2020 Maplewood Township Committee Candidate Statement: Dean Dafis

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Two candidates are running unopposed for two seats on the five-member Maplewood Township Committee this year: Vic De Luca and Dean Dafis, both Democrats. Election day is November 3, 2020. Please visit our Election Roundup for more information.

Amidst the turmoil and anxiety surrounding our national election, here at home I’m thrilled and excited about running for a second term on the town council – the Maplewood Township Committee.  That’s because the pandemic and lack of national leadership have underscored the importance of solid, steadfast, and empathic leadership at the local level.  I’m proud to say that I’ve been that type of leader in the past three years – I’ve led with compassion for others, truth, and moral clarity. My first term has been exceptionally rewarding – together WE got a lot of good done. I hope the same for my second term.

Dean Dafis

When I first ran for local office, I promised greater equity in our town’s services and systems and pledged for greater community unity. While our journey continues, I’m happy that in Maplewood today we are closer to one another, we are learning how to relate better to each other, we are becoming more culturally competent and socially just.  We are having those difficult conversations, we are self-examining, and we are championing new perspectives and models. After all, that is the burden of our collective evolution as humans and social beings.  Just the other day, I voted to disarm and disband our volunteer police force in response to a broad coalition of community voices concerned with over-policing which brought me full circle to one of my first votes my first year on an issue I was championing as a community advocate before I was elected – that in favor of a civilian review board (the first in NJ suburbia at the time) for greater transparency and accountability in policing. Today, civilian oversight of policing is becoming more common, and through working group coalitions alongside talented and committed community advocates, we’ve established credibility and built trust with police and with the community.  While this has been a collaboration with my colleagues, I have been very active and hands on in this important matter.  During my second term, I hope to see us move this needle a little further toward care and treatment as we look to shift some police resources into crisis intervention and prevention, and as we build sustainable restorative justice models.

I see myself as a change agent. My juice is the civic engagement in town which inspires me daily and makes me better. My aim is to care and support. My fire for change comes from my own lived experience growing up poor, first generation, second class citizen, closeted, shamed, discriminated against, struggling with economic mobility, left out, powerless, and disconnected. It takes someone who knows adversity to be more self-aware about and open to the adversity of others. My action is WORK, relentless HARD work – my work ethic and commitment to the success of our town is nearly unmatched.  My duty is to lift voices, raise concerns, empower & connect as we work to solve our collective problems and bridge gaps.

And so, I’ve been a strong ambassador for all.

For our seniors, as their committed liaison in many critical issues ranging from aging in place, age-friendliness, health & wellness, social isolation, accessibility, housing, and transportation. As the SOMA Two Towns for All Ages liaison, I’ve successfully championed several critical initiatives, including Operation Blue Angel, home-sharing, and the recently introduced Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance. During the pandemic, I was personally involved in the implementation of food insecurity emergency support systems and delivered groceries and food to our seniors.  And, as we revisit our Master Plan next year, I hope to increase senior accessibility and transportation in our town.  I’ve worked closely with our Recreation department for programming that is inclusive of senior needs such as arts classes, technology workshops, walking events, social events & activities.  I’d like to focus on more intergenerational programming going forward.

I’ve been a strong ambassador for those experiencing housing insecurities working alongside our Human Services and Welfare Director connecting folks in need to county and state assistance.  I aim to revisit and revise our rent control ordinance and zoning during my second term to end exclusions and combat the crisis that is the lack of housing that is affordable.  Our Human Services Director and I have been meeting with the county to see how we can better coordinate outreach and services, and how we might build a regional solution to prevent homelessness.

I’ve been a strong ambassador for our youth, mentoring and leading by example, bringing them to the decision-making table, giving them space to grow and lead. We’ve made decisions together, we’ve marched together, and we’ve attended vigils to mourn together. I led the Youth Advisory Committee (which I co-created with Mayor Frank McGehee) into the development of the only peer-to-peer closed-circuit high school rideshare program of its kind anywhere in the nation – but for COVID, MAPSO Safe Rides would have been deployed at the beginning of this school year.  As a strong proponent of the Black Lives Matter murals in town, our first such mural would not have been placed in front of Columbia High School but for the raised voices of black and brown students who spoke out about their negative lived experience in town and whom I supported visibly and unapologetically.

I’ve been a strong ambassador for our small businesses and special improvement business districts. As the Maplewood Village Alliance liaison three years in a row, I’ve overseen and supported many efforts in the Village, including the complicated sidewalk improvement and enhanced ADA access construction for two years, lighting & other beautification enhancements, parking studies, the redevelopment of the former Toomey’s lot, the State’s Village Visioning Plan, and the myriad of COVID-19 related outdoor dining directives. Alongside MVA Board President and our great MVA Manager, I’ve supported efforts to increase the diversity on our Board so that it better reflects the needs and voices of all of our terrific merchants.  As we realize the economic fallout of the pandemic in 2021 and 2022, I aim to look into how we might restructure or rezone in order to avail ourselves of relief and assistance other opportunity zones and ‘main streets’ have received during the pandemic. I’m grateful that small gestures we have made thus far have been very welcome by our businesses during this difficult and uncertain time, such as the ‘pedestrian mall’ during the evening hours (something I’ve been wishing to do since I was first-elected) and open street markets.  The social distance ambassadors (another idea I championed) have been helpful in promoting masking and social distancing in the Village during peak times.

