For decades, the League of Women Voters sponsored the annual freeholder candidates debate in a non-partisan atmosphere. Unfortunately, this year the gavel will be silent.
According to county party leaders on both sides of the political fence, as of late last week neither received notification from the league of a forthcoming debate. With the election just over two weeks away, both doubted the annual event would be taking place this year.
According to the league’s state chapter, the once thriving local membership has been on the decline the last few decades because of the advanced age of members and it has been difficult to fill their shoes.
“We need an influx of new, younger members who will take over for those who spent decades volunteering their time to host these debates,” said a statewide New Jersey League of Women Voters spokesperson responding to LocalSource’s questions Friday.
“Although we still have many active members, they are getting on in years and finding women who have the time to devote to this cause these days is difficult,” she added.
The spokesperson noted that Union County specifically was hit hard by declining membership.
The freeholder candidates debate, according to one former league member who preferred her name not be used, gave residents throughout the county’s 21 municipalities an opportunity to hear the platforms of challengers going up against freeholder incumbents who have dominated the polls the last 15 years.
The league member also mentioned that although local municipal debates previously took place in almost every town, that is no longer the case.
“We provided a neutral, unbiased forum for these candidates, both on the local and county level, but when you lack new members, doing that kind of a job every year is next to impossible.
The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy.
Founded in 1919 as an auxiliary to the National American Woman Suffrage Association, the league was designed as a non-partisan organization dedicated to educating women for their new political role. By the 1970s, membership began to decline in suburban areas and has been on a downward spiral ever since, according to information on the league’s website.
Even county political leaders were surprised that they had not heard anything from the league about a forthcoming debate or forum.
Union County Democratic Committee Chairman Charlotte DeFilippo said Friday she did not receive any notification from the league and that was highly unusual.
“We usually get a letter from the league in September saying they would like to have the debate on a certain date and asking if that is okay with us,” the Democratic chairman said, adding she was surprised nothing had been scheduled this year.
“We especially like the fact the league runs the debate because they bring in a moderator from another county who fairly and objectively oversees things,” DeFilippo said.
“We look forward to the league debate because it is a legitimate independent agency who handles everything professionally,” she said, noting “this is a loss for residents and candidates alike.”
Republican County Chairman Philip Morin, a former Cranford mayor, was equally taken back by there not being an open forum when all the candidates could present their views on the major issues facing the county.
“I think this is the one time we have a public forum where residents can hear what candidates have to say without any spin doctors involved,” he said, adding the annual event promotes “full disclosure on issues that do not get enough public vetting.”
As an example, Morin brought up the fact the county recently announced the Union County Improvement Authority’s involvement in operating the new clubhouse at the Galloping Hill Golf course in Union.
Morin was also concerned that in the past when the league could not run the annual debate, which was rare, the media took over the event.
“So far it looks like there will not be anything this year and that is a shame,” he added.
Bruce Bergen, Democratic candidate for one of the three open freeholder seats, said he looked forward to the forum.
“Actually, I’m disappointed for the public. I think it’s an opportunity for the public to get a look at all the candidates and see how we present ourselves on the issues,” said Bergen, an attorney.
But, the candidate said despite the lack of a debate this year, he and running mates Al Mirabella and Mohamed Jalloh, both incumbents, have been busy attending public events on weekends and walking door-to-door to ensure residents know who they are and where they stand on issues facing the county.