UPDATE (11/5): Herbert Gross did better than expected in yesterday's election, coming in second place, but Gayle Brill Mittler dominated with 71.5% of votes cast on Election Day.
HIGHLAND PARK, NJ—While New Brunswickers are looking at ballots with only one candidate for Mayor in today's election, Highland Park residents have three choices to pick from.
In an election that came about under strange circumstances, the progressive town's new Democrat Mayor Gayle Brill-Mittler is fending off a challenge from an independent candidate and a longshot Republican.
"I love my job as mayor… Being able to help is the best part of the job," says Brill Mittler, a former Councilwoman who has been Mayor for just three months. She took office after Mayor Gary Minkoff abruptly left office for a better-paying job this summer.
That change didn't sit well with Bruno Oriti, an activist and child psychologist at a local hospital who is running against Brill Mittler as an independent.
"Not many people saw it coming. [Minkoff] said he resigned ostensibly because there were better career opporutnities for him and so forth… What it led me to think was that there's was a divestment in the meaning and the purpose of elected office," said Oriti.
"At the moment I heard that the Mayorship was that devalued, and there is so much that not only needs to be done, but is being done, … That's why I ran."
Oriti says his campaign is "highly energized and it's surprisingly taking root," partly the result of the town's highly engaged electorate, which has been fired up over controversies with the town's school system, and even its sidewalks.
Oriti and Brill Mittler are fighting over the same progressive base that makes up the square-mile town. It's unclear how much a highly-charged fight over the town's school system will have on engagement in this campaign, but neither candidate is taking anything for granted.
The two candidates have contrasting styles, and could face off again next year.
Even if he loses this campaign, his first for elected office, Oriti says he is building a movement that could once again support his candidacy next year when Mittler will have to run again for re-election.
Mittler could end up running in three elections in as many years, and regardless of the outcome of today's contest, both candidates could find themselves duking it out again next year.
Brill Mittler is the more polished candidate. She told New Brunswick today that she is focused on working with state legislators and nearby mayors to stabilize taxes and foster downtown development geared towards young single people.
Originally from Brooklyn, Brill Mittler moved to Highland Park and raised her children there because she wanted to live in "a walking community, diverse community, good schools, tree lined streets."
"The community has given so much to me. I want to be able to give back," says Brill Mittler, who said she has handed over control of her business to her son.
"The route I took was PTO, to communicty activism, to politics," said Brill Mittler, a business owner and founding board member of Main Street Highland Park, the town's chamber of commerce. "I don't really feel like I'm a politician, I feel like a super volunteer."
Oriti was more analytical and abstract in his interview, expressing support for public banking, questioning the need for development in the quaint boro, and speaking of concepts like democracy, "the commons," and coalition-building.
Oriti says his parents divorced when he was young and grew up poor in South Jersey. Like Brill Mittler, he cites activism in his background.
His activist efforts have included starting a chapter of the People's Organization for Progress and bringing a group of children to volunteer in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
He credits his mother for instilling his activist streak.
"I grew up in a very racist town in South Jersey. And so my mother taught me a great deal about courage."
SIDEWALKS AT ISSUE IN CAMPAIGN AND THE COURTS
The odd man out in the campaign is Herbert Gross, a military combat veteran and retired truck driver who says he would be "a full-time mayor" and work for the part-time salary that Minkoff left behind, $6,756.
"Highland Park has always been under Democratic rule," Gross told New Brunswick Today. It's his third time running for local office in the town he's called home for nearly 70 years. He says his first priority would be to reduce the town's taxes.
Gross says, "the independent voter in this election is going to be the winning point."
The town has nearly as many unaffiliated voters as Democrats, about 3,000 of each, according to voter rolls. Only 479 voters were registered Republicans as of 2012.
Gross is staunchly opposed to the Boro's efforts to force residents to fix up the sidewalks in front of their homes at their own expense, or face fines.
"I make a pledge that this whole sidewalk affair is over. It's finished," Gross says, the anger apparent in his voice. He attended multiple sessions of court in Highland Park and watched with dismay as homeowners faced the charges one by one.
"I will not let no resident, senior citizen, veteran ever be insulted, humiliated, and abused as what I saw in that courtroom. This will never happen under my watch," said Gross.
"I will not accept this as the Mayor," says Gross.
He says he supports development, and wants to create affordable rental housing, but says he won't raise taxes and can't say what cuts he would make to the budget.
"We would sit down with our accountants and our attorneys and we would figure out where we can cut costs," said Gross. "We have started premature discussions on this."
Middlesex County Assignment Judge Travis Francis ruled against the government in its efforts to force residents to fix their sidewalks or face steep fines.
"The end result was that people were compelled, but the law didn't support that the government could compel you," said Oriti, who added that the sidewalk issue has helped him to build a coalition around his candidacy.
"At the end of the first round, the judge asked us to go back and fine-tune the ordinance that we have that is based on a state statute that allows municipalities to require residents repair their sidewalks. So we have been going back and forth on Council to make sure that its equitable and understandable… we'll be going back to court with that," she said.