As the liaison to the Municipal Alliance, I’ve advocated for the health and well-being of our students by supporting and championing an anti-vaping ordinance, substance abuse and mental health support programs, raising awareness about and funds for suicide prevention, and working closely with Youth Net, so that our students have diverse and accessible after-school mentoring and empowerment safe spaces.

As the Chair of our local Board of Health, I’ve been a strong ambassador of our tireless and exceptional Public Health Officer during the pandemic, in receiving & disseminating information about the pandemic, setting up local testing, and securing necessary resources in order to mitigate community contagion.  As Chair of Code Enforcement, I’ve championed many enhancements to our existing code and some new ones, and I’ve strengthened residential and commercial property maintenance. I’m especially proud of our newly adopted Accessory Dwelling Unit ordinance which I researched and helped draft which will help us further integrate community, allow our seniors to age in place, and build affordable housing using existing housing stock.

I’ve been a collaborative colleague, lending my fulsome support and energy to important community initiatives my fellow township committee members have championed, including on the environment, clean energy and sustainability – for instance, colleague and running mate Vic De Luca’s efforts along with colleague Adams’ advocacy on a plastic bag ban that has become the blueprint for a statewide bill the Governor signed recently, or efforts toward electric charging stations, increased solar, energy alliances for cheaper and cleaner electric, efforts to reduce municipal building energy inefficiencies, and efforts in reducing trash and waste. I’ve supported Mayor McGehee’s led town-wide pedestrian safety studies and upgrades.

I’ve remained dedicated and connected to the Community Coalition’s ongoing work toward integration as an active member of their Residential Committee which has been spearheading efforts to combat real estate steering, to highlight tenant and homeowner rights, to build local support systems and community mutual aid collaboratives.

I’ve used my Vice Chair leadership position to bring visibility to Maplewood from the outside in and to advocate for our town from the inside out on regional or state-wide issues, such as high taxes, housing insecurity, policing reform.  Maplewood was the first town to visibly support Governor Murphy’s lawsuit against Trump’s elimination of the SALT deduction – I personally worked with the AG’s office in drafting pleadings in that action.  Through the Community Board on Police, we are working with county officials and the AG’s office in police discipline and use of force investigation reforms. Seeing the personal devastation of homeowners in town who have been laid off and unable to afford their healthcare bills, I’ve supported and worked with the County in support of Medicare for All pending federal legislation – another lesson from the pandemic: the time is now to end our dependence on unreliable, expensive, and inequitable employer-provided healthcare! Last year, alongside the ACLU of NJ and many esteemed advocates, I testified before the state legislature in favor of the equitable legalization and regulation of adult cannabis use as necessary for criminal justice, public safety, and as another promising local economic development opportunity. With my running mate (and mentor) Vic De Luca, I’ve supported the permissible use of medical dispensaries in town and crafted required local social benefit measures and guidelines for such businesses, including investments into the local municipal alliance anti-drug fund, community and neighborhood association collaboration, re-entry and local hiring.

I’ve also used the Deputy Mayor honor to highlight, raise awareness about, and actively support regional community organizing on other important social justice efforts or movements, such as Black Lives Matter, the Essex County Correctional Facility Civilian Task Force, LGBTQ youth & family support and wellness.

As the first out proud LGBTQ elected Township Committeeperson, I’ve used my visibility to raise awareness of unfinished business in LGBTQ equality and to safeguard our local LGBTQ households. I’ve led our community’s marches and rallies and I’ve worked with LGBTQ service providers to expand access to support and counseling to LGBTQ families in SOMA.  What some called superficial and merely performative at the time, the rainbow crosswalks created a safe space for those struggling through their self-doubt – a local mom shared with me that they literally ‘saved’ her LGBTQ daughter who was being bullied in school and harming herself until she was able to ‘crossover her insecurity’.  Since then, LGBTQ youth feel empowered to be more visible in town beyond their school alliance or affinity groups. Along with my fellow LGBTQ electeds in SOMA, I’ve connected with our federal legislators to advocate for increased funding in LGBTQ issues such as LGBTQ youth homelessness, substance abuse, and HIV prevention, and access to affirming healthcare.  I’ve joined LGBTQ boards and committees to support critical ongoing non-profit advocacy, including efforts to collect LGBTQ specific data that can better inform our community’s needs.

It’s also important to mentor the next generation of leaders and to support progressive candidates for office everywhere, so I spend a considerable amount of personal time meeting with and empowering new voices with new perspectives in SOMA and throughout the county. Social justice and community health have no borders.

I’m probably leaving many things out, as it has been a busy three years.  And when I look back at my campaign website – check it out deandafis.com, I haven’t touched it since the campaign in 2017 – I’m proud to note that I’ve kept my promises. Should the residents of Maplewood entrust me with another three years, they will get more of the same from me – keeping my promises, working hard, doing the right thing and getting things done.  

While we focus a lot on the Supreme Court and the White House, it is local government that has the greatest influence and impact on our daily lives – join us, get involved, VOTE. Voting matters even in unopposed races; massive voter turnout by Democrats is critical even in ‘blue’ or Democratic majorities. Because voting turnout determines which issues receive priority, how much funding is allocated to such issues, and it increases incumbent candidate (even when unopposed) accountability. Not all Democrats are the same. If you believe in progress and you want to send a strong message back to Town Hall that you demand progress (from me AND my colleagues), VOTE for me in big numbers to send that message and to keep me accountable; show the County and our elected representatives at the state and federal levels what you need from them by expressing your progressive support here at home.  From the ground up is how we build community and solve our problems.

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