Speaking His Mind: Chris Swenson Reflects On The Election

"Negative ads work and will be found in every campaign in the future," he says.


Third Ward losing candidate Chris Swenson—who has worked on Democratic campaigns for the US Senate, Congressional seats as well NJ Senate and Assembly races—answers a few questions now that the local election is over.

Campaign retrospective:

What are your first thoughts with the election now behind us?

I congratulate the entire Jackson slate and Bill Hurlock for their victories. My hat’s off particularly to Sean Spiller, who worked hard and deserved his win in the Third Ward. I congratulated him on election night. Both he and Jeff Jacobson are good guys. All the new council members have a difficult time ahead of them and will need a lot of help to get Montclair to a better place. They should know a lot us are willing to pitch in.

My other thought is I no longer have to wear that stupid blue jacket with my name on my chest that I wore for the entire campaign.

What were some of the highlights of the campaign for you?

Despite the outcome, I have never enjoyed working on a campaign so much. It was really a grassroots effort that came together in about 10 weeks, managed mostly by volunteers. I met and worked with some very dedicated and talented people I didn’t know before. The moms were terrific and created such a positive atmosphere to work in. I have never been a part of a campaign where there was so little swearing. I basically joined the slate from a hospital room in Texas where my own mother was dying and this was almost like therapy for me. Karen, Peter and LeeAnn were terrific to work with. We really were a unified slate and I am proud to have been part of it.

Why do you think the Jackson slate won so convincingly?

Not having a full, more diverse slate hurt us. They had a professional campaign run by seasoned political operatives who know what they are doing. Is this the Essex County machine? Elements of it for sure. Having said that, you still need strong candidates at the top of the ticket to win. Jackson was certainly all of that. The race in Orange where the County machine backed Mayor Hawkins, who lost, shows that candidates do matter. The Jackson slate’s messaging was disciplined, they knew how to get their vote out, their use of street money was very effective, it’s not illegal to pay people from out of town to come in and leaflet, and the negative ads were coordinated and extremely effective. I think we had a harder time getting the message out that fiscal mismanagement is hurting our values, social programs and those with the least resources in town. The negative ads drowned us out. I think the article, which was astoundingly biased and misinformed, turned a close race into walk.

What particularly about the New York Times piece was inaccurate?

There’s no reason to go back over all details, it would just be sour grapes. What I will say is this: the reporter was from Montclair covering an election in her hometown which the Times normally doesn’t allow for a local election. At least it didn’t when I was a stringer there a hundred years ago. I think the reporter had a story line in mind then went out to make the data fit that story line. Happens all the time though usually it’s not dropped in on Election Day. Quoting Cary Chevat as if he were a neutral activist to get the words “Tea Party” into the story boggles the mind. He helped put the Jackson slate together and had already endorsed him. Even with all the other inaccuracies in the story, that was the key inflammatory line. Again, I don’t think this determined the outcome, but it was probably worth 3-4 points of the victory margin.

Do you think, as Mayor Fried has suggested, that being on the RPM slate hurt you?

It doesn’t matter because I wouldn’t have run on any other slate just to win. You have to stand for something and this is where I stood, with RPM. Sean worked hard and deserved the win. I could have run with Jackson, but chose not to primarily because it didn’t feel right to hook up with the County Dems for the campaign. Mayor Fried, whom I consider a friend, seemed a little wacky on Election Day. I was standing next to him when he was interviewed and said essentially that only conservative activists vote in these May elections. That was almost laughable.

Do you see any long term lessons from this campaign?

Three consequences come to mind. First, going door-to-door is much more important than putting forth good policy ideas on the blogs. Jeff Jacobson was an outstanding candidate in the third ward. Extremely smart and articulate, I thought he killed Sean and me in the one debate we had. I think his job prevented him from going door-to-door as much as Sean and I did. He campaigned primarily through the blogs and he finished third. I hope Jeff stays involved; the town could benefit from his knowledge.

