Former Council Member Urges Support for the Humane, Progressive, Thoughtful, and Result-Oriented Incumbent Democrats

To the Editor:

My name is Matthew Hersh and I encourage all residents to vote on Tuesday, June 4 in the Democratic primary. I also ask that Highland Parkers re-elect Mayor Gayle Brill Mittler, who is seeking a second term, along with her Column B running mates, Council President Phil George and Councilman Matt Hale.

In 2017, I ran for Highland Park Borough Council under the “Highland Park Progressive Democrats” banner. It was the aftermath of President Trump’s election and residents, particularly our most marginalized residents, were concerned about the uncertain future.

It was clear in those early days that this president had the ability to tear apart of the fabric of our communities by rounding up residents who could not renew their visas, or worse, never had a pathway to citizenship even if they wanted it and had citizen children in our schools.

Mayor Gayle immediately appointed an Immigration and Refugee Task Force that would look at what types of policies and police procedures we could implement in order to make sure our law-abiding residents were protected, safe, and would live with dignity. The town was rightly horrified that community leaders who happened to be unauthorized immigrants were forced to take sanctuary at churches in order to keep the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at bay.

So Gayle took action, at considerable risk: The town risked losing federal dollars through its Community Development Block Grant program; our schools were subject to the saber rattling of the Trump administration that so-called Sanctuary Cities could lose federal funding; our courts were at risk of having ICE agents await vulnerable residents who were paying parking tickets.

It’s not the Highland Park any of us wants. And you know what? Mayor Gayle took action.

In the face of an upsetting, town-wide campaign intended to scare residents out of allowing “illegals” in the community, and in the face of ICE’s public misinformation campaign that threatened our town—our town that wanted to protect all residents—Mayor Gayle listened to the residents. She also listened to the members of the newly-founded Commission on Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, and worked with the ACLU-NJ, the Alliance for Immigrant Justice, and the Working Families Party to develop a carefully thought-out policy framework that included: a municipal ID program which is now being administered out of the public library; a resolution stating that local police would not participate in 287(g) agreements where officers are essentially deputized by ICE to round up immigrants; and develop other resources that make it easier for undocumented residents who are victims of or witnesses of crime to report incidents.

This is Mayor Gayle’s style. Careful, thoughtful, progressive action. It’s not everyone’s style — and I think that’s the difference in this election — but it’s precisely what’s right for municipal government. Highland Park is an engaged, activist community and the public is an equal partner in government, but that blend of good, progressive governance and good, progressive activism, is what allows us to take the shape of our ideals.

Highland Park must not be a flashpoint for the ills of society. That’s a useless exercise. What Highland Park must be is a leader in taking those big issues and figuring out how to implement solutions on the local level. As a community, we can’t assign blame elsewhere, we can’t point fingers at the state for under-resourcing communities, we have to act locally and put upward pressure on higher levels of government.

This was Mayor Gayle’s approach to issues of police bias and inequity. As a member of Highland Park Human Relations Commission, the Highland Park Equity Commission, and the Highland Park Affordable Housing Corp., I think the only way to address community issues is to advocate, to engage, and to enact.

More, as someone who has worked as a reporter and has attended hundreds of municipal meetings as an observer, I know Highland Park acts openly, inclusively, and in the interest of all its residents as the Mayor and Council deal with major issues of the day, including downtown redevelopment, tax stabilization, municipal programming, and, yes, the needs and challenges related to our first responders.

It’s easy to say it’s not enough. You know why? Because it’s never enough. I don’t say that facetiously: the work of an equitable Highland Park is never enough because the work is never done. This Mayor and Council have been a leader in this state (it’s true! Recognized by the NJ State League of Municipalities) when it comes to doing everything possible toward the goal of everyone has a voice and that everyone is engaged.

I will also say, Mayor Gayle and her colleagues don’t purport to speak for anyone. They speak for themselves and make decisions on behalf of the town through listening, being educated on the issues, and looking at long-term policy implications through the lens of social and economic equity.

I’ve since left the council because of professional obligations (yes, Council is basically a full-time job) but I carry with me the doctrine of Clement Price, a Rutgers-Newark historian and leading authority on Newark, on when you move to a new town:

  • Register to vote;
  • Get a library card (or a Highland Park Municipal ID, which doubles as a library card;
  • Serve on the board of a local nonprofit.

I encourage anyone reading this to get involved. Even with the best governments and with all Highland Park does to spread the word, you can’t expect to be fully in the know on local issues if you’re not showing up.

Towns need to make every effort to be transparent and engaged, but it’s a two-way street. Residents have to want to come to the table. Nobody has time to wait for progress. That’s how we win and that’s why I’m voting Column B on June 4.

I ask that you join me.

Matthew Hersh
Felton Avenue

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