"People still haven't heard that they are getting their money back," said Oriti, who told New Brunswick Today that the monies were "illegally coerced out of people," said Oriti .
Brill Mittler says the program was birthed out of complaints that the walkable town had too many tripping hazards. She was on the Council at the time and supported the controversial program.
She said many residents complied and improved their sidewalks, and that property owners who participated in the town-sponsored program are currently paying back loans from the town through their taxes to pay for the cost of repairs over five years. She said the town also worked to "get a rate from a contractor that would allow us to pass lower cost repairs onto our residents."
But, still 1,140 residents "who were cited with to have broken or unsafe sidewalks," she admits.
"At least 90% of those cases that were cited was becuase the boro planted trees," says Oriti, who argues like Gross and other opponents of the sidewalk program, that property owners cannot cut down the street trees, many of which are 100 years old or more, that are causing the vast majority of uneven sidewalks.
"The issues are safe sidewalks. We're a walking town, we have children walking to school," says Brill Mittler.
Oriti says that the program was pushed by elected officials years ago "for reasons that nobody has a clear handle on" and it's implementation appears to be arbitrary. Even if there was a need for such a program, Oriti says, it was not produced in an inclusive fashion that could have benefitted from public input.
"It was decided that the code enforcement office would go around with whatever criteria they develeoped, and put a little Scarlet letter on your property," Oriti said, referring to the black X's marking the sidewalks of violators.
"Back around 2009 or so [it was decided] that that needs to be a priority. It wasn't based on any accumulating lawsuits or accumualting injuries," Oriti said.
"That went on in earnest for several years… It seemed like it was overreach," said Oriti.
"I just want to get past this point so we can all move forward and talk about how to proceed in the future," said Brill Mittler.
BIG DEVELOPMENT A BIG ISSUE IN TOWN
Brill Mittler said she hopes "to find ways to keep the community united and make it affordable for people of all backgrounds to be able to stay and live here, and that includes our seniors as well."
She also wants to attract new young residents to live in the Boro
In addition to lobbying the state for more funding, Brill Mittler says building up the downtown is important to her, in hopes of attracting so-called "millenials" who will live in town, but not burden the public school system.
"The key is finding ways to help stabilize our taxes… We want to keep our schools good," said Brill Mittler.
"Financially, if we could get downtown development with the kinds of smaller units that… millenials or "baby-boomerangers," would want to live in then we would have an influx of income into town for our retailers."
Oriti questions the need for new devleopment in the town, and argues it could easily have an adverse impact on the town's budget.
"One of the reasons people rationalize development is that it's needed," says Oriti. "If it's needed to spread out the tax burden, that's not going to work. There's never been a study that shows that it works."
"Is the development needed for the tax base? No and it's not going to solve that problem."
Oriti and Brill Mittler were on the same side of a fight to defeat a development nearly a decade ago that would have destroyed the last wooded area of town.
The proposed Buckwoods devleopment was proposed by real estate mogul Jack Morris, and Morris brought a powerful attorney with him to push the project, none other than New Brunswick Mayor James Cahill.
"We all know well that the County Freeholders to the Mayor next door [in New Brunswick], they're all in development. So it's silly to think that it's not being driven by those motives," said Oriti
"Its amazing what is tolerated at local levels," Oriti said. "It happens all the time but it was amazing to see that somehow this is still a government."
Oriti says he will try to turn redevelopment into a more community-oriented process where goals would be set before developers are sought.
"If we decide that we want 100 more affordable housing units in Highland Park, then that's a goal not of the devleoper, that's our goal. Then we seek the developer who will give us what we want. That's how I would reverse it," said Oriti.
Either way, Brill Mittler is dead set on bringing bigger buildings to Raritan Avenue, the main road that runs through the tiny town and says she has "rejuvenated" the Boro's redevelopment agency.
"We have to give [the Millenials] what they want and they want density in downtown," saying she wants to see the "fabulous master plan" and "redevelopment plan" enacted.
She said developers "were not knocking on our doors" during the Great Recession. "However, we are coming out of there," she told New Brunswick Today.
A series of large-scale development projects have caused controversy in the Boro, in part because of their impact on the school system.
"What I do know is that the state formula that's used to determine how many children are coming out of these developments in Highland Park are faulty," said Brill Mittler.
"We were told that we would get a minimum amount of children out of there," she said referring to the Pulte Homes development known as "Overlook."
But she said her campaign took her to 30 doors in the neighborhood and said only 2 did not have school-age children.
"That's not the kind of ratio that we were using in determining how many children were coming out of that development and into the Highland Park school system," said Brill Mittler.
Charlie is the founder and editor of New Brunswick Today, and the winner of the Awbrey Award for Community-Oriented Local Journalism. He is a proud Rutgers University journalism graduate and a community organizer, and was an independent candidate for Mayor of New Brunswick in 2018.