Ben Forest and the surrender to cynicism in Red Bank

Ben photoOnly when it’s in the public interest do we publish triCityNews content on line. It’s a rarity. Done it a handful of times in over twenty years. But right now it’s time that people stand the f— up in Red Bank. It’s getting ridiculous up there. So we publish this week’s “Message from the Publisher” from the current triCityNews of August 6: 

This Publisher loves highlighting community leaders and government officials with a progressive and creative bent. They’re so important to further the transformation of the triCity region of eastern Monmouth into a suburban area like no other. A place where the creative, progressive and alternative are ascendant.

Red Bank’s Ben Forest, a progressive Democrat, is a long-time environmentalist and community leader (he’s on the board of education up there), as well as a beloved figure because of his integrity, decency and humility. His should be a name you should read about in these pages all the time. But you don’t.

That’s because Ben doesn’t give us the opportunity to make that happen. And this column is to kick him in the ass. Hey, someone has to be the bad guy here, and — as usual — it’s this Publisher.

So here’s our message to Ben Forest: Fulfill your potential and stop getting manipulated by politicians in Red Bank. Enough already. It’s embarrassing.

Ben Forest should be the most prominent independent Democrat in Red Bank to support political reform to end the ridiculous domination by a small — and small-minded — Democratic political machine there.

He should be supporting what everyone knows is the best system of government for a municipality — non-partisan elections where everyone runs in one column with no party affiliation. That way anyone has an equal shot at winning, just like Asbury Park and Long Branch have. Just like what Democratic Senator Vin Gopal told this newspaper is what every municipality in New Jersey should have.

But Ben Forest won’t take that stand. Instead, he takes the wrong stand at the wrong time at the wrong place. And after that’s inevitably unsuccessful, he pledges his fealty to the machine. Makes this Publisher want to puke. This has got to stop.

Earlier this week, Forest ran again Red Bank Democratic Chairman (and councilman) Ed Zipprich for the top Democratic Party post. The Democratic chair is selected by 18 party apparatchiks known as Democratic county committee members. Those are the same people, led by Zipprich, who pretty much decide who gets the Democratic nomination for Mayor and Council. In overwhelmingly Democratic Red Bank, they almost always win. Yes, it’s as stupid as it sounds. This little group basically decides who runs the Red Bank government.

This absurd situation has denied Red Bank the best of its citizens to serve as elected officials – including Ben Forest, who once previously attempted to kiss the ring of the machine to run, and was rebuffed. So now he decides to run against Zipprich with predictable results — he lost by a vote of 11-6.

Even worse, in a Facebook post, Forest announced that he will now give “our chairman Ed Zipprich my full support” and apologized for putting Zip through an “unpleasant week.”

You can imagine the upheaval in the stomach of this strong-willed Publisher at this point. I lost it with Ben’s next paragraph:

“The worst part of running is letting my supporters down. I really am heartbroken about it. Many Red Bank Dems approached me and recruited me to run, risking the wrath of a party chair. Sticking their necks out campaigning for me in a -—crazy — long shot challenge. Thank you for honoring me with this task — knowing that I am ok with getting into ‘good trouble’.”

That’s not “good trouble” – a reference to the fight by civil rights leaders like John Lewis. What Forest just did is a waste of time. “Good trouble” would be taking a stand for political reform in Red Bank. Those supporters who approached Forest to run against Zipprich ought to all be pushing for non-partisan elections. Instead, they’ve all surrendered to cynicism in Red Bank — accepting a stacked deck for a political machine with rigged partisan elections — that no one can defend.

There’s many ways to change this status quo. For example, the town’s strategic plan — commissioned by the Democrats — called for a Charter Study Commission to examine Red Bank’s antiquated form of government.

That charter study commission could then recommend changes to Red Bank voters that could include a switch to non-partisan elections. But the all-Democratic Mayor and Council — what a shock — have ignored that recommendation and refuse to consider an ordinance to ask voters to establish a charter study commission.

But the public can take matters into their own hands, and circulate a petition that, if enough signatures are obtained, bypasses the self-interested elected officials and asks voters if they want to start the charter study process. Forest could support that and work with Republicans and Independents — bringing his supporters with him — to make that good government reform happen.

Or he and his supporters could join an effort now led by Republican Scott Broschart — an independent-minded guy — who’s circulating a petition that bypasses the charter study process and gets a referendum on the ballot that asks voters point-blank if they want non-partisan government. Ben could support that.

Here’s what I think Ben Forest should do: Team up with Broschart if he’ll change his petition slightly to have non-partisan elections in November instead of May, and to have run-off elections if candidates don’t get a majority, which is common in non-partisan elections. I’m not going into why — too technical to explain here — but that approach achieves non-partisan political reform for the Red Bank mayor and council elections, while actually helping the Democratic Party boost turnout for other elections on the rest of the ballot. So a Democrat like Ben Forest can advocate for that.

Here’s an interesting story. When a disgruntled political faction in Asbury Park a couple years ago got enough signatures to get a ridiculous question on the ballot to switch Asbury Park from non-partisan to partisan elections, the Asbury Park Democratic Chairman and Vice-Chairwoman immediately opposed it! That’s because they knew it was bad for the city, and we’re better off with non-partisan. And these are active Democratic party officials. The Asbury Dem chairman is Guiseppe “Joe” Grillo who was once the Executive Director of the Monmouth County Democratic Party and also a Democratic candidate for Monmouth County Freeholder. The vice-chairwoman is Angela Abez-Anderson who is currently the Democratic candidate for County Clerk. Perhaps Ben Forest and his supporters ought to think about that.

To know Ben Forest is to love him. He’s wonderful. And everyone else who knows him thinks so. He’s a former journalist. He was active for years with the Clearwater Foundation. He’s a member of the Red Bank Board of Education. He and his wife Amy Goldsmith — who’s as community-oriented as Ben — have been progressive pioneers in Red Bank’s West Side. Ben Forest is a beloved and respected figure, who’d make a wonderful councilman. In a non-partisan system he’d have been elected by now.

But reforming Red Bank’s ridiculously stagnant political system —especially in the middle of this pandemic when you need the best people in office — is too important for this Publisher to play nice and pretend Ben Forest is achieving something by his hopeless run for Red Bank Democratic Chairman.

The supportive comments reacting to his Facebook post announcing he’d lost the chairmanship made me sick. Not because people aren’t right to praise the character of Ben Forest, but because they’re all getting played and conned and manipulated to surrender to cynicism in Red Bank, as they all roll over and let the machine roll on.