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Local Conservatives Question SOMA Community’s Commitment to Political Diversity

Shortly before the November election, a Maplewood resident whom we’ll call “Jim” said he felt shunned and “vilified” by the friends he’d told about his decision to vote for Trump and isolated from those he did not tell for fear of losing the their friendship.

“It’s all that people were talking about, then and now,” Jim said. “To avoid being exposed, and maybe losing my remaining friends, I had to avoid speaking to my friends altogether.”

Jim and many other local residents who either identify as conservative or as Trump voters who contacted Village Green for this story say that they have been met with intolerance in expressing their views. In these two liberal towns where diversity and tolerance are celebrated, they question if that is really the case when it comes to politics.

In the 2016 Presidential election, roughly 9 out of 10 Maplewood voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. In South Orange, the margin was a little closer, with 8 out of 9 voters selecting Clinton over Trump. In the wake of the Trump inauguration, townspeople have leapt into action, knitting pink pussy hats, writing postcards to elected officials, boarding buses for Washington (35 total), organizing rallies, supporting refugees and lobbying for Sanctuary City status.

Still, 1,161 Maplewood residents voted for Trump as did 827 South Orange residents. Some of these residents — and other conservatives, libertarians or third-party voters — say they are being shut down or shut out of local conversations and activities.

Jim, who asked that his real name not be used, recounted a story from a field trip he chaperoned at his child’s South Orange elementary school. “There was another parent-chaperone on the trip who had been a friend for many years. Of course, politics came up and I said I’d decided to vote for Trump. Her face went stone cold. She hasn’t talked to me since.” Jim added, “That’s pretty much the response I’ve gotten from everyone in Maplewood and South Orange.”

In response, Jim created a “secret” Facebook group called “SOMA Right-of-Center.” Neither the group, its members or its posts are visible to anyone who is not a member. (One can request to join the group, now up to more than 90 members, by emailing [email protected].)

Jim says he is a lifelong Democrat who has grown increasingly frustrated with the drift in the Democratic party away from what he described as “fighting poverty being the top priority” to “diversity being the top priority, which means it’s all about classifying people by race, sexual orientation, religion, etc.” He said he also worries that the “left” has embraced what he calls a “New McCarthyism” in which people with political beliefs deemed unacceptable are silenced and sanctioned. “My party used to stand up for free speech, now it suppresses it,” he said.  

SOMA Right of Center, Jim said, doesn’t fit the “older white male” profile often associated in the media as Republican voters. “We’re roughly 60% female. We have high school students and senior citizens, but mostly parents with young children living at home. We have white, black, Hispanic, east and south Asian members.”  Jim said there’s also some diversity of opinion within the group. “We have Trumpers, never-Trumpers, Libertarians, mainline Republicans and even a few other disgruntled Democrats like myself.”

When new members enter the group the reaction is nothing short of “euphoric,” Jim said. “People just can’t believe a group like this exists right here in our towns. They’ve been dying to find others like them. They’ve been dying to express their views openly, without being harassed. Our motto is: ‘You are not alone.’” Recently, Jim said, the group has shifted from online to real life: they’ve now hosted two get-togethers at a member’s home and two others are in the works.

We should note that there has been bad behavior online from people of all political stripes, as acknowledged by many of those interviewed for this story; however, on the local level, many conservatives who express themselves in more measured tones say that even they find it difficult to communicate without being shouted down or labeled as racists, xenophobes, misogynists and more.

A South Orange resident who identified himself as a conservative said that he had noticed a definite worsening of political discourse locally since the results of the November election. He lamented the fact that he was being demonized before he could even explain his position.

“This situation isn’t going to improve until the self-identified ‘open-minded’ open their minds to the possibility that others might have policy preferences that differ from their own without those differences being entirely animated by racism, sexism, greed and anti-gay bias,” said the South Orange resident, who asked that his name not be used.

