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The Untapped - County's Growing Minorities Have Yet To Make A Dent In The Circles Of Power
By LAWRENCE RAGONESE
August 24, 2003
A plan to create a multimillion-dollar police information system for Morris County drew a crowd to a freeholders meeting earlier this year in Morristown. The board's meeting room was filled with government officials, consultants, police and news reporters.
The 33 attendees had something in common besides their interest in this important countywide issue: They were all white.
That pattern is repeated regularly in governing circles in Morris County. The county of 470,212 people is evolving into a more ethnically and racially diverse place, but political, government, education, and law enforcement leadership does not reflect that change.
In a part of New Jersey where, according to the 2000 Census, one of every eight residents is a minority member, whites run virtually all county agencies and departments, serving as judges, mayors, sheriffs, municipal administrators, county and municipal prosecutors, and head the county college, park commission, and vocational high school.
The county's small but longstanding African-American community is virtually unrepresented in major decision-making. So are the rapidly growing numbers of Hispanics and Asians. The November election offers little prospect of change: A Hispanic candidate for mayor in Dover is one of the few minority candidates on the ballot.
Just about every political and government leader in the county says there is no concerted effort to exclude minorities. Still, since January, the all-Republican freeholder board has made more than 50 appointments to volunteer boards, such as open space and aviation committees - none to a nonwhite or to a Hispanic of any race.
Appointments usually come from a pool of qualified people known to freeholders or their advisers, who do not necessarily have close ties to minority communities.
"We do not deliberately avoid appointments of minorities. Race or ethnicity never come up" as a criterion, said Freeholder Director John Murphy, a second-generation Irish-American.
The 2000 Census shows Morris County is 87.2 percent white - down 8 percentage points since 1980. In that same period, the Asian population has nearly quadrupled, to 29,000, and Hispanics nearly tripled, to about 37,000, while the black population has grown by a third to about 13,000.
The increasing diversity is readily evident along the county's streets and in its supermarkets, restaurants and shopping malls.
Meanwhile, only six of all elected municipal officials in the county - 2 percent - are from minority groups. All state legislators, freeholders, other elected county officials, mayors of all 39 towns, town managers, top law enforcement officials and Superior Court judges are white. So are 40 of 41 school superintendents, most of the department and division chiefs in county government, and virtually all appointed members of key county boards and agencies.
Minority leaders are concerned.
"It's very frustrating to me. I would like to see more Indian people get more involved," said Ragini "Regina" Goel of Parsippany, an Indian-American elected in June to chair the Human Relations Commission, one of few diverse county panels.
"Surely it disturbs me not to see more African-Americans or Hispanics involved," said Reno Smith, president of the Morris County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "Maybe it is some fault of our own that we don't fight hard enough. Sometimes you can get tired of fighting the system."
The reasons for the lack of diversity among the county's leadership are plentiful, political experts say. Many of the county's minority members are first-generation U.S. residents who do not speak English and are more interested in jobs, educating their kids, dealing with issues inside their communities, and maintaining religious and social customs than in bonding with the new society around them.
"It seems pretty clear, from what we've studied, that immigrants take until the second generation to begin to be part of the leadership process," said Ingrid Reed, director of New Jersey issues for the Eagleton Institute for Politics.
"Initially they tend to their own group's needs. Many times they only inadvertently begin interacting with local government on issues involving their needs, such as when plans to build a church conflict with local zoning laws."
At the same time, it can be difficult to cultivate Hispanics and Asians into the political process because they hail from so many different countries and cultures, said John Weingarten, Reed's colleague at Eagleton.
"They do not all necessarily have as much in common as everyone might think," said Weingarten. "It's not like there's just one large bloc of voters that can easily be tapped."
Experts also note that the county is Republican-dominated, and newcomers tend to affiliate with Democrats, as do the more established African-American communities, isolating them from Morris County's power base.
"This is not to also say that bias and racism have been wiped out and that the Old Boy Network is not still in place," Reed said. "But there are many and complex reasons for this situation." 'THE DOOR IS OPEN'Minorities have made inroads in the Morris County Democratic Party, whose former chairman, William Kersey, is African-American. So are five elected councilwomen, who represent Morristown and Victory Gardens.
African-American Diana Ritchie of Morris Township ran for freeholder as a Democrat in 1995, as did Esperanza Porras-Field, a Hispanic from Morris Township in 1997. Vij Pawar, an Indian-American from Parsippany, ran for Congress in 2002 as a Democrat. All lost by substantial margins.
The direct route to elected or appointed county leadership usually runs through the Republican Party.
"We are a party of inclusion. We don't turn anybody down," said John Sette, the party chairman, who stressed he is working to get Colombian-American Javier Marin elected Dover's next mayor. "In all the time I have been with this party, I have never seen any discrimination.
"Look, I can't go out and recruit them, but the door is open."
