The two leading mayoral campaigns have in recent weeks released campaign platforms, literature, and their first political ads in the hopes of attracting voters in the upcoming May 14 municipal election.
Behind the scenes, however, there are unseen hands – typing on computer keyboards and touch screen smart phones – that are as much responsible for guiding the election as any campaign manager or paid campaign worker.
Every day a small group of residents voraciously post online and chat about every nuance of the campaign, from the aforementioned ads and the candidates’ platforms to gossip from their pasts.
The discussions can sometimes get a little ugly, rehashing old rumors about public officials’ alleged car wrecks, arrest records, sexual orientations, or fitness for political office.
A recent discussion thread on the popular JCList site, titled “Dan is Still Dan,” focused on whether Ward E City Council candidate Dan Levin has remained true to his government reformist values since teaming up with Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy, a politician Levin often criticized in the past regarding tax increases, patronage, and other issues.
In one post about Levin, a poster known as SOS wrote: “If Dan is still Dan, then I guess I never knew Dan Levin. The Dan that I know and respected would never work to re-elect Healy. Any informed and reasonable Jersey City resident (even you, CrazyForJC) knows that Healy was up to his elbows in corruption. Operation Bid Rig provided tangible evidence. Healy is still the same person now as he was then, despite the efforts to repair his image.”
Such is the discussion on the city’s most popular social media websites and message boards. Regular participants in these discussions defend much of the content, arguing that readers are informed more often than they are misinformed.
Sideline distraction, or informed debate?
“I am sure that it has an impact on the political race,” said activist and frequent online poster Riaz Wahid, who often posts comments to the Facebook Political Insider site. “In Facebook Political Insider, people post their thoughts and try to have a good discussion. Some discussions are like Town Hall kind of meetings.”
Wahid recalled specific moments in previous campaigns when online discussions forced candidates to modify statements or to correct inaccurate campaign literature.
“During the council-at-large special election in [November] 2011, Kalimah Ahmad and Ray Velazquez sent mailers claiming there had been no lay-offs in the city,” Wahid said. While the city had successfully avoided layoffs within the Jersey City Police Department, city workers in other departments were laid off to save money during the recession.
“This was discussed in Facebook Political Insider and Ms. Ahmad made a commitment that she would send a corrected mailer, which she did,” Wahid added. “In that same race, Sue Mack and Omar Perez dropped literature in the Jersey City Heights area claiming [Union City] Mayor Brian Stack had endorsed them. It was discussed in Facebook Political Insider and Mayor Stack denied it.”
Tyrone Hodge, who often posts under the name PoliticalTy and who co-founded Facebook Political Insider with fellow resident Gilbert Moore, agreed that online posts and discussion groups can impact the political landscape.
‘A lot of people don’t have time to go to City Hall [for council meetings], so what we do is try and bring City Hall to the forum.’ – Tyrone Hodge
Moore, who co-founded the site with Hodge, said it’s not uncommon for elected officials to follow the online message boards and chime in when necessary.
“We know they read the site because every once in a while they’ll come on and post something themselves,” said Moore. “And it’s not just politicians in Jersey City. We have elected people who post from Hoboken or Trenton. They might be silent for months. But if something affects them or something they care about, they’ll make a comment. They use these forums to gauge what’s going on in the community, see what the community is talking about.”
Newspaper reporters, he notes, also follow the discussion and use it for story ideas.
But the discussion isn’t always about the merits – or lack thereof – of, say, abatements or affordable housing. Discussions can degenerate and border on the mean-spirited, particularly among posters who use fictitious names to make their comments, or those who work for one of the political campaigns.
Last year, there was wide speculation that a JCList poster who used the name JCFree was Jersey City Corporation Counsel and Healy operative Bill Matsikoudis. For several months, JCFree wrote regular posts that portrayed Councilman Steven Fulop, Healy’s best-known mayoral challenger, in a negative light.
Matsikoudis has consistently denied that he was JCFree, who has since been banned from the JCList site.
When a new anti-Fulop poster quickly appeared on the JCList scene, other posters speculated that it was JCFree reborn under a new name. More recently there has been speculation that JCList poster CrazyForJC is also Matsikoudis after CrazyForJC dredged up an old voter fraud allegation from 2005.
A poster named Pamrapo last month wrote: “The aptly named ‘Crazy’ denies that he’s Healy’s lawyer. But he sure sounds like Healy’s lawyer. Funny how he keeps mentioning discredited crap from a decade ago, falsely implying that ‘someone’ (unnamed, unknown, and likely imaginary) from Fulop’s first campaign paid a ridiculous price to buy about eight votes in a dangerous, easily discoverable manner. Yet, Crazy never seems to mention the proven crap from four years ago, where multiple members of Team Healy went to jail for peddling their offices.”
On Facebook Political Insider most posters use their real names, or a handle that is close to their real names. But recently posters have been trying to force someone who goes by the name Hudson Hawk to reveal himself/herself.
The question of anonymous posters can, at times, be significant since they can sometimes be the source of malicious lies that get spread and live online in perpetuity. While the message boards in Jersey City are not as virulent as their counterparts in neighboring Hoboken, a few posters are not shy about going on the attack and spreading rumors to protect a favored candidate or hurt an opponent.
“You can kind of tell who people support [politically] ‘cause what will happen is, whenever something negative is said about one of the candidates, their supporters will come on and try to redirect the conversation, to get people to focus on something else,” said Moore.
For example, after someone posted a link to a YouTube video titled “8 is Great for Team Fulop,” Fulop supporters on Facebook Political Insider began posting about a controversial downtown abatement. (The video featured the Count from “Sesame Street” with the number 8 in his hand. The 45-second video includes a rundown of the eight jobs held by City Councilman Rolando Lavarro Jr., Assemblyman Sean Connors, and Khemraj “Chico” Ramchal, all of whom are running for City Council on the Fulop slate.)
“A lot of times it’s ‘shoot the messenger,’” said Wahid. “I have seen people on the Jersey City Heights United page claiming, ‘Don’t post political stuff. This page is not for that.’ But these people complain only when the posts hurt Team Fulop.”
Still, most of those interviewed said the online forums elevate political discourse in the community more than they drag it down. Interestingly, both Wahid and Moore said many people who post to the various online sites are still undecided about who they plan to support in the upcoming municipal elections, and they are using the sites to help make up their minds.
“I think it helps residents connect with each other who might never have had the opportunity to meet each other in person,” said resident John Lynch, another frequent poster. “It has helped introduce many folks across Jersey City who [later] meet in person, and/or recognize one and other at a Council meeting, Board of Education meeting, or at an event, etc. I personally have gotten to know many folks whom I would not have known otherwise. I believe it has helped to engage residents who might not have become engaged in the election, and those who were already interested in becoming even more engaged.”
E-mail E. Assata Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.