“Conservatives in these two towns are rarely asked what we think,” he added. “Rather we’re asked what we think only as a pretext to having us defend policies that our friends and neighbors oppose (and that sometimes we oppose, too). But because of how conservatives operate, we first end up trying to dispel the other person’s mischaracterizations of the policy in question, so that we can talk about the merits or weaknesses of the policy (as we think it should be understood). But we never get to that last part, because of all the yelling and talking over…. It can be very, very frustrating, especially since the people that we (conservatives) meet are roundly intelligent, urbane, funny people whom we like.”

He apologized if he “sounded bitter. I am not. I love it here.”

Several people who contacted Village Green for this story or responded on Facebook said that an intolerance for diversity of opinion went beyond left and right. For instance, some felt that those who raised concerns about the recent designation of South Orange and Maplewood as Sanctuary Cities/Welcoming Communities were unfairly disparaged by supporters of the designation.

Janyce Wolf wrote, “I’m a liberal and voted for Clinton, but would very much like to have respectful and intelligent conversations with people who have different views…. I was at the Sanctuary City Meeting at the Baird and was saddened that people opposing the ordinance were afraid to speak, and that at least one person speaking in favor of the measure was rude about the previous speaker, who opposed it.”

The difficulties also extended to supporters of Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders, according to responses on the Village Green News & Views Facebook group. One Bernie Sanders supporter said of the recent election, “People were militantly HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] and very unaccepting of other ideas. It was easier for me to talk with my Conservative / Republican friends because they were much less partisan and could discuss issues.”

South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education member Madhu Pai wrote on the News & Views page that she had “been surprised at how people do (re)act in such a way if they feel their point of view is questioned or threatened instead of trying to understand the other person’s point.”

Pai said she was “gutted” during her own campaign “when people I didn’t even know, and never interacted with, sent out mass emails claiming I was a racist … simply for suggesting change and questioning the status quo.”

“If we don’t call these things out then there is no hope of self-awareness or change. Being passionate or thinking you’re on the right side of a point is no excuse for treating someone badly. We should all expect better from our community,” said Pai. “I certainly do. I will say that on the Board of Education, we are not always aligned on issues but we’re generally respectful of each other’s point of view. I not only think we learn from each other in this respect but that our work is better as a result of it.”

Is social media making it worse?

Several people we talked to for this story blamed the deterioration of political discourse — nationally and locally — at least partially on social media.

“I’m personally totally open to discussing politics with people in person for the most part, but social media is just unbearable and unbelievable,” wrote one poster on the Village Green News & Views Facebook group.

“The social media people feel emboldened to hit and run because they don’t see the person,” said Connie Cosgrove, who ran and won as a Republican candidate for the Maplewood Township Committee a quarter of a century ago.

“The main impact and intimidation happens online,” said the founder of SOMA Right of Center, who said he was “viciously attacked online when he posted that he voted Trump.”

“I received a threat from an FB ‘friend’ after the election, saying, ‘All of you Trump supporter are cockroaches and cockroaches have to be exterminated.'”

He also showed Village Green a screen shot of a post by a local resident on a Facebook group in which the resident called for residents to report on which South Orange and Maplewood business owners were “raving” Trump supporters so that a boycott could be organized to “starve the idiots and monsters.”

The founder called it “Neighbors turning in neighbors. It’s intimidation. It’s crazy.” (He did note that several commenters responded negatively to the call — including liberals.)

A local business operator told Village Green she had voted for Trump “but am reluctant to say that because I saw someone on one of these local sites say they should boycott those businesses. My question is, ‘Why do they have freedom of thought and speech but not the other side?'”

She added, “In this town there is only one freedom. I have had to keep my mouth shut so I wouldn’t lose friends. I love to discuss and get other points of views…. Around here you agree or you are shunned.”

Are our towns getting less tolerant?

“I moved out here in 2003 and it was much more welcoming community,” said the SOMA Right of Center founder. “I feel that it’s gone way way too intolerant since then.”

A Columbia High School grad who grew up in Maplewood in the 70s and 80s but now lives in Summit told Village Green that she “never felt that politics got in the way of my childhood or my parents’ relationships with other neighbors and friends” but that has changed in recent years.