George Martin, new board president of the Morris County Urban League, contends elected leaders should be finding qualified minority representatives for county boards and agencies.
"You need a diversity of people to provide a diversity of opinions when making decisions for society," said the 57-year-old Madison resident, an African-American who recently was elected to the Madison school board.
"It is important to have them as role models, to show people there are African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians who have value - that they don't have to be athletes or entertainers for them to have value, that they can be businessmen, professionals, and leaders in many fields." Martin said he is concerned that minority residents "feel displaced in the political process." REGISTRATION ISSUEFour Morris County towns have substantial minority populations: Dover, Parsippany, Morristown and tiny Victory Gardens. The latter two have long had minority political representation on the Democratic side, particularly from the black community.
But in the county's most populous town, Parsippany, which is almost 20 percent Asian, there has been little minority leadership. Two key exceptions were the late Adoorvalappil "A.C." Gangadharan, who was on the school board from 1981 to 1992 and served as its president, and Kaushik "Casey" Parikh, current chairman of the planning board.
"The hardest thing is to get these people to register and become part of a party," said Assemblyman Alex DeCroce (R-Morris), the town's Republican chairman. "Many are first-generation here. They are hard workers, have close family ties, keep to themselves. But as their kids go through the schools and families become established, you will eventually see things change."
That may be happening in Dover, which is more than half Hispanic. One aldermen, Ron Camacho, is Hispanic; Marin is running for mayor; and the Hispanic community is becoming politically active, especially in Republican politics.
"Two years ago, when I first ran, there was a perception that some groups in town were being left out of the process," said Dover Republican Party Chairman Scott Miller, who is white and ran in 2001 on a ticket with Camacho, Roberto Sanchez and African-American Jason Ford.
Miller said the almost dormant Republican organization connected with groups such as Casa Puerto Rico, Club Colombia and the Concerned Hispanic Political Action Committee.
"Dover has always been a town of immigrants - Irish, Italians, Greeks. I've always had ethnic neighbors," Miller said. "Now the Hispanic community is taking its place alongside those groups."
Making leadership diversity a reality in once mostly-white suburbs is a matter of nuts- and-bolts politics, said Gerald Pomper, political science professor emeritus at Rutgers University.
"The basic thing politicians want is to win. That means getting more votes than the other side," Pomper said. "The most important thing they want to know is: Are you registered (to vote)? If they can get votes, they'll do something for these groups. It could include giving out some appointments."
So far, that has rarely occurred in Morris County.
"I think about this issue a lot, not just as a minority but as a woman, too," said Jasmine Lim, a Chinese-American who has been town manager in Vernon, administrator in Parsippany, and now assistant administrator in Montville.
Lim said her Asian background is a rarity in North Jersey government circles, though it has not hampered her career. But she has encountered social discrimination.
"People assume you look different, so they think you must be different," said the Wellesley College graduate.
Some strides are being made in segments of county affairs, particularly law enforcement, to foster minority leadership. Prosecutor Michael Rubbinaccio said he has hired Hispanic investigators, has a female Hispanic officer running his court and trial section, has brought in a Russian-and-Polish-speaking detective, has set up an internship for the Indian-American community and has reached out to Muslim, African-American, Orthodox Jewish and other minority groups.
"We want to encourage minorities to come to law enforcement, to rise through the ranks and become role models," said Rubbinaccio.
At the jail, Undersheriff Ralph McGrane said there are 19 minority officers, including the soon-to- retire warden, Elsie Davis, who is African-American. Some, such as Officer Edwin Santana, a Hispanic who runs the gang intelligence unit, and Sgt. Shemuel Yehudah, an Israeli-American, have the potential to rise to the top and provide more diverse leadership in future years, McGrane said.
"We've had some bad problems in the past at this jail with ugly racial lawsuits. It was unfortunate. But we've been very sensitive to that issue since I came here," McGrane said. LEADING BY EXAMPLEPequannock School Superintendent Jacqueline Cusack, who as an African-American is the lone minority member leading a school district in Morris County, enjoys being a model of diversity to her students.
"Diversity is so important," said Cusack, former assistant state education commissioner. "In education, we teach people to go out in the world, to learn about a diverse world. What better way than to show them diversity in their own world?"
Wharton Republican Club President Fred Perez, who is of Puerto Rican heritage, said a political foundation for diversity is being developed.
"Our networking is paying off. We are working our way up the system and doing it correctly," said Perez, touting Dover mayoral candidate Marin and Morristown Hispanic activist Sue Cardona as future county leaders.
"The wheels are in motion. It's like a train; you won't be able to stop it if we can get it moving," he said.
Pawar, the former congressional candidate, said the Asian community also has great potential for producing leaders, pointing to Parsippany planning chairman Parikh and Roger Amin, a leader of the Indian community in Parsippany.
"It's a force brewing in Morris County," said Pawar. "'If the minority community wants to, it could be a voice in this county."