Second, negative ads work and will be found in every campaign in the future. We held back against Jackson on some negative mail pieces because as a group we just didn’t it think would be right. We got hammered with the Jackson campaign’s coordinated attack pieces and the dubbed robo calls with Karen’s voice. The next time around I don’t think anyone will hold back. Four years from now if you want to run you had better have very thick skin because it will be very nasty.

Third, the county machine is more effective than I thought. I think we are better off as a non-partisan town but I don’t think we will remain that way for long. It was moms against the machine and the machine won big. What you have to be worried about now is whether any favors are owed. Watch to see whether county elected officials make calls to push their favorite insurance agents, lawyers and engineering firms on the BOE or town. Hopefully this won’t happen.

Anything else?

The most disappointing aspect of the election is that the turnout is still stupidly low. It was almost exactly the same percentage as last time. Maybe Fried is right and we should move the election to November. I’m not sure you can keep them non-partisan and do that, but broadening the base of voters would be better.

A. Gideon May 15, 2012 at 03:32 PM
"The woman and her slate sought to improve life here" Is this a theme? I was last night at an event for the local BigBrothers/BigSisters organization. There I ran into someone that I learned was a member of "Junior League". I remembered some of the attacks against the Turner slate mentioning this, so I asked about it; I'd never heard of this league before. It turns out that this is - from my recollection - a group of volunteers that acts to serve the community in several ways. What struck me about this is its similarity with the PTA. That in turn begs a question: How is it that groups like this can be part of a negative campaign? How did participation in groups like this become a negative, to be treated with scorn? Active in the community? Volunteering time to help people? Well, that clearly makes someone unfit for public office. How can that possibly make sense? ...Andrew
notroc May 15, 2012 at 06:48 PM
Well, thanks for playing along for the election then, Andrew. Why didn't you look it up on Wikipedia, like good RPMers would. This admission puts your prior commentary in a new, even more reckless light, methinks.
CMFAS55 May 15, 2012 at 07:03 PM
The PTA, Jr League and any other volunteer organization in Montclair (made up of people who are "givers" of time, knowledge and money) are wonderful to all the "takers" until people invovled in such groups come out and support something that make the takers in any way fearful of losing things they have grown to feel entitled to. Then the takers point fingers about the givers and their organizations and call them "elitist" and out to destroy the town. It's a bunch of garbage but that was the M2012 playbook and it was executed well. Moms who volunteer for the PTA or are part of the Junior League were painted as awful human beings who only care for themselves and are out to force black and lower income people out of Montclair and make the town the sole possession of the country club elite. I don;t think that the voting public bought too much of that rhetoric (most town people aren't on these sites), but the posters on here who vocally outraged by the PTA ad or by Turners memebership in the Jr League fit that mold.
A. Gideon May 20, 2012 at 04:30 PM
"It's a bunch of garbage but that was the M2012 playbook and it was executed well." There's an interesting piece on "hit politics" in today's NYTimes: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/20/opinion/sunday/bruni-of-bile-and-billionaires.html It doesn't specifically address attacks on people with the audacity to volunteer within the community, but it does address interested parties and partisans willing to put aside truth for "hyperbole". I wonder if the attacks on volunteers is more specific to Montclair somehow. "I don;t think that the voting public bought too much of that rhetoric" Given how references to the PTA and such morphed into "country clubs" and "tea parties", I'm not so sure of this. Let's not forget the "tea party" comment in the NYTimes article the day before the election, where either Cary Chevat had a quote used out of context or he was repeating the "tea party" lie (it's not clear which of these occurred). The article ends on a positive note: "But there are clearly voters out there who are interested in turning down the heat on our political discourse." It's too bad that Montclair appears to be moving in the opposite direction. ...Andrew
tryintosurvive May 20, 2012 at 05:32 PM
I can't read it as I have chosen to give up on reading anything from the NY Times. There are too many better sources for unbiased information.


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