtown such as the John P. Fricano Towers, "The George," and "Rockoff Hall."  This area was also home to the New Brunswick Memorial Homes public housing demolished in 2001.

Democratic candidate for Governor Phil Murphy opened a campaign office in the district, located on Church Street next to the office of Congressman Frank Pallone.

It was hard to find a Republican in the district, located in the heart of a Democratic Party stronghold city within a county that has been dominated by the Democrats for decades.

This district in particular has seen a steep increase in registered voters over the past decade, one sign that downtown may be more influential politically as it continues to grow and attract more residents. 

Of New Brunswick's 28 election districts, only one even comes close to the 27% increase 5-1 has seen since the 2008 election.

Between 2004 and 2016, the number of registered voters in the district increased 97%, more than any other district whose boundaries remained the same. 

To get a feel for what issues matter to downtown and how they plan to vote on November 7, we spoke to several downtown residents, including a married couple living high atop the city, another raising young kids in an apartment, a millenial who grew up here and is now living on his own, a man now living on the streets after an eviction, and a brave immigrant who can't vote yet, but won't let that stop her from being politically active.

SPENCER FORMAN

For five years ago now, Spencer Forman and his wife Louise moved to One Spring Street, one of the few highrise condominium buildings in New Brunswick.

They represent a new group that is increasingly making up the community of downtown: adults getting ready to retire.

They previously lived in Princeton, but wanted to "downsize" like many parents whose kids have grown up and moved out.

Now, the Formans find themselves living almost 200 feet above most of the city's 60,000 residents.  Their condominium has a balcony that provides an impressive view of New Brunswick, and on a clear day, New York City.

They largely see the 2017 Governor election as a referendum on Chris Christie's time in the office. 

"We need a change from what we had in the Christie years," said Spencer.  "The credit rating in the state is awful and that doesn't seem to be getting better."

The couple, both of whom are registered Democrats, voted for State Senator Ray Lesniak in the June primary election.

Spencer, a dentist, says education and the economy are the two biggest issues in the election.

Louise, who has worked for Rutgers University, thinks the cost of higher education is a big issue.  She says the problem is the result of stagnant state funding.

"They're still working on 1990 [funding levels] in 2017 and you've got 2017 expenses at Rutgers more than anywhere else.  I've seen it first-hand."

"There has to be a change in either the estate taxes, the taxing retirement income... in addition to the horrible property taxes," says Louise, who is concerned with the number of retirees leaving New Jersey.

"There has to be a real revolution in terms of how we finance things in this state... There's a lot to offer in New Jersey, but they have to make it financially viable to stay."

KHAHLIDRA HADHAZY

Raised in Highland Park, Khahlidra Levister Hadhazy and her husband Adam live in the Plaza Square Apartments, a luxury building with more than 400 apartments.

Just this month, another new apartment building of similar size is expected to open across the street from Plaza Square.

Like most downtown residents, and three-quarters of New Brunswickers, the Hadhazys are renters.

Khahlidra has written for this newspaper in recent years and also worked at a number of local restaurants.  Now she is a realtor and a mother of two young daughters.

Both she and Adam are voting for Phil Murphy, she says.  For her, it's not necessarily because he's the best candidate on the ballot.

"Honestly, I really want to vote for Pastor Seth [Kaper-Dale] who is running for the Green Party," she tells New Brunswick Today.

Kaper-Dale is a pastor at a church in her original hometown, and he has significant support and connections in New Brunswick. 

Hadhazy considers herself "a socialist at heart" who wants "to fund schools, to fix our roadways, and to help people with their medical costs."

"But after the national election, I really don't want to split the Democrat vote, even though I feel more in line with Pastor Seth, with his goals and issues that he addresses."

Ultimately, it comes down to fear of Christie's Lt. Governor Kim Guadagno, who is running to replace him.

"I definitely think that after Chris Christie, with his Deputy Governor running, I can't. We can't have any more," she said.

"I don't feel like [Kaper-Dale] has strong enough support statewide to really... win so I'm going to have to give my vote to Phil Murphy."

MARC LANZOFF

Even though longtime downtown resident Marc Lanzoff has been out on the streets since June, he's still planning to vote and still upbeat about the city he calls home.

"New Brunswick is the best-kept secret in the state," says Lanzoff, a native of Old Bridge.

"I'm so lucky that I live in New Brunswick. I'm lucky.  This was a happenstance for me back in 1972 as I ran into my friend who went to Rutgers and just stayed here."

For the past nine years, Lanzoff lived in an apartment located above George Street staple Jersey Subs, until he was evicted this summer.

"There's a lot of speculating going on," said Lanzoff, noting that a new development company, one that might want to redevelop the site, recently became his landlord.

Since August, he has been collecting donations to help him get back into proper housing using the website GoFundMe.com.  Thirty-six donors have chipped in $3,195, and he is finally close to getting a new apartment after five months of homelessness.