“The political climate was not controversial and there was never an ‘us vs. them’ feel as far as politics were concerned,” said the CHS grad. “It was like Mayberry!” However, she said, “Today, the town it is unrecognizable as the town I grew up in. That makes me sad. Not because it has shifted to the left, but because the left does not seem to be at all accepting of any other point of view that is different from theirs.”

She added that she had not personally experienced “what some friends have experienced — particularly, through social media. But if you are a Trump supporter, don’t tell anyone in Maplewood.” She said that she hoped that this article could help “the community can come together. Now, it is so divided.”

Connie Cosgrove, the only Republican woman ever elected to the Maplewood Township Committee, remembers a time when it was easier to be “conservative” in Maplewood — although she rejects the adjective.

“I really hate these labels,” said Cosgrove. “I consider myself moderate.”

Indeed, Cosgrove said, “I would never have chosen either major party candidates. I’m not thrilled with Donald Trump on a lot of things.”

Cosgrove said she supports LGBTQ rights and is progressive on other social issues, but fiscally more conservative. Cosgrove, who lives in the Hillcrest neighborhood, said that when she moved to Maplewood 49 years ago, “Maplewood used to be very community oriented. I don’t see that. People are so busy. They are commuting.”

Not everyone feels this way.

Maplewood resident, volunteer coach and Trump voter Joe Gillette has been vocal about his politics on social media and elsewhere and says he has not felt ostracized “but I may have thicker skin than most. I do feel the wrath occasionally and have received personal insults from progressives who don’t know me and who clearly have an inability to tolerate anything other than their worldview,…but I don’t take it personal. And I don’t feel it has impacted my many friendships in town adversely.”

“I have not always taken the high road,” Gillette admitted, “but I do attempt to go for ‘free thought’ with lack of judgment when posting Re: politics.  Whenever I post, it is an attempt to get people thinking. If we can’t have civil discourse and prompt each other to think, what good are we as a people? Most respond well to this approach and focus their efforts on attempting to persuade me through debate vs. name calling.”

What’s the solution?

Cosgrove encouraged residents to get more involved in their church or synagogue communities or volunteer for local non-profits as a way to bridge the gap. Otherwise, she said, “There so much polarization. People are getting harder right, harder left.”

“I know of someone in our group who moved further west to Chester,” said “Jim,” the SOMA Right of Center founder. “She just couldn’t take it.” But he said that he rejected moving as a solution because he craved dialogue with the opposition: “I don’t want to be [surrounded] with people who only think like me. ”

“I feel really sad. I miss my old friends,” he added.

Regarding his new friends on SOMA Right of Center, he said, “I’m fairly sure everyone in the group, we want the almost entirely the same outcomes as the people on the Left. We differ with the Left on how to get there. Nobody wants children (no matter their race) to grow up in poverty or with limits on becoming all they can be. Nobody wants women to go back to the kitchen or gays to go back into the closet. Nobody wants Syrian refugees to be left to die in Syria.”

“I think if we understand we’re really in favor of the same outcome on many issues, but differ on the means to achieve that outcome, a conversation is possible.”

“Everyone wants to sensationalize things,” said Cosgrove. “I wish people would just dial it back about 20 decibels. And please just be tolerant. People need to learn to be generous.”

Just raising the question of political diversity and tolerance on the Village Green News & View Facebook group seemed to provoke reflection for some local liberals and others.

“I say this often…if we don’t call out hypocritical and abhorrent behavior and commentary from those we tend to agree with, how can we expect it to get better on the side we tend not to agree with?” wrote Hank Zona. “And I may be in general agreement with someone, but I may take exception with how they wear their views nonetheless. In cases like that, I am usually labeled as being on the other side. The ‘if you aren’t fully with us, you must clearly be against us’ mentality does exist here….and most places these days unfortunately.”

Wrote Rita Desnoyers-Garcia, “We can accomplish so much if we work together, but not much if people are not talking.”

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