This article was written by Atlantic City’s Second Ward Councilwoman LaToya Dunston, Sixth Ward Councilman Jesse Kurtz and At-Large Councilman Bruce Weekes. Kurtz was elected as a Republican, while Dunston and Weekes were elected as Democrats. The three are supporters of a “Yes” vote on an upcoming ballot question that proposes removing political party labels from candidates on the ballot.
Thousands of Atlantic City voters signed a petition earlier this year that successfully places a referendum question on the ballot this November, which asks voters if we want to hold regular non-partisan municipal elections in May for the offices of City Council and Mayor. A “yes” vote on the referendum question would bring two important changes to Atlantic City:
- Our local elections would move to May. They would no longer be in June and November.
- The political party labels of ‘Democrat’ and ‘Republican’ would be removed from candidates on the ballot.
Atlantic City voters have a unique opportunity this November to take stronger control over our local elections by placing people over political parties and voting “yes” on the ballot question.
The time has come to re-focus the elections for Atlantic City Council and Mayor on Atlantic City issues, dynamics, and people. Non-partisan local elections focus campaigns on people over politics (national, state, county, etc…). A focused local Atlantic City election in May would transform local elections from being somewhat about Atlantic City issues, to being solely about Atlantic City issues and dynamics. This re-focusing is key to reviving Atlantic City’s political culture.
A non-partisan election in Atlantic City shifts the focus away from a candidate’s political party label. The focus of the local election becomes the ideas, message, character and record of the candidates, not the political party label or which candidate gets “the line” from political bosses around the state and political party chairs. Those candidates in Atlantic City who get “the line” through influence outside of Atlantic City nearly always win their primary election. And given the electoral dynamics in Atlantic City, that candidate with “the line” nearly always wins the general election. Candidates should be dedicating their time, money, and attention to courting people in Atlantic City, not political party bosses from around the state.
Those in favor of keeping the partisan status quo in our local elections charge that good Democrats cannot support a non-partisan election. Those assertions ignore the fact that the largest city in New Jersey, Newark – a stronghold for our Democratic Party – has non-partisan local elections in May. Voters in Newark do not allow their local candidates to get lost in the shuffle of Federal, State, and County electoral races. Neither should we in Atlantic City. There are plenty of other Democratic (and Republican) stronghold cities that have local non-partisan elections.
Non-partisan elections – where candidates run for office on their name and a personalized slogan, rather than the political party label of Democrat or Republican – can change the political and civic culture of a city. People should not have to be associated with controversial and emotionally-charged national and state issues when they want to get involved in deciding who will be their representatives on City Council and their Mayor. Separating the local election from the national and state elections may increase citizen participation in our local elections.
Approving the referendum question would not change the form of our government, as was attempted a couple years ago. Atlantic City would remain a City Council with members from six wards and three at-large (all-city) members. The Mayor would continue to be directly elected by voters in the same May election as the three at-large City Council members.
Atlantic City had non-partisan elections under both the Commission (1912-1982) and Council-Mayor (1982-2001) forms of government. This was changed in 2001. Changing local Atlantic City races to partisan elections has not improved our political culture. The change to partisan elections has created a toxic political environment.
The opportunity to change local elections to non-partisan contests in May is quite exciting. As current elected officials from different backgrounds, neighborhoods, and political parties we thought it was important to come together and write this op-ed. We do not always agree on the issues that come before us on City Council, but we are in complete agreement that Atlantic City would be better off with non-partisan local elections in May. As the youngest members on City Council, we see this change to non-partisan May local elections as being important to our future. We appreciate your taking the time to read our thoughts and strongly encourage you to place our people over politics and vote YES on the ballot question in the upcoming November election.