Scotch Plains Mayor Al Smith and Deputy Mayor Josh Losardo are locked in a race that, more than anything, defies the animus that pervades national politics.
The mayor, a Republican, and his challenger, a Democrat whose seat comes up for re-election in 2022, actually like each other, and though the contest could end with no Republicans on the township council, the race neither side feels a press to attack the other.
“Republicans and Democrats are our friends. there’s no reason not to have a good working relationship and try to move the ball forward as best as we can,” Smith said. “The campaign has been a positive one, and I think that’s been because our relationship has been a good one.”
Following a period of inter- and intra-party unrest some years ago, elected officials in the Union County town of about 24,000 have found a peace so solid that legislation that passes before the five-member council usually does so unanimously.
Both Losardo and Smith independently said only a handful of votes over the last two years had seen any dissent, despite the council being split 3-2 in Democrats’ favor.
“Despite the fact that they’re Republicans and we’re Democrats, we’ve all really worked the way we wish Washington would work,” Losardo said. “All of our votes but for three in the two years I’ve been on the council have been 5-0, and it’s been because the mayor and I have resolved and negotiated behind the scenes.”
At its core, the race is about redevelopment. Both candidates want to move forward with a downtown redevelopment project they hope will boost the city’s tax base to allow it to provide new services and provide some relief for existing residents.
That redevelopment is the race’s lone point of friction. The mayor wants to stay in office to deal with the process, which has dragged longer than he expected, and to simmer down racial tensions over police killings of unarmed black Americans and a statue of Christopher Columbus.
The challenger wants to first move the municipal complex out of its prime downtown location and bring a local amusement and some other properties with tax exemptions fully into the town’s tax base.
There’s also the question of Hoboken.
“The mayor has talked about what his vision is for downtown Scotch Plains and has shared he’d like to see the town resemble Hoboken, with six story buildings in our downtown,” Losardo said. “That’s not Scotch Plains to me.”
That stems from an early speech on redevelopment Smith gave, during which he said he’d like Scotch Plains’ downtown to resemble the Mile Square City’s.
“I was just trying to make a reference there, and people tried and are still trying to make that into something bad,” he said. “The hoot of it all is that this town is changing so quickly that in the last two and a half years, we only have about 7,000 living units in the town, 1,500 of those have turned over.”
The new residents, the mayor said, are coming from places like Hoboken and Jersey City, where tall buildings are a fact of life.
Still, the mayor has since abandoned the Hoboken messaging, saying instead that he’d like Scotch Plains to resemble Princeton. (Losardo pointed out town residents in a survey said they’d like Scotch Plains downtown to resemble Princeton’s.)
Like all others in the state, the race in Scotch Plains was upended by the Pandemic. For months, the candidates kept clear of their neighbors’ doors, and even as the election neared, they were unsure when it was appropriate to start on the campaign trail.
“This is what COVID did: We didn’t know when to start our campaign,” Losardo said.
The mayor announced his re-election bid on March 4, the same day New Jersey saw its first case of COVID-19. Within days, the campaign was sidelined in favor of informational initiatives to blunt the spread of the virus.
Both campaigns got going in early September, with the mayor’s lawn signs making the first appearance. Now, both sides are knocking on doors and sending mailers. Smith and Councilman Ted Spera have sent three or four, all of which the mayor described as “vanilla.”
Losardo and council running mate Ellen Zimmerman have sent two, with a third under consideration. Those aren’t inflammatory either, he said.
The trends appear to favor Losardo, a 48-year old former who was a legislative staffer in New York before winning office in 2016.
In 2018, the deputy mayor and his running mates trounced their Republican opponents, with Losardo running 1,231 votes ahead of Jeff Kowalczyk, beating the top-placing Republican 6,062-4831 four years after Democrats narrowly won two of the three seats up for a race.
Still, Smith fared well in 2016, defeating Democrat Kevin Glover by 11 points and winning the seat 6,489-5,120.