Non-partisan municipal races in Nutley have been upended by the COVID-19 crisis.
The ongoing pandemic has caused some incumbent candidates to pause their campaigning efforts and prioritize a coronavirus response.
“Right now, it’s 100% towards taking care of the residents,” Nutley Public Safety Commissioner Alphonse Petracco said. “I’m not really campaigning at this time … at this point, I have kind of toned that down and am just concentrating on getting through the coronavirus as a municipality.”
The entire board of commissioners comes up for a vote this year. Petracco and incumbent Mayor Joseph Scarpelli and commissioners Mauro Tucci and Thomas Evans are seeking re-election.
Commissioner Steve Rogers, a member of President Donald Trump’s 2020 Campaign Advisory Board, is not seeking a third term.
Scarpelli said he has likewise toned down campaigning to deal with the pandemic.
“We’re still trying to get our feet underneath us after what’s going on, plus we’re running government,” he said. “As incumbents, we have to run government, so that’s been taking the first priority, and campaigning has basically ceased for the moment.”
While governmental business taking precedence may appear as an advantage for the numerous challengers seeking a seat on Nutley’s commissioner board, it’s not clear that’s the case.
One of the challengers, two-time candidate Sam Fleitell, thinks the pandemic plays to the incumbents advantage.
“If the incumbents are dealing with the problem and people are saying ‘oh how wonderful they are,’ that certainly bodes well for them,” he said. “And if they’re not handling it well, there are a lot that aren’t even going to know.”
On the other hand, the challengers are less likely to face backlash if they campaign while businesses are ordered closed and citizens are ordered to stay indoors.
“There’s things you just can’t do presently. One, because some of it would rile the public up if you were campaigning during this crisis, so that’s one,” Scarpelli said. “Plus, I think there’s just things — you can’t go door to door, you can’t have rallies, you can’t attend functions that would normally be happening”
There’s also the matter of money.
Some of the incumbents boast relatively-massive war chests for a race in a town of 28,370.
Tucci reported having $71,322.57 banked at the end of the year, while Petracco had $31,302.90.
Evans had $7,678.67.
Fleitell, Scarpelli and John Kelly III, whose legendary grandfather served as mayor and as an assemblyman, have not filed campaign finance reports for the current election year.
With in-person voting cut completely for the May 12 races, money to fund online ads and mailers will be crucial to a candidate’s success.
“If the incumbents have raised a lot of money, they’re certainly in a much better position financially, probably, to push through this,” Fleitell said. “I don’t know how much money the candidates have raised. I know I’ve not raised a ton of money, so how do we fight the good fight if I have to put mailings out and I don’t have the money to do that?”
Many of the campaigns are already adjusting to the new all-vote-by-mail reality.
“It’s not smart to be like a bumble bee and go door-to-door. We’re going to be using technology more,” Evans said. “You’ll see more Facebook.”
That’s as true for the challengers as it is for the incumbents.
“I’ve been trying to move a lot of my campaign activities online and try to create more of an online presence to try to get my message and reach out to voters,” Kelly said. “So far, it’s really in the early stages, but so far I have a Facebook page. I have a website up, and I’m going to start doing some other types of outreach too through both of those forums.”
It’s also unclear how residents’ voting patterns will change now that the election is being conducted entirely through the mail.
In 2012, a little more than 6,100 residents cast ballots.
In 2016, 5,905 voted.
In years, turnout hovered around 20%.
While a higher number of mail-in ballots typically leads to a higher turnout, it’s possible some residents will be too concerned about the virus to drop off their ballots.
The situation is unprecedented, and there’s no reliable way to model turnout, especially given the unknowns surrounding the arc of COVID-19.
“We’re in uncharted territory, so I’m not sure exactly how that’s going to play out, if there’s going to be adverse effects on people going to the polls or if it’s actually going to increase voter turnout,” Kelly said.
Some of the candidates, like Tucci, are predicting turnout will rise.
Others, like Fleitell, are guessing residents will stay home.
“My personal feeling is I think they should postpone it. I mean, to me, it makes no sense,” he said. “These ballots are going to go out to people. I don’t know that people are going to want to respond, even in the mail.”