Allendale, NJ (pop 6,500) is a leafy borough in Bergen County with a lovely small-town feel, boasting picturesque lakes and parks, hiking trails, a 107-acre freshwater wetland, and a charming downtown.
Its government has been dominated by Republicans for 45 years. With today’s elections, Rutgers University–Newark alumna Carolina Curbelo and Professor Brian Murphy aim to change that.
Curbelo (SASN, class of 2000), an immigration attorney raised in Allendale by Cuban-American parents, is running for mayor of her hometown, flanked by Murphy and writer Maureen Shaw, relative newcomers to the area who are vying for two open seats on the borough council. The three 40-something professionals, all married with children, are running as a ticket, the first Democrats to do so in decades as they try to unseat a trio of GOP officials who have held office in Allendale for a combined 33 years.
“One-party rule is not good for democracy,” says Curbelo, who studied political science at RU-N and is a former Republican who switched parties after Donald Trump was elected president. Like so many people across the country, she decided to run for office as a way of countering his agenda. “I feel it’s important to have diversity of thought on any level of government,” she says. “That’s one of the main reasons I got into this race.”
I feel it’s important to have diversity of thought on any level of government. That’s one of the main reasons I got into this race.
Allendale’s government consists of a mayor and a six-member borough council. The Mayor serves a four-year term, while council members serve three-year terms on a staggered basis, with two seats coming up for election each year.
Murphy, a professor of American history and Dean of RU-N’s Honors College, had declared his candidacy with Shaw before Cubelo decided to throw her hat into the ring and join them. The last time a non-Republican sat on the council was 1973, according to Murphy. The trio formally announced their ticket in April.
Since then, they’ve been working non-stop to introduce themselves to voters—sometimes with their young children in tow—understanding full well the uphill battle they’re facing against the history of GOP incumbency in town.
They started by recruiting an experienced campaign manager, bringing a level of professionalism seldom seen in Allendale political campaigns: The trio has canvassed 2,000 homes; shown up at school and civic events; phone-banked; sent out mailers, handed out literature and distributed lawn signs; and recruited dozens of volunteers to help out with the campaign.
Murphy himself has been knocking on doors two hours a night since May, between four and seven days a week.
“We said from the beginning, we may get outspent, but we won’t be outworked,” says Murphy, who was a reporter covering New Jersey politics before becoming a professor. “We’ve been talking to folks from both parties, along with independents, learning about the issues that matter to them and sharing our platform. And every night we canvass, we meet at least one person who says that in the all the years they’ve been living in Allendale, we’re the first candidates to ever knock on their door, which speaks volumes.”
The trio’s platform consists of bread-and-butter issues like improving local services, investing in seniors, fixing older playgrounds and increasing pedestrian safety.
But there’s a deeper issue underlying their campaign as well.
According to Curbelo and Murphy, the real story of Allendale is the number of young families who have moved into town over the last 10 years from Hoboken, New York City, and other parts of the country to start new jobs and raise families. Many of them feel the GOP establishment is not interested in talking to them or hearing new ideas, and they don’t want to wait several decades to be involved in the civic life of the town.
“It’s important the mayor and council commit to interacting with all residents and consider all opinions,” says Curbelo.” That’s a basic function of the job. This election is very much about who can sit at the table and opening up the conversation to everyone. All residents should at the very least be heard and feel respected, even if we disagree on issues.”
To that end, Curbello, Murphy and Shaw want to record and livestream Allendale’s monthly mayor and council meetings, and post videos of those meetings on a town YouTube channel. They see this as fundamental to increasing transparency and accountability, while making the workings of town governance more inclusive.
Meanwhile, the trio is heartened by what they’ve seen on the campaign trail. The vast majority of republicans, democrats and independents alike have appreciated their eagerness to jump-start conversations and try to find solutions to issues facing the town. They agree that in itself demonstrates how one-on-one voter interaction and respectful listening provides a balm for what’s happening on the national level.
They’ll find out soon enough if their hard work has paid off. With any luck, the threesome will shake the foundation of Allendale’s government.
“Running for office, it’s hit home for me that all politics really is local,” says Curbelo. “If even one of us is elected, it will be a win and start the ball rolling toward a more transparent and inclusive town government.”
Above photo. (L to R): Maureen Walsh, Carolina Curbelo and Brian Murphy