After living in New Jersey for more than two decades, I was compelled to return to activism last year. Threats to the Affordable Care Act, and concern about a lack of transparency for voters, galvanized me in a way I hadn’t experienced since growing up in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s. As a teenager observing the segregation, humiliation, and disparities, I felt a need to get involved. I participated in voter registration, worked with the Anti-Poverty Program, and believed I was contributing to a better world.
As we began to see progress in the civil rights movement, I stepped away from activism to tend to my career, confident our country was moving in the right direction. Yet the election of Donald Trump, and his hateful rhetoric toward immigrants and women, reawakened my activist spark, especially after finding out that Republican congressmen from my state were allies of the president.
I joined other progressives across South Jersey to unseat Rep. Tom MacArthur, a South Jersey Republican who led the fight to repeal the Affordable Care Act in Congress. Our work led to his replacement with Democratic Rep. Andy Kim and energized me to get further involved in my community.
But while we have had success in electing to Congress people who represent our state’s progressive values, we now need to make sure that our officials are held accountable to these same principles.
Around the time of the midterm elections, I learned of a proposal to build a new township administration building in Cherry Hill in the new township master plan. I attended community meetings and asked whether options had been researched. I became disillusioned when I learned that rather than pursuing cheaper options that included renovating the existing structure, township officials were considering spending millions of dollars in new construction. Officials were dismissive when residents started showing up to public meetings with questions. Rather than empowering citizens like me to get involved in local government, our leaders and their staffs marginalized our concerns.
While the township, facing a public backlash, has since wavered on the proposal, the battle left a deep impression on me. After realizing it was difficult to get involved locally through the Democratic Party, I instead put my energy toward local progressive organizations, such as South Jersey Women for Progressive Change, and other civic groups, such as Cherry Hill United.
I have followed stories about growing disenfranchisement with concern. This problem isn’t confined to wealthy suburbs like Cherry Hill. The tentacles of the South Jersey machine extend into nearby Camden — one of America’s poorest big cities and the playground of local power brokers, who are reshaping the city by steering billions of dollars in corporate giveaways.
For example, projects funded under the state Economic Opportunity Act were meant to preserve and create jobs while revitalizing struggling urban centers like Camden. A performance audit released Jan. 9 by the New Jersey comptroller found that state officials had failed to perform basic oversight of projects that resulted in “nearly $11 billion in tax credit incentives.” It reported a “lack of policies and procedures to monitor awardees’ performance.”
As taxpaying residents, the very least we are entitled to is full accountability on how our taxes are spent. Yet state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat, has continued to support the programs, chalking up the problem to failed oversight by the Economic Development Authority rather than asking whether corporate handouts are worth protecting in the first place.
We didn’t battle for change in New Jersey only to see our own party — the Democrats — act in ways that remind us of President Trump and his support of big business.
We need public servants who are focused on lifting up our communities — all of our communities. We need public servants who, no matter their party, govern for all and not just the privileged few.