On the brink in Asbury Park: A-Team driving toward Council majority, putting city in uncharted territory

(Note from triCityNews Publisher Dan Jacobson: The following commentary written by me appeared in our November 3 issue. We never post content from the paper on-line — unless it’s of critical public interest. That’s certainly the case here.)

So your political organization gets soundly beaten twice, the last time by a 2-1 margin.

What do you do?

The answer is easy: Change your name.

That’s the story of the A-Team slate in this council election. With Asbury Park voters distracted by a train wreck of a Presidential race, they don’t realize that a majority of city council seats are up for grabs on Tuesday. Nor do most know that A-Team candidates are running under a new name this year — and they’re poised to win control of City Hall.

A shift to A-Team control puts us in uncharted territory. In the past two elections, all their council candidates were rejected by voters — people sensed that if they ran the city the way they conducted their campaigns we’ll have complete chaos. These guys have absolutely no idea what they’re doing.

The relative political stability this city has enjoyed for the past 15 years is now taken completely for granted. Political stability may be the second biggest factor in Asbury Park’s remarkable comeback, after the influence of this newspaper. People forget how crazy past city councils could be. Fortunately, through the efforts of the triCityNews, and tons of other concerned citizens throughout the city, the past few elections have gone the right way — but it’s been a hell of an effort and at times a very close call.

So if Asbury Park wakes up the day after this election with the A-Team suddenly in control, don’t say this newspaper didn’t warn you. Of course, we’ll start with a clean slate with them. We’ll judge them on what they actually do. But I say it will be chaos, with legal problems left and right.

The incumbent council members up for election are Amy Quinn, Yvonne Clayton and Eileen Chapman — three progressive, pragmatic and intelligent women. Probably the best council slate I’ve seen in following Asbury politics for over 30 years. Their two council allies — Mayor John Moor and Councilman Jesse Kendle — face reelection in two years.

The A-Team candidates this year are Kenneth Saunders, Jr., who ran on the A-Team council slate in 2014, Stephen Williams, who ran on the A-Team Board of Education slate in 2014, and Dan Harris who ran on the A-Team council slate in 2013.

Hey, I didn’t tell them to run with that organization, yet they’re pissed that I’m calling them the A-Team candidates. They’d rather we all forget. You shouldn’t. This year they’re running under the slogan Citizens for Asbury Park.

Of course, with the A-Team being the A-Team their campaign tried to pull a fast one with that new name. Asbury Park has non-partisan elections, which means you don’t run under a party banner and the name you select to appear on the ballot can’t have a party designation.

In overwhelmingly Democratic Asbury Park, the A-Team in the past two elections have sent out mailers and put up lawn signs falsely making it sound like they’re the candidates of the Democratic Party, which they’re not. Just another one of their underhanded moves in our non-partisan elections. So when it came time to select a new name to put on the ballot this year, they submitted the designation “Democrats for Asbury Park” at the last minute. That’s illegal — what a shock — and just before the city clerk drew the ballot positions for the candidates, they had to change it to “Citizens for Asbury Park.”

My biggest problem with the A-Team is well known, and I’ve been vocal about it since their first run in 2013 — their out-of-control abuse of the absentee ballot system demonstrates to me their lack of restraint with the law. Their campaigns in both 2013 and 2014 literally took custody and control of hundreds of absentee ballots — now known as vote by mail ballots — getting them from the county clerk and bringing them to voters.

In what democracy does a political campaign take control of the ballots? It was crazy. Sure enough, the bipartisan Board of Elections — made up of two Democrats and two Republicans — barred the counting of over 300 of these ballots in each of the last two elections, and they were upheld by a Superior Court Judge both times. Appeals by the A-Team went nowhere.

Like they always do, the A-Team cried racism. They’re like Donald Trump saying everything is rigged when things don’t go his way. But the abuse of these ballots was so bad in Asbury Park that it was a major reason the Democratic-controlled state Senate and Assembly in Trenton voted unanimously — 120 Democrats and Republicans — to dramatically tighten the law so the A-Team could never abuse the absentee ballot process again. When do Democrats and Republicans unanimously agree on anything?