Lanzoff said he will be voting for Kaper-Dale, citing one of the preacher's sermons that he sat in on earlier this year.

"He was down to earth, I thought.  I don't think he'll win, but I think for my own well-being, I don't want to just throw my vote because I'm a Democrat to vote for a Democrat."

He says "corruption" is the biggest issue for him, and he that he has "automatically" voted Democrat in the past, "but now I'm old enough so I can smell crap when I smell it." 

He also ruled out voting for Guadagno based on her association with Christie.

"I won't for Guadagno because she's sort of damaged goods.  She can't be against Christie and for Christie," said Lanzoff.  "She's in a bad position and she would be answerable to him probably somewhere down the road."

As for Murphy, Lanzoff called the Massachusetts native a "carpet-bagger" and said he thinks it's all "just a hobby" to him.

"I don't dislike him.  I just don't think there's any passion there other than he wants to be Governor."

JOEL TORRES

Joel Torres grew up in New Brunswick, graduating from both New Brunswick High School and Rutgers Unviersity.

Torres also considers himself "lucky" to be able to live in The Aspire, the first highrise in Ward 5, District 3.

He plans to vote for Murphy, though he says he "would have loved to see John Wisniewski" be his party's nominee.

"Mostly the reason why is because [Murphy's] stances are most aligned with mine, when comparing both major party candidates," said Torres.

Torres was in the audience for Murphy's October 25 "Town Hall" event at Gambino's.

"What I got from the Town Hall was that he was very personable. He's very funny so it did help in being confident in my vote," Torres told NBToday.

"The most important part of his platform that I most agree with would have to do with our transportation system," says the longtime resident who now rides the train between New Brunswick and Newark Penn Station three times each week.

"NJTransit has just been crumbling," says Torres, who works as a community advocate for a healthcare company.  "That's very important to me, just because it affects my work life."

He also thinks that the state's "housing crisis" is an issue of concern, especially in places like New Brunswick.

While Torres qualified for one of the 48 units in his building that are set aside for people with low or moderate income, he fears he won't be able to stay there into the future, once his income exceeds the threshold for the "affordable" unit. 

He admits he's "doing well, but not that well that I could afford a regular market rate apartment in New Brunswick."

Torres, who was appointed to serve on two city government commissions, says he doesn't want to leave New Brunswick, but understands he may have to just to afford to pay his bills.

"It seems like what's available to me is unaffordable," says Torres, adding he's hopeful Murphy will address the rising cost of housing if he wins.

TERESA VIVAR

Thousands of people in New Brunswick cannot vote, including some immigrants who have been here for decades.

Teresa Vivar has risen to become a leader in the Mexican-American community during her 20 years in the Hub City, but she still not allowed to vote.

But she doesn't let that stop her from attending government meetings, organizing protest marches, and helping stand up for her fellow immigrants when they come under attack from the federal government.

She lives on the very edge of downtown New Brunswick, where a 12-story parking deck dwarfs the block of modest homes on Prospect Street.

Like many immigrant residents, Vivar is legally allowed to live and work here, but she won't be able to vote until she finally becomes a US citizen.

So, this year, she will have to continue her advocacy from outside the voting booth, and for her part, she said she is not sure who she would cast her ballot for if she could vote.

"Definitely no Republican," she told New Brunswick Today when asked who she would vote for.

But she says Murphy reminds her of Jon Corzine, another wealthy Democrat who she recalls breaking his promises to the Latino community. 

"He promised too much to us, and the only thing he delivered was a blue ribbon panel, a panel that never got into anything concrete for years" said Vivar, referring to Corzine's Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Immigrant Policy.  "So it's hard to believe in Murphy."

"In this situation, we are against two big parties," she said.  The big issues for her are that a lot of people are not reigstered to vote, and the quality and cost of housing in New Brunswick.

"You walk the streets of downtown, everything's beautiful," Vivar says.  "But if you walk a [few] blocks, you start seeing poor houses and bad conditions."

"The conditions are terrible... the money is going to developers that never give us anything," she said.

Vivar noted that many of the city's high-profile redevelopment projects use taxpayer funds to benefit outsiders who are being lured to New Brunswick at the expense of current taxpaying residents.

Sometimes the developments also displace poor residents, she added, citing the block of New Street currently being bulldozed under a cloud of mystery.

"I see them as scorpions," she says of the local government.  "They're taking too much from us... They're just using people to make money."

She likes Kaper-Dale, noting he has "good community roots" and "good intentions," but fears that votes for him will mean less votes for the Democrat, potentially leading to another Republican in the Governor's mansion.

"The problem is voters," Vivar said.  "We are getting into a conflict between [how] people [are] accustomed to vote and what is good for the community."

As much as she supports Kaper-Dale and his campaign, she doesn't want to see Guadagno have an easier path to power.

"That is going to put in jeopardy the state of New Jersey for another Republican candidate... I don't think we want another Chris Christie in power so the only--sadly--choice left, even if we don't want it, is Phil Murphy."