I guess all 120 legislators are racists, if you go by A-Team thinking. The Governor signed the law in 2015 so this year you don’t see the spectacle of A-Team campaign operatives bringing hundreds of vote by mail ballots directly to voters’ doors — an invitation to fraud and coercion that the law never intended.

Sure enough, when I looked at the rejected and unopened A-Team ballots from the 2014 elections, I saw about 70 with my own eyes where the signature of the person filling out the ballot didn’t even come close to matching the signature of the real voter on file with the county. In other words, somebody in the A-Team campaign committed blatant ballot fraud.

Yet the A-Team candidates ignore what was done in their name. They still don’t get it. And this inability to restrain their campaign from ill-advised activity that obviously risks legal trouble — not to mention taint a whole election if it were closer — shows the risk of putting them in office. That’s my big problem with them. I don’t care if they’re white, black, purple, green or polka-dotted. I just don’t think they know what the hell they’re doing.

It’s a shame. Because they actually have valuable insights about the city they could bring into the government, particularly about improving the west side. But that’s more than offset by the antics of their past campaigns.

In fact, I saw a video recently released by Dan Harris, one of the A-Team candidates this year, during which he still complains about the rejection of those vote-by-mail ballots. Harris also was the plaintiff in the lawsuit in the first A-Team election trying to get the rejected A-Team ballots opened. That’s my problem with him. He still doesn’t get it.

Here’s the story: What their campaign would do is approach a voter, tell them they could bring them a ballot and have that voter fill out the form requesting a ballot — but leave blank where you designate the person who’d bring the ballot to you. The A-Team would later fill in that name with one of their operatives — which I say is illegal right there. The law was designed for shut-ins who need someone to bring them a a ballot. Not for a campaign to take custody and control of hundreds of ballots and bring them to voters. It was crazy.

For obvious reasons — like potential fraud and coercion — I say a voter can’t let someone else designate who will bring them a ballot by leaving part of their ballot application blank. And ultimately that’s why no Judge was ever going to let the A-Team have those ballots counted. Yet A-Team candidates — including the three running this year — refuse to accept there was something wrong with what their campaign was doing. Dan Harris in particular continues to defend it to this day, even though the state law was changed to finally settle the matter.

And there’s more. In the 2014 election, when this year’s A-Team candidates Saunders and Williams were on the A-Team slate, their mayoral candidate actually sent out a mailing the weekend before the election with a completely made up statement from U.S. Senator Cory Booker that Booker was supporting him — which the Senator quickly took to Twitter to condemn. Fortunately, both this Publisher and even the idiots at the Asbury Park Press were able to use social media to get the story out — and again demonstrate the lack of restraint by the A-Team. That was the year voters rejected their council candidates by a 2-1 margin.

But the A-Team candidates running this year didn’t disavow the leader of their ticket or ever criticize him for that bullshit with Cory Booker. And they will never accept that perhaps their decision to join that ticket, with a candidate like that leading it, is a poor reflection on them.

A-Team mailer from 2014 with made-up Booker endorsement

Last minute A-Team mailer from 2014 with made-up Booker endorsement (click to enlarge)

So are they suddenly different this year? It sure didn’t look that way from the very beginning when they illegally tried to use the name “Democrats for Asbury Park” as their ballot slogan in this non-partisan election.

I will give them credit for one thing — since their attempted bullshit with that ballot slogan a couple months ago, they and their campaign have not done anything underhanded or ethically-challenged in past A-Team fashion. Of course, after this paper hits the streets I won’t be shocked if their campaign puts out lawn signs and/or campaign literature a day or two before the election falsely making it sound like they’re the Democratic candidates in this non-partisan race, just as the A-Team campaign has done in the past two council races.

Hey, just telling it like it is. After all, we’re the triCityNews. We’re here to help.